UN gears up for Myanmar emergency assistance

United Nations agencies and international aid organizations met Monday in Bangkok to make preparations for a major disaster relief effort in neighbouring Myanmar, where a cyclone killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless over the weekend.

"The UN support system is not sufficient inside Myanmar," said Terje Skavdal, regional director of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), who headed the meeting.

According to official state media reports, cyclone Nargis, which first hit Myanmar's central coastline on Friday, has claimed at least 351 lives and left thousands homeless.

Reports of the damage done to the countryside are still coming in.

"It's too early to provide an accurate assessment but we're speaking about hundreds of thousands of homeless," said Skavdal.

He acknowledged that the UN was still awaiting an invitation from Myanmar's military regime to go ahead with their emergency plans.

"That's basically a limitation, but the government has at least not said no," said the UNOCHA regional chief.

Myanmar has been ruled by military regimes since 1962, when General Ne Win staged a military coup that dragged the once prosperous South-east Asian country into socialism and isolationism that has yet to be fully discarded.

Accepting international aid may not sit well with the ruling junta, which is preparing for a referendum on Saturday that will decide the fate of a new constitution designed to seal the military's dominant role in Myanmar's future politics, observers said.

"I think they are too proud to call for international aid," said Jens Orback, a former Swedish minister for democracy and gender equality who was in Yangon at the weekend to assess preparations for the referendum when he got caught in the cyclone.

"I think that now the generals want to show that they can put the country in order again without international help," Orback said in Bangkok.

But with the extent of the disaster only beginning to unfold, the generals may be forced to appeal for aid to avoid mass dissent.

"Urgent needs are expected to be plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits and food," said a statement issued by the UN Information Centre in Yangon.

Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and the country's commercial hub, was among the places hardest hit by the storm, which uprooted trees, toppled electricity and telephone poles, and burst water pipes, leaving the city of several million without basic utilities.

The Irrawaddy Division was also hard hit by Nargis, although details about its effects there remained sketchy.

Myanmar's third most populous city of Pathein, the Irrawaddy capital, was reportedly inundated by floodwaters, causing untold damage and deaths.

The fertile, low-lying division is Myanmar's chief rice-growing area. Damage to the Irrawaddy's irrigation systems and crops was unreported by state television, which is tightly monitored in the military-run country.

"The rice was high," a Western diplomat said. "This will certainly effect the rice crop negatively."

The disaster caused sharp rises in fuel and food prices by Monday in Yangon.

A bottle of water was selling for 1,000 kyat, compared with 350 kyats last week, while the minimum bus fare had jumped from 50 kyats to 500 kyats in the city, a Yangon resident said.

Last week's black-market rate for the kyat was 1,120 to the dollar.

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