Cyclone claims almost 4,000 dead

Other News Materials 5 May 2008 19:00 (UTC +04:00)

The death toll from Cyclone Nargis that devastated central Myanmar over the wekend has risen to almost 4,000, with another 3,000 missing, state run media said Monday, dpa reported.

Altogether 3,930 died in the disaster and another 2,879 were still listed as missing by Monday, a state-run Myanmar radio station said in an evening broadcast.

Thousands were left homeless and without basic utilities in central Myanmar in the wake of the storm, which blew off the Bay of Bengal late Friday packing winds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, which caused untold damage to the country's already fragile infrastructure and food supply.

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.

In Bangkok, United Nations agencies and other international aid organizations met Monday to prepare for emergency disaster relief for the country, although Myanmar's military leaders had yet to give the green light for such an operation.

"That's basically a limitation, but the government has at least not said no," said Terje Skavdal, regional director of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), who headed the Bangkok meeting.

While there are already several UN offices in Myanmar, they are small and not up to the extent of the disaster.

"It's too early to provide an accurate assessment but we're speaking about hundreds of thousands of homeless," Skavdal said. "The UN support system is not sufficient inside Myanmar."

There are doubts that the military would welcome international aid at this juncture, as it is gearing up to stage a national referendum on Saturday to vote on a draft constitution that promises to legitimize the military's dominant role in Myanmar's future politics.

"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.

Despite the disaster wrought by the cyclone, state media reports on Monday confirmed that Myanmar's military regime intended to go ahead with a referendum on May 10.

"The referendum is only a few days away, and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting," a government statement carried by state-run media said.

The storm's devastation has raised questions about the propriety of the government's referendum plans.

"Yangon ... is without electricity and without water, so I don't see how you can conduct a referendum under those conditions," one Yangon-based Western diplomat said.

"It's a catastrophe," he added. "Almost all the electricity poles were blown down. It will take weeks to repair."

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.