Disaster aid slow to reach Myanmar

Over 22,000 dead, 41,000 missing

fears of disease grow after cyclone

May 07, 2008|By Mark Magnier and Henry Chu | Mark Magnier and Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- The death toll continued to climb in Myanmar yesterday as state news media reported that more than 22,000 people had died from a weekend cyclone and more than 41,000 were missing.

Efforts to reach the victims and help up to 1 million people that United Nations officials believe were left homeless by Tropical Cyclone Nargis remained mired in bureaucracy, logistics problems and the isolation of many areas.

The insular Southeast Asian nation, long ruled by a military government, has signaled that it will allow international aid groups to enter the country. But many humanitarian groups said they are waiting for visas, and the few in Myanmar reported shortages of drinking water, food, housing and other basic supplies.

State television played up the role of soldiers in recovery efforts. CNN footage showed images of uprooted trees, roofless houses and fishing boats driven ashore by the storm in the Irrawaddy River delta region, regarded as Myanmar's rice bowl.

The cyclone, which brought 120 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges, is the worst natural disaster to hit Southeast Asia since the tsunami that claimed more than 220,000 lives in December 2004. Myanmar, relatively lightly hit then, opted for financial reasons not to participate in an extensive early warning system set up afterward.

Concerns mounted over the potential spread of disease in a country with one of the world's worst health systems and over the lack of food, water and shelter in the delta region and adjacent Yangon, where nearly a quarter of Myanmar's 57 million people live.

"Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm," said Caryl Stern, who heads the U.N. Children's Fund in the United States.

Myanmar's government backed away from its vow to press ahead with a nationwide referendum Saturday on a draft constitution. Unaffected areas will still vote, officials said, but there would be a two-week postponement in hard-hit areas.

President Bush called on Myanmar's government to let the U.S. military help with disaster assistance.

"We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation," he said as he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the regime's nemesis, democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. "But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."

The Bush administration announced yesterday that it had increased its initial offer of $250,000 for relief efforts by $3 million. The money would come from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Let the United States come to help you, help the people," Bush said in a message directed at the leaders of Myanmar. "At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society."

Win Min, an exile living in Thailand, said he is anxious about friends and family in Bogalay, where 10,000 people have been reported dead by Myanmar's state news media. Win and thousands of others have been trying unsuccessfully to reach loved ones by telephone.

"The next time I go home, I may not see some of them," said Win, who teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

Bogalay is largely surrounded by water, he said, making it highly vulnerable. Nearly every house is constructed of wood and woven mats that would not withstand much punishment. And the main road to the capital, Yangon, would quickly bog down, even if it were not blocked by debris, he said, making it difficult to transport aid and medical care.

"The real question is how they're ever going to reach the affected areas," Win said. "I hope the government will allow foreign ships and helicopters in, but so far I haven't seen it."

Rashid Khalikov, director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations in New York, said the world body had urged Myanmar's government to waive visas for aid workers as Iran and Pakistan did after earthquakes in 2003 and 2005.

"So far, we have not gotten visas for people we wanted to go there," Khalikov said at a news conference. "We really hope it will happen quickly. It will help us to better aid the people when we are able to assess their needs."

He said the team was only able to apply for visas yesterday because the embassy in Bangkok was closed Monday for a holiday and diplomats would not open it without permission from officials in Myanmar.

White House press secretary Dana Perino, citing a U.N. summary, said the most urgent needs were for plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits, food and fuel. She said U.S. assistance is not conditioned on U.S. personnel working inside Myanmar.

"The assistance that we are providing is needs-based, and it's dependent only on us wanting to help them," Perino said.

She said a U.S. team was in Bangkok. "But certainly the relief that the Burmese people need would be much better handled if we could get into the country."

Analysts said the military junta would be making a huge concession by agreeing to let foreign humanitarian groups in.

"I think this military regime totally gets that the people are angry," said Monique Skidmore, a professor at Australian National University. "And they're going to do what they can to be seen as helping the population. It's really the least distasteful path at the moment."

Last summer, the government accused foreign diplomats of meddling in Myanmar's internal affairs, human rights groups said. And an article appeared in the country's news media last week accusing foreigners of trying to upset the referendum.

Mark Magnier and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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