Postcyclone challenge for Burma (Myanmar): deliver relief fast

The isolated junta sought outside aid as death toll projections topped 10,000.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a rapidly escalating death toll, a cyclone that ripped through Burma (Myanmar) on Saturday killed nearly 4,000 people, not 351 as originally announced, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in Asia since the tsunami of 2004, authorities said on Monday.

But that death toll, which accounts for only two of five areas hit, could rise as high as 10,000 in coming days, government officials said, while relief agencies warned that rescue operations would be critically hampered by the remoteness of the disaster region, home to 24 million people.

Concerns of higher death tolls have been further exacerbated by the political isolation of the military-led government of Burma, which has largely shut itself off from the outside world, and which many feared would reject international assistance.

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But relief agencies said Monday they were confident that international relief would be allowed into the country, following a meeting between government officials and the head of the United Nations relief agencies in Burma on Monday. And state authorities issued appeals for international aid.

"The acting head of the UN agencies ... received positive indications that international assistance would be invited and accepted into the country," says Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program's Asia office in Bangkok, Thailand. "We are continuing assessments on the ground, and as soon as these assessments provide more details, we will be able to test that invitation.'

'Entire village wiped out'

When it set down with 120 mile-per-hour winds on Saturday, cyclone Nargis ripped apart cities, shantytowns, and villages throughout this nation of 56 million, leaving a path of destruction and hundreds of thousands homeless as it arced from the Irrawaddy delta in the southwest to Rangoon (Yangon), the former capital, farther north. The city was reduced to a chaotic standstill by Monday, with no electricity and long lines for water, the Associated Press reported, adding that at least one entire village has been wiped out.

The cyclone comes just days before the ruling military junta is scheduled to hold a referendum on an army-drafted charter for a new constitution. Government authorities insist the charter symbolizes their commitment to democracy, but critics have dismissed it as an eyewash that allows the Army to maintain the lion's share of power. Adding fuel to that criticism, authorities insisted the referendum would still take place despite the scale of the tragedy, a local newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, reported on Monday.

Death tolls on Monday were dramatically higher than originally announced. "The confirmed number is 3,934 dead, 41 injured and 2,879 missing within the Yangon and Irrawaddy divisions," Myanmar TV reported on Monday. Authorities had originally reported 351 deaths, but the numbers have been adjusted as damage assessment reports come in.

Perhaps responding to the sharp increase, the military government, which has ruled since 1965, agreed to a rare intervention from international relief agencies and made requests for emergency aid.

Mr. Risley says he is confident that, given the drastic scale of the disaster, the government will honor its side of the agreement.

Some relief efforts were already under way on Monday, and the World Food Program says it has 900 tons of food in storage warehouses in Rangoon. Neighboring Thailand, meanwhile, quickly responded that it would fly in aid by Tuesday.

Relief efforts could prove difficult

Even with the possibility of international aid flowing in, he and others say, relief efforts are likely to be extremely difficult and could raise the death toll if not handled properly.

"[Transportation of relief goods] will be one of the major challenges," says Risley. "We are very concerned that roads have been washed away or destroyed by the flooding."

Relief agencies warned that the fallout from the cyclone was likely to be more devastating than that from cyclone Sidr, which struck nearby Bangladesh last November and killed more than 3,000 people.

"In fact, this may be a larger tragedy," says Risley. "The next 10 days are very critical for the relief effort."

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