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Myanmar toll rises but relief efforts lag

May 07, 2008|Mark Magnier and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — The death toll continued to climb in Myanmar as state media reported Tuesday that more than 22,000 people had died due to a weekend cyclone and more than 41,000 were missing.

Efforts to reach the victims and help the estimated 1 million people left homeless by Tropical Cyclone Nargis remained mired amid bureaucracy, logistical problems and the isolation of many affected areas.

Myanmar's military government has signaled that it will allow international aid groups to enter the insular Southeast Asian country. But many humanitarian groups said they were still waiting for visas and the few on the ground reported shortages of drinking water, food, housing and other necessities.

State television played up the role of soldiers in recovery efforts. CNN showed images of uprooted trees, roofless houses and fishing boats driven onshore by the storm in the Irrawaddy River delta region, regarded as Myanmar's rice bowl.

The cyclone, which brought 120-mph winds and 12-foot storm surges, was believed to be the worst natural disaster to hit Southeast Asia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 220,000 lives. Myanmar, relatively lightly hit then, opted for financial reasons not to participate in an extensive early warning system set up afterward.

The Myanmar government backed away slightly from its earlier vow to press on with a controversial referendum Saturday on a new constitution. Unaffected areas will still vote, officials said, and hard-hit areas will be given a two-week postponement.

The nation's generals have touted the referendum as a key step toward democracy, but the United States and other critics are skeptical that the regime would loosen its white-knuckle grip on power in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"If they go ahead and hold it, this shows they're out of touch with reality," said Zarni, founder of the London-based Free Burma Coalition, who, like many Myanmar natives, uses only one name. "The young officers are more in touch with the people, but the senior leadership is in a cocoon."

President Bush called on Myanmar's government to let the U.S. military help with disaster relief.

"We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation," he said as he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the regime's nemesis, democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. "But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."

The Bush administration announced that it had boosted its initial offer of $250,000 for relief efforts by $3 million. The money would come from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Let the United States come to help you, help the people," Bush said in a message directed at the leaders of Myanmar.

"At the same time, of course," he added, "we want them to live in a free society."

In addition to worrying about international pressures, Myanmar's leadership faces dissatisfaction at home, analysts said.

Some residents waited in lines for nine hours to buy gasoline, and at one gas station in the suburb of Sanchaung, fights broke out among weary residents after someone tried to cut in line, the Associated Press reported. A short distance away, the Dagon Ice Factory drinking water company turned people away with signs that said, "No More."

"Where are the police? Where's the army?" asked Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, which is based in Thailand. "They were always ready when there were demonstrations to beat up people and shoot at them, but now where are they?"

The Associated Press reported that Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns in hard-hit Yangon used axes and long knives to clear ancient fallen trees that once lined the city's streets. Electricity remained cut off for nearly all of the city's 6.5 million residents.

Win Min, an exile living in Thailand, said he was extremely anxious about his friends and family in Bogalay, where state media have reported that about 10,000 people have died. Win, like thousands of others, had been trying unsuccessfully to reach loved ones by telephone.

"I'm very worried the next time I go home I may not see some of them," said Win, who teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Bogalay, shaped like a rectangle, is largely surrounded by water, he said, making it highly vulnerable. Almost every house is constructed of old wood and woven mats that would not withstand much punishment. And the main road to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, would quickly bog down, even if it were not blocked by debris, he added, making it difficult to transport aid and medical care.

"The real question is how they're ever going to reach the affected areas," Win said. "I hope the government will allow foreign ships and helicopters in, but so far I haven't seen it."

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