Heavy Rains Plague Myanmar; Casualty Toll Jumps

Rain deepens Myanmar misery; casualty tolls jump
Fri May 16, 2008 12:34pm EDT

YANGON (Reuters) – Torrential tropical downpours lashed Myanmar’s cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta on Friday as thousands of destitute victims took to roadsides to beg for help to supplement the meager trickle of aid flowing in.

The official death toll has jumped sharply, to 77,738 from a previous figure of 43,328 according to a Myanmar state television report late on Friday.

Independent experts have said the actual number is probably far higher, with British officials saying the total dead and missing could be more than 200,000.

Myanmar state TV put the number missing at 55,917, about double the previous 27,838. It said 19,359 people were injured, up from 1,403.

The new figures were as of May 15, state TV said.

As estimates of death and damage rise, those made destitute by the destruction have been seeking help from anyone who will offer it.

In the storm-struck town of Kunyangon, around 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Yangon, men, women and children stood in the mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication at the occasional passing aid vehicle.

“The situation has worsened in just two days,” one shocked aid volunteer said as crowds of children mobbed his vehicle, their grimy hands reaching through the window for scraps of bread or clothing.

Their desperate entreaties expose the fragility of the military government’s claim to be on top of emergency aid distribution to up to 2.5 million people left clinging to survival by Cyclone Nargis, which flooded an area of the delta the size of Austria when it struck on May 2.

Given the junta’s virtual ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on movement for most international aid workers, independent assessments of the situation are difficult.

SMOOTH OPERATORS?

The former Burma’s ruling generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly, refusing to allow major aid distribution networks run by foreign agencies and workers.

But the junta issued an edict in state-run newspapers on Friday saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumors of local military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.

If emergency supplies do not get through in much greater quantities, starvation and disease are very real threats.

One international health group has confirmed cholera among survivors, but the number was in line with normal levels at this time of year in an area where the disease is endemic, health officials said.

“We don’t have an explosion of cholera,” World Health Organization (WHO) official Maureen Birmingham said in Bangkok.

Many cyclone refugees, crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating storm, have gone down with diarrhea, dysentery and skin infections.

EU URGES OPENING UP TO AID

The European Union’s top aid official, Louis Michel, met ministers in Yangon on Thursday and urged them to admit foreign aid workers and essential equipment to keep the death toll, which the Red Cross says could be as high as 128,000, from rising.

Michel, like so many other envoys before, made no headway.

“Relations between Myanmar and the international community are difficult,” he told Reuters.

“But that is not my problem. The time is not for political discussion. It’s time to deliver aid to save lives.”

Earlier, the reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule, signaled they would not budge on their position of limiting foreign access to the delta, fearful that doing so might loosen their vice-like grip on power.

“We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage,” state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.

Underlining where its main attentions lie, the junta announced an overwhelming vote in favor of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held on May 10, despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.

DRIBS AND DRABS

Two weeks after the storm tore through the heavily populated Irrawaddy delta rice bowl, food, medicine and temporary shelter have been sent in dribs and drabs to devastated communities.

Frustrated by the speed of the official response, ordinary people were taking matters into their own hands, sending trucks and vans into the delta with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles, and rice provided by private companies and individuals.

“There are too many people. We just cannot give enough. How can the government act as if nothing happened?” said one volunteer, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

(With additional reporting by Ed Cropley in BANGKOK; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

(For more stories on Myanmar cyclone click on or follow the link to Reuters AlertNet www.alertnet.org)

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