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]

Monday, 12 May 2008

Cyclone’s Toll in Myanmar Is Raised to Nearly 32,000

Members of the Burmese military unloaded supplies from a U.S. Air Force C-130 military cargo aircraft at the Yangon airport.

As the authorities in Myanmar raised the cyclone death toll to nearly 32,000 and admitted one American military aircraft with the first delivery of large-scale aid, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed the junta to let international assistance and aid workers into the country without hindrance and expressed “deep concern and immense frustration” with what he called “the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis.”

In unusually blunt language for a United Nations leader, he said, “This is not about politics, it is about saving people’s lives. There is absolutely no more time to lose.”

The sharp comments from Mr. Ban came on a day when the authorities in Myanmar allowed a United States military aircraft to land with relief supplies Monday, crossing a barrier that has prevented the delivery of large-scale aid to more than a million victims of the May 3 cyclone, even as state television has put the death toll at 31,938 with 29,770 people missing.

But the United Nations raised its estimate Monday to between 62,000 and 100,000 dead.

Mr. Ban said that he had been trying for four days without success to reach the country’s senior general, Than Swe, and had sent a second letter to him Monday alerting him to the United Nations’ efforts to provide help and its need for “greater access and freedom of movement.”

He said too that the countries of the region have “a special responsibility and a special role in securing the full cooperation of Myanmar’s government.”

John Holmes, the undersecretary general in charge of emergency said that while there had been “slight progress” in granting visas to relief workers, only 34 of more than 100 applications had been approved.

United Nations officials said that the distribution of most deliveries of international relief supplies were still being blocked to the most badly affected parts of the country. They say help is reaching fewer than one-third of those in need.

A group of high-level officials greeted the unarmed C-130 transport plane carrying in the first American aid, in an extraordinary scene of cooperation between two nations whose only relations in recent years have been acrimonious.

In a sign that this was more than simply a cargo delivery, the aircraft also carried Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the United States military in the Pacific.

In a telephone interview, Admiral Keating said that it had been years, if not decades, since an American military officer of his rank had visited Myanmar.

He said the United States had about a dozen medium- and heavy-lift military helicopters on standby in Thailand, ready to assist. In addition, he said a three-ship naval task force with another dozen transport helicopters was 24 hours away, and ready to help relief efforts.

“We told them we could come in during the day and leave at night, that they could put Burmese officials on our planes and ships, and that we would provide our own fuel,” Admiral Keating said. “We told them we wouldn’t stay a day longer than they wanted.”

Meanwhile, reports out of the Irrawaddy Delta, the worst-hit area, continued to signal a growing and gruesome catastrophe, according to Western diplomats in Yangon.

People whose homes, farms and food stocks were destroyed have been making their way to more than half a dozen refugee camps north of the delta, although these were more like gathering places rather than organized camps, with food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

“It’s grim, and getting grimmer,” said one Western diplomat in Yangon. “The vast majority of people out there haven’t been reached. It’s a challenge to get stuff there anyway. Now it’s a double challenge.”

Another worry is the start of the rainy season, which usually begins in mid-May. Rice stocks need to dry, and new rice needs to be planted. Aid workers said there was one possible upside to more rain: people without fresh water might be able to collect rainwater for drinking.

A government spokesman said that the United States delivery of mosquito nets, blankets and water on Monday would be ferried by Myanmar military helicopters to the worst-hit areas. Two more shipments were scheduled to land Tuesday.

By their stubbornness in refusing to allow the rapid distribution of relief supplies, the generals who rule Myanmar are turning the cyclone that struck more than a week ago from a devastating natural disaster into a man-made disaster of huge proportions.

As the disaster grows and pressure from the outside world intensifies, the junta faces a dilemma.

If it opens its doors to large numbers of foreigners, it may never be able to seal the country again against the outside influences and interference it dreads.

By keeping foreign assistance out, though, the generals must be ready to accept the deaths of hundreds of thousands more people, according to foreign relief officials. At the moment, this is the choice it appears to be making. But even if there are divisions within the leadership over policy, most analysts say the junta is likely to maintain its grip.

“I don’t think anything is going to happen,” said Terrence Lee, an expert on regional militaries from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. “They have too much invested in the regime to have any ideas of jumping ship.” It is a truism that any change must come from within the power structure.

“I believe the junta is really walking on thin ice and has been since the attacks on the monks last September,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University, referring to a violent crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.

But, he said, “the mechanism for change will be from within the junta itself. I don’t see how any civilian group or individual can influence the outcome given the extent of power and control the junta has.”

The change could range from a coup at the top that might bring little change in policy, to a liberal opening that could even involve cooperation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest.

In any case, the military would remain in charge.

The military pervades almost all the workings of government and business and even Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that the military would have to be involved in any future power structure.

The four pillars of the military’s world view, said Mr. Lee, are nationalism, paranoia, self-reliance and ethnocentrism. All of these seem to be in play now.

The cyclone challenges the image the junta projects — and its self-perception — as an all-powerful protector of its people and their defender against a foreign presence. When relief shipments have arrived, the junta has in many cases insisted on distributing it, and newspapers carry photographs and reports of military officers handing out foreign aid.

The Burmese expatriate grapevine is filled with reports that the junta is divided, that younger or more liberal officers have had enough and that change will finally come.

There is no real evidence for this.

One exile found meaning in a recent photograph on the front page of the government mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, which showed four top generals facing the camera.

“Than Shwe and Maung Aye were smiling,” this hopeful analyst said, referring to the two top generals in the junta. “But the other two generals were not.”

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst and refugee who is based in Thailand, reads a pattern of indecisiveness and possible internal conflict into an initial confusion over whether to allow the American relief flight.

On Thursday, the United States Embassy in Bangkok was ready to announce an agreement, only to find that Myanmar seemed to have changed its mind.

Then on the following day, permission for the flight was given.

But for now, such differences have appeared to be only ripples on the surface. The solidity of the 400,000-strong military, known as the Tatmadaw, runs deep.

The military cements the loyalty of its officers with a combination of privileges and harsh punishment, as well as isolation from any understanding of the outside world. Officers live in a cocooned, privileged world where they can send their children to special schools and take part in the corruption that amounts to a major sector of the economy.

Without a military connection, it is difficult to rise in life. Myanmar is not just a military-run state; it is a military state.

Apart from a purge in 2004, there have never been serious rifts in the military, experts say. Even if there are divisions of opinion or revulsion over policy, they say, the structure is likely to remain intact.

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