This is the personal blog of London photographer, backpacker, traveller Mark Coughlan. The intention of the blog is communicate updates from my personal website and on my photography projects and travels both in the UK and worldwide. When backpacking the obscure places on earth, this blog will be continually updated with images and thoughts from the road. [Read more about me]

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Aid Flows to Myanmar as Death Toll Rises

Photo: Copyright Vorasit Satienlerk/Reuters

In almost 12 months to the day that I left to spend a month in Myanmar, South East Asia's untouched gem, comes the news is that at least 22,000 Burmese have died and up to a million people have been left homeless by the catastrophic cyclone that battered the country.

From the New York Times: Tuesday 7th May 2008
The death toll from a powerful cyclone that struck Myanmar three days ago rose to 22,500 Tuesday, with a further 41,000 people still missing, the government said, and foreign governments and aid organizations began mobilizing for a major relief operation.
Shaken by the scope of the disaster, the authorities said they would delay a vote in the worst affected areas on a new constitution that was meant to cement the military’s grip on power.

The death toll was the latest in a steadily escalating official count since Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar early Saturday, devastating much of the fertile Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon, the nation’s main city.
At a news conference in Yangon, the minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung Swe, said 41,000 people were still missing in the aftermath of the cyclone, which triggered a surge of water inland from the sea.

“More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself," he said, in the first official description of the destruction. “The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages. They did not have anywhere to flee.”

A spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program said that as many as one million people might have lost their homes and that some villages were almost totally destroyed.

The constitutional referendum was still to go ahead on May 10 in other parts of the country but would be delayed until May 24 in the worst affected regions, where more than a third of the population live.

The postponement of the vote, a centerpiece of government policy, along with an appeal for foreign disaster relief assistance, were difficult concessions by an insular military junta that portrays itself as all-powerful and self-sufficient, analysts said.

"It suggests that they realize that they’ve got a real problem on their hands and have limited capacity to deal with this," said a Western diplomat in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his embassy’s policy.

At a news conference, Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar’s information minister, conceded the difficulties.

"The task is very wide and extensive and the government needs the cooperation of the people and well-wishers from at home and abroad," he said.

"We will not hide anything," he said. "Please ask the people not to be duped by rumors or fabrication."

In an effort to stem profiteering as prices rose for food fuel and building materials, he said, "We are coordinating and cooperating with businessmen. We appeal to entrepreneurs and businessmen not to cash in on the disaster."

Residents of Yangon reached by telephone described a city in tatters, with fallen trees, a lack of power and water and, in the poorer outskirts, badly damaged homes. Tank trucks were selling water from Inya Lake, in the center of the city, they said.

The high winds blew roofs off the cages at the zoo, one person reported, and a baboon or gibbon was spotted Monday sitting on top of a giant plastic ruby in the middle of a traffic circle near Shwedagon pagoda.

"He refused to get down," the resident said, speaking anonymously because of a government ban on unofficial news. "This afternoon, when my driver and I drove by — the ruby and the monkey were gone!"

State radio said the referendum would be delayed for two weeks in badly hit areas that include the Irrawaddy Delta and much of Yangon.

These areas are centers of repressed opposition to the junta, and now potential centers of anger over what is described by both residents and foreign diplomats as an ineffectual government response to the cyclone.

Residents have described a mood of anger and a grim resignation at the junta’s power since the military shot into crowds last September to quell a huge non-violent pro-democracy uprising led by Buddhist monks.

At least 31 people, and possibly many more, were killed during that uprising, and thousands were detained, including large numbers of monks.

There were several accounts over the weekend of monks leaving their monasteries to help clear away storm wreckage, even as the military offered little help to residents.

International aid groups were assessing the country’s needs and preparing shipments of food and materials that included roofing materials, plastic tarpaulins, mosquito nets, water purifying tablets and medication to prevent outbreaks of cholera and malaria.

"We hope to fly in more assistance within the next 48 hours," said the World Food Program spokesman, Paul Risley, speaking in Bangkok. "The challenge will be getting to the affected areas with road blockages everywhere."

A military transport plane was scheduled to arrive Tuesday with emergency aid from Thailand.

A number of other nations and organizations, including the United Nations, the European Commission and Myanmar’s powerful neighbor China, said they were prepared to deliver aid.

