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'More than 22,000 killed' by Burma cyclone

Latest update : 2008-06-09

More than 22,000 people have been killed and 4,000 are left missing in the widespread destruction caused by last weekend's powerful cyclone, Burmese state television announced. (Report: M. MacCarthy)

At least 22,000 people have died and 41,000 more are missing in Burma after typhoon Nargis hit the south of the country on Friday and Saturday. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, according to United Nations officials.

According to eyewitnesses, local Buddhist monks have started to help the victims wherever they can. As drinking water is running out, "they have opened their wells to the people," said Rémi Favre, FRANCE 24's correspondent in Rangoon, the country's largest city.

"The monks are working very closely with the people," Tun Myint Aung told FRANCE 24. A student leader, he has lived in hiding since an uprising involving many monks was suppressed in Burma last September.

According to Aung, the security forces are not taking part in relief efforts.

Two thirds of the known deaths occurred in the town of Bogalay, located in the heart of the Irrawaddy delta. "Some 10,000 people died there – that's the equivalent of the entire town's population," said FRANCE 24 correspondent Cyril Payen from Bangkok, in neighbouring Thailand. The area was hit by 200-km/h winds and water levels rose by up to three metres.

"I saw thousands of people sleeping in the street because they had lost their homes. I was lucky, I ran away in the night, but I lost everything I had. I saw lots of bodies crushed under trees, there were so many I couldn’t count them. I saw corpses everywhere – old and young, children, animals," said an eyewitness who escaped the cyclone.

Félix Léger, head of mission for French NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Burma added that "everywhere in Rangoon, you can see upturned electricity poles, damaged or destroyed buildings and people queuing with containers to try and get water." He said that the price of drinking water had risen by 500 percent in three days.
In the Irrawaddy delta, where a recent study by ACF showed that 70 percent of the population sourced drinking water from ponds, rivers and unprotected wells, the organisation expects those sources to have become contaminated or saline as a result of the storm.

Burma's regime had to open the door to some degree of international aid to face the crisis. The military dictatorship in power since 1962 has, until now, allowed very few humanitarian workers to enter the country, one of the poorest in the world. It refused international aid after the 2004 tsunami. Burma's borders are still closed to journalists.

After four days of negotiations, the authorities have slowly started issuing visas to UN agencies and NGOs asking for access to the disaster zone.

Blocked roads in the Irrawaddy delta

Christian relief organisation World Vision stated that it had received permits to fly 600 staff into Burma, which it described as an "unprecedented" move. The military junta, however, still controls humanitarian work strictly. Cyril Payen described its acceptance of international aid as a "conditional green light."

Asked in a press conference about the delivery of visas to aid workers, Rachid Khalikov, Director of the UN office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, gave a measured response. Jean Bernard Cadier, FRANCE 24’s international politics specialist, observed that this move was “prudent and all-encompassing.”

According to Kyi Minn, an adviser to the NGO World Vision, "the impact of the disaster could be worse than the tsunami because it is compounded by the limited availability of resources on top of the transport constraints."

In Bangkok, FRANCE 24 correspondent Nelson Rand explained that getting aid into Burma would be less challenging than reaching the Irrawaddy delta. "It is difficult to get there at the best of times. With the widespread destruction caused by the storm, there are blocked roads," he said.

US First Lady Laura Bush accused Burmese military authorities of failing to warn the population as the typhoon approached "although they were aware of the threat."

Friday's issue of the state-run daily newspaper New Light of Myanmar mentioned an approaching cyclone on page 13 and encouraged the population to "take precautions".

Referendum postponed in the worst-hit areas

On Tuesday, the government announced that a constitutional referendum scheduled for May 10 in Burma would be postponed in the worst affected areas. In a press release on Tuesday, Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), criticised Rangoon for going on with the referendum, and accused authorities of doing nothing to help the people of Burma.

According to a FRANCE 24 source in Burma, who cannot be named for security reasons, the authorities have announced on the radio that only those voters who support the proposed constitution in the referendum will receive support after the cyclone.

FRANCE 24 international affairs specialist Gauthier Rybinski said that "there will be a sort of deal between Burma's authorities and the voters." He described the move as "political recuperation of a catastrophe by the junta."

Date created : 2008-05-06