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Official media: 10,000 dead in one Myanmar town

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's official media said early today that 10,000 people were killed by a powerful cyclone in just one town, confirming fears of a spiraling death toll from the storm's 12-foot tidal surges and high winds that swept away bamboo homes in low-lying coastal regions.

The ruling junta, an authoritarian regime which has cut the nation off from the international community for decades, appealed for foreign aid to help in the recovery from Saturday's disaster, the country's deadliest storm on record.

The casualty count has been rising quickly as authorities reach hard-hit islands and villages in the Irrawaddy delta, the country's major rice-producing region, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis's 120 mph winds.

Myanmar's foreign minister told diplomats in Yangon on Monday that more than 10,000 people may have died when Cyclone Nargis struck Saturday.

State television confirmed fears of a rapidly rising toll, reporting that 10,000 perished in the town of Bogalay and raising concern that the country's overall death toll will rise significantly.

Residents of Yangon, the former capital of 6.5 million, said they were angry the government failed to adequately warn them of the approaching storm and has so far done little to alleviate their plight.

"The government misled people. They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared," said Thin Thin, a grocery store owner.

Some in Yangon complained the 400,000-strong military was only clearing streets where the ruling elite resided, while leaving residents, including Buddhist monks, to cope on their own against the huge tangles of uprooted trees.

"There are some army trucks out to clear the roads, but most of the work was done with a dah [knife] by the people. Some of these tree trunks are 4-feet thick," said Barry Broman, a retired U.S. State Department officer who was in Yangon when the cyclone struck. "Thousands of trees were uprooted. All the roads were blocked by the trees."

The death toll would be the highest from a natural disaster in southeast Asia since the tsunami of December 2004, which killed 229,866 people as it devastated coastlines in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of southeast and south Asia. In the wake of the tsunami, an extensive early warning system was established in the Pacific region.

Hundreds of thousands were left homeless and without clean drinking water, said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Yangon-based diplomats said they were told Myanmar, also known as Burma, welcomed international humanitarian aid, including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine, water purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first 10-ton shipment was scheduled to arrive from Thailand today.

The appeal for outside assistance was unusual for Myanmar's ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations and closely controlled their activities. Several agencies, including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have limited their presence as a consequence.

Allowing any major influx of foreigners could carry risks for the military, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery.

However, keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore peoples' livelihoods.

The cyclone came just a week before a crucial referendum on a military-backed constitution, and the government's ineffectual warning system and inefficient effort to recover from it so far, could sway angry voters to reject the charter.

"The combination of the cyclone and the referendum within a few days of each other makes an angry population angrier and vulnerable and makes the political situation more volatile" than it has been since massive pro-democracy demonstrations last September, said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University.

The government apparently made little effort to prepare for the storm, which came bearing down from the Bay of Bengal late Friday. Although warnings were broadcast on television that 120-mph winds and 12-foot storm surges were predicted, no guidance was given about taking shelter.

In any case, the electricity supply is so spotty in Myanmar that few households, especially in the poor rural areas that were worst hit, would have been aware of the televised warnings.

The government has given no explanation for the high death toll, but most people in the worst-hit region live in fragile bamboo homes with thatch or zinc roofs, which would have been swept way with their inhabitants by the onrushing tidal surge.

Even in Yangon, the country's biggest, most modern city, residents were shocked by the destruction.

"We heard the big bangs and then I looked out on the balcony, I couldn't stand there, but I saw things coming down from the roof. Trees were falling which have stood there for a long time," said Sweden's former integration minister, Jens Orback, who was in the city when the cyclone hit.

"And in our hotel, the ceiling came in with glass and the lights and it turned black," he told AP Television News.

Yangon, where officials said 59 people died, was without electricity except where gas-fed generators were available and residents lined up to buy candles at double last week's prices.

With pumps not working, most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long lines for drinking water and bath in the city's lakes.

"Once the storm subsided, people were walking out to assess the damage and were shocked at everything around them," said Pamela Sitko, communication relief manager for the Asia-Pacific region for the aid agency World Vision. "One 11-year-old boy said he had to run backwards to take shelter in a school during the storm because the wind was so strong." World Vision, like other aid agencies, was negotiating with the government to try to arrange an airlift of aid.

"The biggest concern is communication because the electricity is down, running water has stopped, phone lines are down and it is difficult to assess the real needs because we can't reach the outer-lying regions," Sitko said.

With the city plunged into almost total darkness overnight, security concerns mounted, and many shops sold their goods through partially opened doors or iron grills. Looting was reported at several fresh food markets, where thieves took vegetables and other items.

At Yangon's notorious Insein prison, 36 prisoners were killed and about 70 others wounded when guards opened fire during a moment of chaos when the storm hit Saturday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist exile group based in Thailand.

Diplomats in Yangon gave a similar account, although a government official denied there were any deaths. Nearby residents said there had been a fire at the prison, but knew no other details.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 yea


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