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May-07-2008 22:39printcomments

Death Toll in Burma Could Reach 100,000, Radio Free Asia Reports

As Burma reels from a devastating cyclone and tidal surge, officials set the death toll at more than 22,000 and rising—while a top U.S. diplomat in the country says the number of deaths could reach 100,000.

Displaced residents who lost their homes take shelter in a Buddhist temple in Rangoon on May 5th 2008.
Displaced residents who lost their homes take shelter in a Buddhist temple in Rangoon on May 5th 2008. People of the main city, Rangoon, were busy clearing roads blocked by fallen trees and queuing to collect water from neighbours with private wells, as supplies were cut by the storm. AFP PHOTO / HLA HLA HTAY

(BANGKOK) - The devastating cyclone and tidal surge in Burma may eventually kill as many as 100,000 people, according to a top American diplomat. At least 22,000 people are reported dead, with more than 40,000 missing, according to state-run media. Hundreds of thousands are meanwhile struggling to survive without shelter or clean drinking water.

According to Shari Villarosa, the U.S. charge d'affaires in the former capital, Rangoon, "There may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area."

Accounts from Burmese residents in the disaster-hit area suggest the military government failed properly to warn citizens of the danger from Tropical Cyclone Nargis. They also accuse the junta of doing too little to relieve widespread suffering.

The United States has offered U.S. $3 million in aid, up from an initial contribution of U.S. $250,000, while Britain has offered U.S. $9.9 million and Europe U.S. $3.1m. China says it has given Burma U.S. $1 million.

State media reported 22,464 people are confirmed dead and 41,054 are missing, while opposition delegates from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) say the toll could skyrocket unless aid arrives soon.

Most deaths occurred in lower Burma, in the Irrawaddy delta, Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe said.

Ninety-five percent of homes in the city of Bogalay were destroyed and most of its 190,000 residents are now homeless, he added. Nearby Labutta and Pyapon were also hit hard.

Burmese state television said the government had decided to postpone from May 10 to May 24 a referendum on a new proposed constitution in the areas hit hardest. But voting will proceed as planned in the rest of the country, to the dismay of the NLD.

Water shortage, panic

Untold numbers of Burmese still lack drinking water, while the water that is available is selling at grossly inflated prices.

In the former capital, Rangoon, residents said the Ministry of Industry’s Win Thuza store began selling large Dagon-brand water bottles through iron bars to prevent theft.

“A one-liter bottle used to cost 200 kyat but now they’re selling for up to 500,” one resident said. “Small bottles used to be 120 kyat, but now the price has gone up to 250. In some areas, you can’t even buy them. People would like to buy them, but they can’t. If you go to these stores to buy water, they say, “Put your name on the list and come back tomorrow evening.’”

One kyat is worth about U.S. $.15, by the official exchange rate.

Some Rangoon residents are traveling to Inya Lake to bathe, bringing water back to the city with them.

“The water there isn’t clean—it looks murky because people are bathing there,” another resident said.

“People go there to wash their clothes and carry water from there. People from some wards close to Inya Lake carry that water in bottles on their carts and sell them to people in the wards.”

“For people living in lower apartments, it’s 5,000-7,000 kyat (U.S. $798-1,117). For flats on higher floors, it’s 10,000 kyat.”

Shelter was also scarce, witnesses said.

“There are victims in monasteries, religious halls, and schools. I think the number of homeless people is in the thousands. There are many bamboo and thatch huts that have completely fallen down,” another Rangoon resident said.

Others said resident were struggling on their own, with monasteries doing cleanup and rescue work.

Junta officials “don’t even come to work on the damage at the township SPDC [junta] offices… They just talk but actually don’t do anything,” another resident said.

Food, fuel prices surging

The cost of basic commodities and transport has also surged, in a country already hit hard by skyrocketing food costs.

“Three duck eggs cost 1,000 kyat,” said one man. “A packet of candles is selling for 2,100 kyat, and a cup of tea is 500. If you are going to town, it’s 1,000 kyat. Most of them are 1,000—and even then you are not riding in regular buses. These vehicles have no roof. People are riding in them in the hot sun.”

Vehicles are waiting in long lines for fuel, as well, which has shot up from 5,000 to 15,000 kyat per gallon.

“Cars have been lining up from morning until the shop closes, but they cannot get enough,” a resident said. “Buses running between downtown Rangoon and the suburbs and satellite towns are not back on their regular schedule. Transportation is at a standstill.” Monasteries in action

In Hlaing Thaya township outside Rangoon, monasteries are feeding cyclone victims, residents said. In Laydaunt Kan, also a suburb or Rangoon, residents are sheltering in schools that were spared destruction.

In Laputta in the Irrawaddy delta region, rescue efforts have done little to help, residents said. Aye Kyu, a Hluttaw representative from the opposition National League for Democracy, said he didn’t know how long the party would be able to help.

“Now they don’t have shelter. They have to sleep in the rain on the sidewalk. There’s no more room in the religious halls. People are no longer able to live in rural areas,” Aye Kyu said.

“There is no water and no food to eat. And so we have to bring them to the city. Now the city is getting crowded. Everyone came with the shirt on their backs. The situation of food is getting really bad now.”

“Currently we’re serving boiled rice to people, but we don’t know how long we can go on like this. We’re not provided with anything,” he said.

Toll could skyrocket

Opposition delegate U Kyi Win, from Hluttaw in Laputta township, said the death toll could skyrocket unless aid arrives soon. “The death toll is likely to be 20,000 to 100,000 and 22 villages were destroyed,” he said.

“There’s no water. The flood was about 12 feet high, so people have been bitten by snakes and have died from that. Also there are nails under water. There’s likely to be more deaths to come.”

State-run media

Even as state-run media report that officials are working hard to assuage the massive damage, Burmese citizens complain that the government failed to adequately warn them of the cyclone or urge appropriate precautions.

On May 1, two days before the cyclone struck, a Rangoon sociologist complained that “they [the authorities] are waiting for orders. In this case there is no reason to wait for orders. They should be issuing warning repeatedly and frequently through radio, television, and newspapers.”

“People need to be alerted to this kind of thing—it’s not something to be taken lightly. The wind is blowing at 80-120 mph. Emergency rescue plans should be in the works,” the sociologist said.

A day earlier, U Htun Lwin, director-general of Burma’s Meteorology and Hydrology Department in Rangoon, downplayed the potential for damage.

“We have just put out an alert—not a warning,” he said. “It could be a category 2 storm, which isn’t the worst…We have already issued a warning through local authorities, and they are doing everything. In [the beach resort of] Chaungtha guests are being sent back.”

On Monday, American First Lady Laura Bush criticized the junta for failing to warn citizens adequately of the cyclone. “Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path,” she said.

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Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translation by Than Than Win. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.




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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.