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Myanmar Cyclone Death Toll at 78,000 and Climbing May 16, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 1:42 pm
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis has nearly doubled to almost 78,000 and another 56,000 people remain missing two weeks after the storm, Myanmar state television reported Friday. 

The United Nations, meanwhile, said that severe restrictions by Myanmar’s military junta have left aid agencies largely in the dark about the extent of survivors’ suffering.

John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will go to Myanmar on Sunday in an attempt to convince junta leaders to grant more access to U.N. relief workers and massively scale up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

With pressure mounting, the military regime has invited foreign diplomats to tour the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta on Saturday, providing their first opportunity to personally view the devastation.

U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa told The Associated Press Friday that the Foreign Ministry was arranging the trip, but no further details were available and it was unclear how much access the diplomats will have outside the controlled tour.

The handful of foreign experts who have been allowed into the country have been restricted to Yangon, the former capital. The government has set up police and military checkpoints on roads leading out of Yangon to Irrawaddy, where foreigners are being turned back.

The Red Cross fears the cyclone toll may be as high as 128,000; the U.N. estimates more than 100,000 died. The U.N. estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. Aid groups have reached only 270,000 so far.

“The risk increases with each passing day,” Pitt said, referring to the vulnerability of survivors to outbreaks of disease and other problems.

Lack of clean water will be “the biggest killer” in Irrawaddy in the coming days, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the international Red Cross, told The Associated Press in Geneva.

“To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the (Irrawaddy) delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical nor the staff capacity to do,” he said.

The U.N. health agency said Friday it was concerned about diarrhea, malaria and dengue fever spreading among the cyclone victims.

The junta insists Myanmar nationals and government agencies, including the military, can handle relief operations, particularly aid distribution.

“We still have obstacles to relief workers getting to the delta region, which doesn’t help,” Pitt said. “We are concerned about the effects on the people. It is clear, from what everyone is saying, the aid effort is far from over.”

The United Nations says the regime has issued 40 visas to its staffers and another 46 to nongovernment agencies but has confined the personnel to the immediate Yangon area.

Steve Marshall, a U.N. official who just came out of Myanmar, said the military has set up checkpoints on the two main roads to the delta to keep foreigners out of the disaster zone. Even local staff have to negotiate with the military to gain access to the camps.

“Things will still get done, but they will not be done as effectively, efficiently or as quickly, which means delays, which means increasing risk in terms of health, security and in terms of longer-term rehabilitation and getting back to a normal lifestyle,” he said.

The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said Friday the agency’s fourth flight into Myanmar, scheduled for Saturday, would deliver several tons of food for malnourished children. Radio broadcasts are trying to help lost children find their families, it said.

“At the moment, it is a difficult to know how many children have been separated or unaccompanied. We still have no indication of how many orphans there may be,” said Shantha Bloemen, a UNICEF spokeswoman.

Meanwhile the U.N.’s World Food Program said Friday it has applied for permission to operate a civilian helicopter to distribute aid across Myanmar.

In the absence of an organized relief effort by the government, ordinary people are stepping in, with shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge and medical students caring for the sick.

Daw Mya Win, a 49-year-old grocer in a Yangon suburb, cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of it to some of the thousands of homeless sheltering in Buddhist monasteries.

College students are going door-to-door, handing out a few pennies to families for rice.

“Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile,” said Nyi Nyi, 21


Myanmar cyclone death toll soars past 22,000 May 6, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 9:05 am
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YANGON, Myanmar – The cyclone death toll soared above 22,000 on Tuesday and more than 41,000 others were missing as the international community prepared to rush in aid after the country’s deadliest storm on record, state radio reported.

Up to 1 million people may be homeless after Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, early Saturday. Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out, the World Food Program said.

Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the Irrawaddy River delta region, which is regarded as Myanmar‘s rice bowl.

“From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge,” Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s military regime has signaled it will welcome aid supplies for victims of a devastating cyclone, the U.N. said Tuesday, clearing the way for a major relief operation from international organizations.

But U.N. workers were still awaiting their visas to enter the country, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The government has shown a certain openness so far,” Byrs said. “We hope that we will get the visas as soon as possible, in the coming hours. I think the authorities have understood the seriousness of the situation and that they will act accordingly.”

The appeal for outside assistance was unusual for Myanmar’s ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations and closely controlled their activities. Several agencies, including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have limited their presence as a consequence.

Allowing any major influx of foreigners could carry risks for the military, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery.

However, keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore peoples’ livelihoods.

Some aid agencies reported their assessment teams had reached some areas of the largely isolated region but said getting in supplies and large numbers of aid workers would be difficult.

Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, told NBC’s “Today” show that the cyclone had knocked huge trees in the country’s largest city.

“And it blew down a significant portion of them, some of these are 6, 8, 10 stories tall — huge trees, 6 feet, 5 feet in diameter. So they came down on roofs,” she said.

The cyclone came only a week ahead of a key referendum on a constitution that Myanmar’s military leaders hoped would go smoothly in its favor, despite opposition from the country’s feisty pro-democracy movement. However, the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.

State radio also said that Saturday’s vote would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Irrawaddy delta, which took the brunt of the weekend storm. It indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.

The decision drew swift criticism from dissidents and human rights groups who question the credibility of the vote and urged the junta to focus on disaster victims.

