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Burma Disaster: The Wind of Change

Andrew Buncombe

The numbers continue to soar. Officials today raised the estimated death toll from Burma's devastating storm to nearly 22,500. But no one really knows how high the figure could rise when the full horror of Cyclone Nargis's destruction is made clear.0506 10 1

The secretive military junta that has ruled the impoverished nation for two decades took the unprecedented step yesterday of issuing an urgent appeal for international help.

Earlier in the day, state-controlled media said that close to 4,000 people were known to have died and 3,000 were missing. That death toll rose later to 10,000 and state television today said that figure was now nearly 22,500 and that a further 41,000 people are missing.

Aid agencies, struggling to assess the full extent of the damage caused by the category 3 storm that swept the country at the weekend, were preparing last night to send urgent supplies of food, water and medicine. "We have received a long list of things that are needed, including shelter material, food, water-purification stuff, tarpaulins and things like that," said Carsten Voelz, the operations manager for the charity Care. "Given the scale of what has happened, we would certainly have to beef up our personnel that are in the country."

What has made the challenge for international organisations even tougher is that power and communications appear to be all but out, even in the country's largest city, Rangoon. Some of Burma's towns, especially those in the area close to the Irrawaddy delta, appear to have been virtually flattened. The result has been an already desperately poor population scrabbling for survival.

"How many people are affected? We know that it's in the six figures," Richard Horsey, of the UN disaster office in neighbouring Thailand, told Reuters. "We know that it's several hundred thousand needing shelter and clean drinking water, but how many hundred thousand we just don't know."

Earlier at a meeting of foreign diplomats, Burma's Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, said he feared that 10,000 people could be dead and the worst of the damage was in the delta area. The diplomats were told that Burma welcomed international humanitarian aid including roofing materials, medicine, water-purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first shipment of nine tonnes is due to arrive from Thailand today. Mr Horsey said that while negotiations were continuing, it was also likely that UN aid would be accepted. India is also shipping aid and the European Union has set aside emergency funds.

The regime's previous unwillingness to provide accurate information means it is possible that the real death toll may be even higher. But it is clear is that the cyclone is the greatest natural disaster to strike Burma since a storm killed 2,700 people in 1926.

The 120mph storm struck just a week before Burma is due to hold an important ballot on a new constitution for the country, which has been ruled by various military dictatorships for almost 50 years. The government said yesterday that, despite the devastation wrought by Nargis, it still intended to proceed with the ballot. A statement issued by the regime said it would keep "striving to hold hands with the people" in a purported transition towards democracy. It added: "The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting."

Many observers dismissed the regime's claims that it was working for the benefit of the people. Campaigners have said the junta failed to issue adequate warnings that the storm - which had been building for several days off the Burmese coastline - was about to strike.

There were also complaints that the 400,000-strong military was only busy clearing streets where the ruling elite lived and leaving other residents to fend for themselves. "The regime failed to warn people and are failing to help them now," said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK. "One of the few things that may motivate them to allow aid in is the fear of another uprising. People are asking why they can mobilise the police and army to attack democracy protests but do nothing now."

In Rangoon, a city of more than six million people and formerly the capital, electricity was available only to those with access to generators and money to pay for petrol or diesel. Drinking water was already in short supply. Candles were being sold at twice the price they fetched last week as the cost of basic commodities jumped. There were reports of looting and gathering of food in several of the city's markets.

"Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand, told the Associated Press. He said that as the shanty town area where he lives was destroyed by the storm, he had been forced to place his family of five in the shelter of one of the Buddhist monasteries that has offered temporary shelter. Meanwhile, he was scouring the streets in search of food and clean water.

Burma was already the poorest nation in South-east Asia, with about 90 per cent of its population living in poverty. Last autumn, a combination of rising prices and dissatisfaction with the regime led tens of thousands of citizens and Buddhist monks to take to the streets of the country's largest cities in a series of demonstrations. The protests were the largest for 20 years and rocked the government, which responded with a violent crackdown. Burmese exile groups believe that up to 200 people were killed and that up to 1,000 people who were detained during the demonstrations remain in jail.

The government has been urging people to vote in favour of the draft constitution, which cements the military's role. The National League for Democracy opposition group, headed by the imprisoned Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for a vote against.

Deadliest recent storms

Hurricane Katrina, 2005, US - at least 1,836 dead

Orissa cyclone, 1999, northern India - at least 10,000 dead

Typhoon Thelma, 1991, Philippines - 6,000 dead

Bangladesh cyclone, 1991 - about 138,000 dead

Hurricane Mitch, 1998, Central America - at least 11,000 dead

© 2008 The Independent

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