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Prices go skyward as more rain falls

Myanmar businesses gouge, and monsoon season is coming.

May 09, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

YANGON, MYANMAR — New rains lashed this city Thursday as Myanmar's military government was only beginning to allow in foreign aid, leaving residents to pay exorbitant prices for bare essentials, bathe in the streets and stew in frustration.

Exploiting shortages caused by damaged roads and ports, profiteers have jacked up prices for supplies, including rice and corrugated sheeting and nails. Back-street gas dealers were charging at least $10 a gallon, more than double the $4-a-gallon cost before Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck.

Weary survivors struggling to recover from last weekend's catastrophic storm got a hint of the monsoon season to come as downpours drenched battered homes and caused new flooding in some streets. Torrential rain is forecast to return today. "For the first two or three days, people were in shock. Now anger has set in," said a local businessman working with authorities to organize privately donated aid here in the nation's largest city. Like most people, he requested anonymity because the slightest hint of criticism risks incurring the ruling generals' wrath.

After 46 years of military rule, the generals are used to brushing off discontent. But the cyclone delivered a hard blow to their standing as well as to the rest of the country just days before a scheduled vote on a draft constitution that critics say is a ruse to enshrine military rule.

Neighboring India says it gave the regime two days' warning that a powerful cyclone was bearing down on Myanmar, also known as Burma. But residents of Yangon say officials here told them to expect winds of 40 mph. Instead, the storm hammered the southern region with 120-mph winds. The official death count was about 22,000, with 41,000 people missing and 1,400 injured. Some aid and exile groups said the death toll might ultimately exceed 70,000 and could rise as high as 100,000.

Five days later, a semblance of normality was returning to Yangon, also known as Rangoon. More shops opened, but many remained shuttered, their owners fearful that growing despair would set off a wave of looting.

In the hardest-hit Irrawaddy River delta region, however, there were reports of fights over the scarce aid that has gotten through. A storm surge of seawater at least 12 feet high wiped out whole villages there, destroyed rice fields and left hundreds of thousands of people without shelter and with little or no food and clean water.

The monsoon season, when heavy rain comes almost every day, is due to start in two to three weeks. Most homes left standing by the cyclone lost some or all of their roofs in the storm that hit late Friday and lasted long into Saturday. Planting is supposed to take place by late May in the delta for the September harvest, but about 2,000 square miles remain under water.

In central Yangon, building supply merchants have raised the price for corrugated iron sheets to $30 from $4, forcing many to take hundreds of dollars from meager savings just to stay dry.

Knowing that new roofing isn't much good without hook-topped nails to secure it, shops are charging an even higher markup, complained a local resident.

"The blood-sucking businesspeople are crazy," he said. "Sometimes people go to get some and the seller says, 'That's $30.' Then people reply, 'I have this much. Either you take my money or you take my knife.' "

Drivers desperate for gasoline have a choice: sit for hours in lineups of cars that run for blocks, hoping to eventually get a few gallons at the official price, or pay more than double for quicker service on the black market. The shortages and escalating prices are piling new pressure on the government, less than a year after its decision to end fuel subsidies doubled the price of gas and sparked the worst unrest here in almost 20 years.

The United Nations says at least 31 people were killed during the military regime's violent crackdown against what began as peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks. Some of the 3,000 people detained remain in prison, according to opposition sources in Myanmar and in exile.

Anger is building again at an especially sensitive time for the government as it prepares for the referendum scheduled Saturday. Even before the cyclone struck, the military rulers had tightened already severe visa restrictions, limiting access to foreigners in the final run-up to election day. The regime is pressing ahead with the referendum as planned in most of the country, but after some hesitation postponed it in areas devastated by the storm, including Yangon.

Some foreign aid began to trickle into the country by air Thursday. But many government and assistance groups continued to wait for permission to enter, and Myanmar's regime has just four helicopters delivering emergency relief to an enormous disaster zone that is difficult to reach in the best of times, according to the businessman organizing the private relief operation.

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