Cyclone kills hundreds in Myanmar

May 4, 2008 9:31:43 PM PDT
A powerful cyclone killed more than 350 people and destroyed thousands of homes, state-run media said Sunday. Some dissident groups worried that the military junta running Myanmar would be reluctant to ask for international help. Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit at a delicate time for the junta, less than a week ahead of a crucial referendum on a new constitution. Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and squashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box. But state media indicated Monday the referendum was still on.

Some in Yangon complained the 400,000-strong military was doing little to help victims after Saturday's storm.

"Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?" said a trishaw driver who refused to be identified for fear of retribution. "They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity."

With the city plunged into almost total darkness overnight, security concerns mounted, with reports of robberies in some working class suburbs circulating. Many shops sold their goods through partially opened doors or iron grills.

Residents, as well as Buddhist monks from the city's many monasteries, banded together Monday, wielding axes and knives to clear roads of tree trunks and branches torn off by the cyclones 120 mph winds.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and 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 years.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

The Forum for Democracy in Burma and other dissident groups outside of Myanmar urged the military junta Sunday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone - something it has been reluctant to do in the past.

It would be difficult for other countries to help unless they received a request from Myanmar's military rulers.

"International expertise in dealing with natural disasters is urgently required. The military regime is ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone," said Naing Aung, secretary general of the Thailand-based forum.

The U.N. said from New York that a disaster assessment and coordination team has been organized and was on standby to assist the Myanmar government and was prepared to help mobilize more international aid.

Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, said the storm's whipping winds and torrential downpour had caused "major devastation throughout the city."

"The Burmese are saying they have never seen anything like this, ever," Villarosa told The Associated Press. "Trees are down. Electricity lines are down. Our Burmese staff have lost their roofs."

Residents lined up to buy water since lack of electricity-driven pumps left most households dry. Some walked to the city's lakes to wash.

At least 351 people were killed, including 162 who lived on Haing Gyi island off the country's southwest coast, military-run Myaddy television station reported. Many of the others died in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.

"The Irrawaddy delta was hit extremely hard not only because of the wind and rain but because of the storm surge," said Chris Kaye, the U.N.'s acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon. "The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened."

State television reported that in the Irrawaddy's Labutta township, 75 percent of the buildings had collapsed.

The U.N. planned to send teams Monday to assess the damage, Kaye said. Initial assessment efforts have been hampered by roads clogged with debris and downed phone lines, he said.

"At the moment, we have such poor opportunity for communications that I can't really tell you very much," Kaye said.

Yangon residents also said Sunday that the price of gasoline had jumped from $2.50 to $10 a gallon on the black market and everything from eggs to construction supplies had tripled. Candles, which many people turned to with electricity largely down, doubled in price.

Public transport was almost at a standstill although airlines announced that Yangon's international airport had reopened for foreign and domestic flights Monday.

The cyclone came only days before a May 10 referendum on the country's military-backed draft constitution. State media reports Monday indicated the referendum would proceed as planned.

"It's only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eagerly to cast their vote," the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said.

A military-managed national convention was held intermittently for 14 years to lay down guidelines for the country's new constitution.

The new constitution is supposed to be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of a "roadmap to democracy" drawn up by the junta.

Critics say the draft constitution is designed to cement military power and have urged citizens to vote no.


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