Myanmar’s generals have hailed the referendum as an important step forward in their “roadmap to democracy.” It offers the first chance for voters to cast ballots since 1990, and the probability is high they will approve the constitution — a legal framework the country has lacked for two decades.

But critics, including the United Nations, the United States and human rights groups, question whether it will lead to democracy.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.

At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

Washington has long been one of the ruling junta’s sharpest critics for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.


Myanmar Death Toll Could Reach 10,000 May 5, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 10:35 am
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Almost 4,000 people have died and another 3,000 remain missing in Myanmar as a result of this weekend’s devastating cyclone, state media reported Monday amid fears that the death toll could continue to soar. 

Diplomats summoned to a government briefing on Monday said the foreign minister had acknowledged that as many as 10,000 could be dead as the reclusive southeast Asian country’s ruling military junta issued a rare appeal for international assistance in the face of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

A state of emergency was declared across much of the country following the 10-hour storm that left swathes of destruction in its wake.

The government of neighboring Thailand said Myanmar’s leaders had already requested food, medical supplies and construction equipment, AP reported. The first plane-load of supplies was due to arrive Tuesday, a Thai spokesman said.

United Nations Secretary-General ban Ki-moon said in a statement he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and the destruction suffered by the people of Myanmar” and pledged to mobilize international aid and assistance as needed.

“As a first step, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (team) has been organized and is on stand-by to assist the Government in responding to humanitarian needs if required, the statement said.

Scenes of the destruction showed extensive flooding, boats lilting on their sides in Yangon harbor, roofs ripped off buildings, uprooted trees and downed power lines after cyclone Nargis battered the Irrawaddy delta with 150 mile (241 km) an hour winds throughout Friday night and Saturday morning, dumping 20 inches of rain.

“After about noon, the sky cleared and everybody came out and were just stunned,” said Shari Villarosa, U.S. Charge D’ Affaires in Yangon. “People on my compound who had been there for about 15 years say they had not seen anything like this here, ever.”

Residents of Yangon trudged through knee-deep swirling brown waters Monday as the delta city remained mostly without electricity and phone connections.

A spokesman for the Red Cross said the emergency aid group was working with its Myanmar agency to provide drinking water, temporary shelters and blankets and warned that urgent action was needed to limit outbreaks of disease.

“I think one of the biggest needs right now is to stave off disease,” said spokesman Eric Porterfield. “We will be helping with the distribution of clean drinking water and setting up shelters.”

Relief agencies met at the United Nations’ Bangkok headquarters Monday to coordinate their response to the disaster. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it had released 200,000 Swiss Francs (about $190,000) to help with the aftermath.

The U.S. aid group World Vision also said it had responded to a government request for assistance.

“The biggest need is getting water for the two million affected people,” World Vision spokesman Casey Calamusa told CNN, adding that it was rare for the government to ask for help. The ruling junta under sharp criticism from many nations for using force to suppress pro-democracy protests last year.

A state of emergency was declared Sunday across five regions: the city of Yangon, Irrawaddy, Pegu and the states of Karen and Mon. All flights to Yangon, the former capital, were canceled.

“Most Burmese with whom we’ve been in touch report they lost their roofs, although so far everyone we have been able to contact reports that they and their families are safe,” said a Yangon-based diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Earlier Monday, an editor for an independent Myanmar newspaper based in Thailand told CNN that people in the Southeast Asian nation were angry over the response to the disaster by the ruling military junta.

“People are very angry with the slow response coming from the military government,” said Aung Zaw of Irrawaddy news magazine.

Zaw said communication was down across large areas of the country. He also said the casualty figures could rise.

“Very few people have access to these areas to estimate damage and how many people have been killed.”

Khin Maung Win, a spokesman for the Democratic Voice of Burma — a broadcast media group run by opposition expatriates — said the whole of the delta region had been affected and entire villages had disappeared.

Pictures from inside the country showed a cyclone-ravaged region with tin huts crushed under trees. Bicyclists navigated around large branches that littered the deserted roads.

A man with his pant legs rolled up waded through knee-deep water and strained to clear massive limbs that were blocking the entrance to a house.

“The cleanup is beginning, but this will take a long time,” the diplomat said. “The damage around town is intense.”

“Fuel is not easily available. International emergency assistance would be needed within seven days. There is no food for eating,” Win said.

Food prices — already rising steeply — climbed further. Long lines could be seen at gas stations in Yangon. Many of the stations were operating on generators. At one gas station more than 100 buses lined up to refill.

“International emergency assistance would be needed within seven days,” the diplomat said.

Despite widespread damage, Myanmar’s junta plans to proceed with a referendum on the country’s constitution on May 10 — the fourth step of a “seven-step road map to democracy” — according to state-run media reports.

The government has said elections would be held in 2010 to choose a representative government to replace the military junta.

An official at the Myanmar consulate in Canberra, Australia, said she believed the referendum would go on as scheduled. “We haven’t had contrary information,” she said.

But the announcement was met with skepticism from pro-democracy opposition leaders.

“It looks as though it would be impossible to have a referendum on Saturday in those areas,” Larry Jagan, a freelance journalist who has covered Myanmar affairs for many years, told CNN.

“The question is, will the regime decide to postpone the referendum in those particular areas, and hold it in other parts of the country?. Or will they go ahead and hold it anyway, and do the best they can?”

Myanmar last held multi-party elections in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy handily won. The military junta ignored the results. Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, has been in detention without trial for more than 12 of the past 18 years.