In Geneva, a United Nations spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs, said that Myanmar had said it would welcome aid supplies and that disaster assessment officials were now awaiting visas to enter the country.

“Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself," said Caryl Stern, who heads the United Nations Children’s Fund in the United States.

The organization, UNICEF, said it had sent five assessment teams into affected areas and that relief supplies were being prepared for delivery.

The United States, which has led a drive for economic sanctions against Myanmar’s repressive regime, said it would also provide aid, but only if an American disaster team was invited into the country.

The policy was presented by the first lady, Laura Bush, , along with a lecture to the junta about human rights and disaster relief.

"This is a cheap shot," said Aung Nain Oo, a Burmese political analyst who is based in Thailand. "The people are dying. This is no time for a political message to be aired. This is a time for relief. No one is asking for anything like this except the United States."

Photo: Copyright Hla Hla Htay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

From the New York Times: Monday 6th May 2008

Myanmar struggled Monday to recover from a cyclone that killed more than 3,900 people and perhaps as many as 15,000.
Foreign Minister Noppadol Pattama of Thailand met with Myanmar's ambassador on Tuesday, according to Reuters. After the meeting, Mr. Noppadol said that 15,000 people had been killed and another 30,000 were missing.

If those numbers are accurate, the death toll would be the highest from a natural disaster in Asia since the tsunami of December 2004, which devastated coastlines in South Asia and claimed 181,000 lives.

On Monday, three cabinet ministers told diplomats the death toll could reach 10,000 people in the delta region, an area that is home to nearly half of Myanmar’s 48 million people, according to Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the United Nations disaster response office in Bangkok.

State radio reported that Saturday's vote on a draft constitution would be delayed until May 24 in 40 townships around Yangon and seven in the Irrawaddy delta, which bore the brunt of the killer storm, according to The Associated Press. It indicated that in other areas the balloting would proceed as scheduled.

Tens of thousands of people were homeless after the cyclone, and food and water were running short.

“Stories get worse by the hour,” one Yangon resident, who did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution, said in an e-mail message. “No drinking water in many areas, still no power. Houses completely disappeared. Refugees scavenging for food in poorer areas. Roofing, building supplies, tools — all are scarce and prices skyrocketing on everything.”

Officials said they would open the doors of their closed and tightly controlled nation to international relief groups. So far, most foreigners and all foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.

They also said the referendum would proceed. “It’s only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote,” an official statement said Monday.

But witnesses and residents said the military had been slow to respond to the devastation of the cyclone, and some suggested that the government’s performance could affect the vote.

Residents of the country, formerly known as Burma, said that they were being pressured to vote “yes” and that riot police officers had been patrolling the streets before the cyclone in a show of force that was more visible than their relief efforts afterward.

Nine months ago, security forces had fired into crowds, killing dozens of people, to disperse huge pro-democracy demonstrations led by monks, and in the months since, the government has carried out a campaign of arrests and intimidation.

State-owned television had reported early Monday that 3,934 people died in the cyclone, called Nargis, which swept through the Irrawaddy Delta and the country’s main city, Yangon, formerly Rangoon, early Saturday. The broadcast said nearly 3,000 were missing, all of them from a single town, Bogale.

“What is clear,” Mr. Horsey said Monday, “is that we are dealing with a major emergency situation, and the priority needs now are shelter and clean drinking water.”

A spokesman for the World Food Program said the government of Myanmar, which severely restricts the movements and activities of foreign groups, had given the United Nations permission to send in emergency aid.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had mobilized a disaster assessment team to determine Myanmar’s most urgent needs.

A human rights group based in Thailand, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which has provided reliable information from Myanmar in the past, said soldiers and police officers had killed 36 prisoners in Insein prison to quell a riot that started after the cyclone tore roof sheets off cell blocks, Reuters reported. The report could not be independently confirmed.

The junta that rules Myanmar has closed the country off from the outside world and maintained its grip on power through force, while its economic mismanagement has driven the country deeper into poverty.

Some government-run enterprises or businesses with links to the government have already required their employees to vote in advance.

Exile groups said some residents had told them they were angry about the weak response of the military, which had seemed strong enough when the task was to crack down on citizens.

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