Burma said on Monday that nearly 4Â 000 people had been killed in the cyclone that tore into the impoverished and secretive Asian nation at the weekend, and that tens of thousands more could also be dead.
The announcement on state television increased the death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis more than ten-fold in Burma, which has been under military rule for decades and is one of the poorest on the planet.
The United Nations had earlier said hundreds of thousands of people had been left homeless when the storm, packing winds of 190km per hour, ripped through the countryside, destroying entire villages in its fury.
Thousands of buildings were flattened as the furious cyclone also ripped power lines to shreds, uprooted trees that blocked key roads and disrupted water supplies in the main city and former capital, Rangoon.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in my whole life,” said one elderly resident.
Nargis struck Burma late on Friday around the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, about 220km south-west of Rangoon, before hitting the country’s economic hub.
As aid agencies struggled to rush emergency supplies of food and water into the country, the ruling junta vowed to press ahead with a referendum this weekend on a new Constitution.
But that was before the release of the dramatically higher death toll, announced on Burma television — which like all media in the nation, under military rule since 1962, is strictly controlled by the government.
“So far, in Ayeyawaddy [Irrawaddy] and Yangon [Rangoon] division, 3Â 969 were killed, 41 people injured and 2Â 129 missing,” the news bulletin said.
“According to the information that we have as of May 5, there could be tens of thousands dead in Bogolay township and thousands more dead in Labutta township,” it said.
The report will come as more bad news for aid organisations battling the devastation on the ground and the intricacies of getting supplies and personnel into a nation which is one of the most isolated in the world.
Well before the latest figures emerged, the International Federation of the Red Cross said in a preliminary estimate that several villages had been destroyed — wiped out in toto by one of the worst storms here in memory.
The winds combined with a sea surge in the Bay of Bengal, wreaking devastation in a country where the military normally imposes tough restrictions on the activities of aid agencies.
Richard Horsey, a UN official in neighbouring Thailand, said that several hundred thousand people had been left homeless and without drinking water across a broad swath of the country.
“If we look at the emergency needs for shelter and drinking water, there are several hundred thousand people who will need urgent assistance,” he said.
UN agencies and other international aid groups met earlier on Monday in Bangkok to begin coordinating a response.
Hundreds of monks joined in efforts by residents, police and troops to clear blocked roads, while the homeless huddled under makeshift shelters at Buddhist temples.
The military government said Saturday’s referendum on a new Constitution intended to usher in democracy would go ahead, but with food prices tripling and water supplies cut, residents said they had more pressing problems.
“We don’t want any democracy, said one man queuing urgently at a neighbour’s well. “We just want water now.”
The junta, whose power base is now the new remote capital of Naypyidaw, said “the entire people of the country are eagerly looking forward” to the referendum, according to the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
Burma has also suffered more than a decade of US and European sanctions over the continuing detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sanctions were tightened after the junta’s crackdown on mass protests last September left 31 people dead, according to UN figures. – AFP