Burma death toll could top 100,000

A US diplomat said that more than 100,000 people may have died after cyclone Nargis hit Burma last weekend. The situation worsens as the country's military regime refuses entry to humanitarian workers. (Story: C. Moore)


The US chargé d’affaires in Burma, Shari Villarosa, told a telephone conference on Wednesday that "there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area" of Burma hit by Cyclone Nargis last weekend. She quoted information from an unnamed NGO.


A source close to the National League for Democracy, Burmese opponent Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, told FRANCE 24 of similar estimates on Tuesday.


Burma, one of the most isolated countries in the world, has officially accepted the principle of international aid. Foreign rescue workers, however, must negotiate with the authorities to obtain a visa.


“This seems unbelievable as the death tolls rises every hour”, said FRANCE 24’s correspondent Cyril Payen from Bangkok, the capital of neighbouring Thailand.


Over 22,000 people died and 41,000 are missing, according to official provisional figures. Estimates from the NGO Save the Children show that the number of homeless could run into millions.


Humanitarian NGOs expect the death toll to rise as rescue teams gain access to isolated disaster zones. The International Red Cross Federation has appealed for €4 million in emergency donations. Those funds are intended for the purchase of rescue supplies.


Rémi Favre, an RFI radio reporter in largest city Rangoun, said that drinking water is scarce. “In Rangoun, the Burmese do not hesitate to criticise the authorities, who, they think, is not providing sufficient relief.”


The junta is keeping the brakes on


Western leaders have accused Burma’s military regime of slowing down the dispatching of aid to the disaster zone.


The main worry on the mind of humanitarian organisations is the delivery of food, equipment and specialised teams to the area. According to Cyril Payen, the “handful” of workers already present in Burma lack supplies and back-up from specialists.


The Burmese government granted the UN permission to fly 35 tonnes of humanitarian aid supplies and a rescue team into the country on Wednesday, but the aircraft will not leave Italy until the end of the week.


The United Nation’s High Committee for Refugees said that trucks transporting 22 tonnes of emergency supplies were stopped at the Thai-Burmese border, waiting to be granted entry permits.


Doctors without Borders (MSF) had teams in the country before the cyclone and they have started to provide relief, but the its head of mission in Burma told FRANCE 24 that requests for visas will not be processed until next Monday.


International pressure


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday called on the Burmese authorities to facilitate the deployment of humanitarian workers and emergency equipment.


On Tuesday, US President George Bush had raised his tone against Burma’s military leaders, asking them to “let the United States help you”. The European Union, first in pledging humanitarian aid on Tuesday, adopted similar language.


According to FRANCE 24’s foreign affairs specialist Bernard Cadier, diplomats could now turn to China. “It is both a member of the UN Security Council and Burma’s closest ally”, he said.


“Don’t give money to the military”

Burma’s opposition has highlighted the possibility of fraud in the management of humanitarian relief by the junta and asked that the aid be dispatched directly to those in need. The prime minister of the exiled government, Sein Win, urged governments and NGOs “not to give financial aid to the military”.


In an SOS-style appeal, the Burmese opponent insisted that donations and humanitarian organisations should “be allowed into the country and reach the people who need them most”.

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