Burma Death Toll Surges

Burma's military government has sharply revised upward the estimated death toll from Cyclone Nargis, as aid agencies report cholera and continued delays in getting help to survivors.

Burma-cylcone-children-305.jpg Survivors of Cyclone Nargis walk under the rain in Bogalay on May 13, 2008.
AFP PHOTO/ Khin Maung Win

Nearly 78,000 people have died and 56,000 are missing in the wake of Burma’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, state-run Burmese media now report.

International aid agencies—frustrated by what they describe as unique and inexplicable delays in getting aid to survivors—say the death toll could surge further, amid new storms, aid delays, and reports of cholera in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

Earlier, the military junta said 43,000 were dead and 28,000 missing, while U.N. officials estimated that more than 100,000 had been killed in Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma on May 2.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has meanwhile confirmed an outbreak of cholera among survivors but said the number of cases was consistent with previous years

The junta has also claimed a victory of 92.4 percent in a referendum on Thursday on a new constitution, although the worst affected parts of the country will vote later later in the month.  It set turnout for the May 10 vote was 99 percent, although untold thousands of people remain missing.

Survivors moved

Survivors report that the regime, already under fire for refusing to allow a full disaster relief operation into the country, is moving large numbers of cyclone and flood victims from a major site of damage.

 “Now they will send all of the people in the refugee camps in Bogalay...to Wah-keh-ma, and Myaung Mya, and so on,” a local man resident in Bogalay said. “Those who are willing to come can come along. If they don’t come along, they can no longer stay in Bogalay. They are being asked to return to their villages.”

The man, who asked not to be named, said the military was now transporting people around the devastated Irrawaddy delta region en masse. The purpose of their movements was unclear.

A volunteer working in Bogalay shelters earlier said that all those sheltering in monasteries and public buildings in Bogalay had until May 14 to leave the city, where an estimated 8,000 people took refuge after their villages were destroyed.

Most Bogalay refugees are believed to be sheltering in the city’s 54 Buddhist monasteries, as well as in the No. 1 and No. 2 State High Schools. But starting May 7, soldiers had been moving them out to Ma-u-bin and other towns including Myaung Mya, sources said.

 “They’ve been sent back continuously by the soldiers or by ships. Currently, the ships that run between Bogalay and Rangoon are now just transporting these people,” the Bogalay man said.

Victims sent to island

So far, more than 300 storm victims have been placed without food or other assistance in a refugee comp on Mein-ma-hla Island, despite a build-up of privately donated rescue aid and food supplies in warehouses and Chinese temples in the city, Burmese sources said.

Some zinc sheets for roofing repairs were distributed to local people, but they have had to pay for them.

And private individuals wishing to donate to storm victims in Bogalay have been subjected to registration procedures and videotaping before being told they must hand over the goods to the authorities for distribution.

 “People have to go to the organization for refugees, legally opened at the Mother Child Care Association in Bogalay, get themselves videotaped and get registered, and that’s it. These actions are not really effective,” the Bogalay man said.

He said civic associations such as the Hinthada Township Association and a religious group from Zalun Pyidawbyan had tried to help people but were severely hampered by these bureaucratic restrictions.

Children survivors of Cyclone Nargis wait for food in Dedaye some 130 km south-west of Rangoon on May 14, 2008.
AFP PHOTO/ Khin Maung Win
Aid for political support

Until now, the majority of Burmese interviewed on the ground in the Irrawaddy delta say there has been no sign of international food donations, and private donations are all that is keeping them alive.

Aid workers and overseas officials, keen to win the junta around to full cooperation with an emergency humanitarian relief effort, have so far played down reports of misdirected donations, saying the reports are sporadic and unconfirmed.

Burma’s secretive regime has welcomed donations of supplies from abroad but refused to allow in most foreign experts needed to oversee the complicated relief operation.

At least 71,000 people are thought to have been killed in the storm, with the number expected to rise sharply in the absence of a reliable corridor for the delivery of humanitarian relief. Two million people are said to be in desperate need of emergency aid.

The man added that when teachers from Than Lyin asked the authorities to help them with roof repairs, they were told they could have rice and other assistance in return for “yes” votes in a national referendum, from teachers, students, and their entire extended families.

Claims that relief materials were being traded for political support were also echoed in Rangoon.

 “My older sisters have to stay at their schools,” the Rangoon woman said. “The education directors have told them that they’d have to vote yes. They said they’d have to vote yes, and they’d know if they had not. They had all the lists,” she said.

 “All the staff members had to be on their side.”

While Rangoon residents said some areas were beginning to see some sign of assistance, with rescue groups making inroads into stricken suburbs of the city, such as Hlaing Thaya, they added that it was extremely limited.

Private donors help

“Even in Rangoon, there are so many places without help. Even in Hlaing Thaya, they haven’t reached the entire area,” one woman said. “In Hlaing Thaya, there are three rescue groups. Only one place is getting a lot of help.”

She said foreign-made foodstuffs like convenience noodles were now appearing in shops at commercial prices.

 “Dried noodles are sold in Nyaung-bin-lay Market. There are piles of them. I heard in Nyaung-bin-lay Market, they are selling candles, dried noodles, blankets, and pillows,” she said, confirming earlier sightings of foreign-made foods there.

Private donors were stepping in to try to fill the gap between supplies desperately needed for survival day-to-day living and building repair, according to a number of witnesses.

“There are many more people donating [privately] now than before,” a woman in Laputta township, in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta said.

“They are donating a lot.  But these things are not from [the authorities],” she said.

And a man resident in Bogalay said the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) was selling rainproof canvas to cyclone victims desperate to get out of continual downpours.

“The USDA is going around and selling the materials in Chinese shops in Chinatown for 200,000 kyat per bolt,” he said.  “There are more 100 bolts altogether...This canvas cloth is not among the things we usually use in Bogalay.  It’s really obvious that these are donations from foreign countries,” he said.

The Rangoon woman said officials had come around the residential areas, or wards, announcing that they would soon be distributing zinc sheets [for roofing repairs], rice, and oil. But the sixth ward hasn’t got any oil or rice yet…They just said they would.”

She said candles were currently selling in Rangoon, where many homes are still without electricity, for 1,500 kyat a packet, and zinc sheets were selling for 4,900 kyat a sheet.

 “A lot of people have re-done the roofing. Water gets into the top floor, and people there cannot live there. Also, it’s been raining,” the Rangoon woman said, adding that even nails to keep the zinc in place were now costly and scarce.

In South Dagon township on the outskirts of Rangoon, one resident said zinc sheeting could only be had if an application form was first submitted to the local neighborhood office.

 “Those who apply get five sheets of zinc per household.  Five 7-foot zinc sheets.  They are selling each sheet for 4,900.  They’re not giving them out for free,” a Rangoon man said, adding that the zinc was believed to have come from private corporate donors in the first place.

 “Some people who have no money cannot buy these things.  They’re not given out free.  Also, with oil, you have to queue up and pay 250 kyat,” he added.

Meanwhile, a Rangoon youth said he had spotted foreign aid materials being sold commercially in several outlets in the city.

 “In Chinatown, Iron Market, in Lanmadaw, Theingyi Market,” he said. “There are mosquito nets and food.  All of them are aid materials.”

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.



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