Cyclone Kills Thousands in Burma

More than 22,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands are without safe drinking water or shelter in Burma after a massive cyclone ripped through the impoverished Southeast Asian country. In one remote area, “15 whole villages have just disappeared,” one witness said.

nargis_water_305px Residents queue to get drinking water in Rangoon following Cyclone Nargis, May 5, 2008.

More than 22,000 people are reported dead, and hundreds of thousands are without safe drinking water or shelter in Burma after a massive cyclone ripped through the impoverished Southeast Asian country, Burmese and United Nations officials say.

The United Nations estimates that "hundreds of thousands" of people in Burma are in need of help after Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the low-lying waterlands of the Irrawaddy delta, razing dozens of communities with a huge storm surge.

The death toll was reported Tuesday at 22,464, with a further 41,000 missing.

Rashid Khalikov, director of the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, said he understood that the numbers affected by the storm would probably be in the hundreds of thousands.

In the Irrawaddy delta town of Labutta, the storm damaged or destroyed up to 95 percent of all buildings, witnesses said, while 15 other townships in the area had simply vanished.

“Fifteen whole villages have just disappeared,” one witness said. “In Labutta, only the very strongest buildings were left. The microwave communications tower collapsed, and some people were killed by falling trees. So many people took refuge in one monastery, that the monastery collapsed.”

Wave flattened villages

The first cyclone of the 2008 season in the northern Indian Ocean was a devastating one for Burma.Cyclone Nargis came ashore across the Mouths of the Irrawaddy river and followed the coastline northeast. As of May 5th, the entire coastal plain appeared to be flooded. Map: RFA
Most of the damage was caused by a massive wave which flattened villages perched amid the innumerable water channels of the delta. Communication with the affected areas was effectively cut off, as most of the population relies on boats to get around.

State television showed images of entire communities that were flooded since the cyclone struck late Friday and said tens of thousands may have been killed in a single township, Bogalay.

Burma’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, said on state-run television that the junta—which has run Burma since seizing power in 1988—expected casualty figures to rise. United Nations officials meanwhile said hundreds of thousands of people lacked shelter and safe drinking water, increasing the risk of life-threatening water-borne diseases in a country already struggling with grave public health threats and a severe shortage of rice.

Soaring prices, referendum postponed

In the former capital, Rangoon, witnesses reported a severe shortage of bottled water and soaring prices for food, with one egg selling for 350 kyat (about U.S. $0.30) on the black market.

Phone lines and Internet service were down in many areas and public transportation was disrupted, with many bus drivers commandeering their vehicles for private transportation and demanding much higher fares, one witness said.

Referendum postponed in delta

Rangoon University has meanwhile been denuded of its thick canopy of leaves, with only a handful of trees at the end of the campus left standing, the witness said.

“In some areas of Rangoon, the authorities are going through and noting the extent of the damage,” one resident said. “But they’re not helping with water, and they’re not really cleaning up.”

A referendum planned for May 10 on constitutional change by the military regime has been postponed to May 24 in the worst-hit areas of the delta and the worst-hit areas of the former capital, Rangoon.

But the charter, part of the army's much-criticised "roadmap to democracy", will proceed as planned in the rest country.

A popular uprising sparked by surging fuel prices and led by Buddhist monks in August and September 2007 prompted a widespread crackdown, in which several dozen people were killed and thousands detained.

Residents now say gas prices have tripled, to about U.S. $15 per gallon.

Another Rangoon resident complained about the government's lack of emergency preparedness.

International relief effort

"By this time, we should have a disaster plan that alerts people about how to live and what to do when the storm comes," the resident said. "But they're just saying that the storm is coming, without giving any directions. Government officials don’t know how to use their brains because they have been living for so many years under authoritarian rule.”

In Washington, White House officials pledged U.S.$3 million in emergency aid to help Burma recover from the cyclone. President George W. Bush also called on the junta to accept international assistance, something it declined to do following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has begun distributing food in cyclone-damaged areas of Rangoon amid preliminary reports which detailed tremendous storm damage after a 3.6 meter tidal wave hit the region.

WFP food assistance has now begun to reach people in and around Rangoon who are without shelter or food, Chris Kaye, WFP Country Director said in a statement on the WFP Web site. Kaye said additional truckloads of WFP food were being dispatched Wednesday to Labutta.

Kaye said government officials had cooperated well with aid agencies so far, with more than 800 metric tonnes of food stocks being delivered to affected areas under an initial emergency operation, launched today and valued at U.S.$500,000.

Initial needs for the hundreds of thousands of persons left homeless by the cyclone include emergency medical supplies, water purification kits, ready to eat foods and plastic sheeting for repairing shelters and homes, WPF said.

36 prisoners shot dead in riot

Also in Rangoon, police and troops killed 36 prisoners at the regime's infamous Insein Prison to put down a riot that erupted after the cyclone, according to a Bangkok-based human rights group.

The cyclone ripped off roofing made of zinc, and guards herded some 1,000 prisoners into a large hall and locked all the doors, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), a credible source of information on human rights in Burma, said. When the men lit a fire to warm themselves, smoke filled the building and panic erupted.

"In order to control the situation, soldiers and riot police were called in. They opened fire on the prisoners in that area. Thirty-six prisoners were killed instantly and around 70 were injured," it said.

Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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