Burma: 78 000 dead from cyclone

Burma said on Friday that more than 133 000 people were dead or missing in the cyclone disaster, nearly doubling the toll from the worst disaster in the country’s history, which hit two weeks ago.

Even as the regime again rejected calls for international aid workers to help direct the massive relief effort, state media acknowledged that the scope of the disaster had prevented confirmation of the figures.

State television said 77 738 were dead and 55 917 missing—with 19 359 people injured—according to the latest figures confirmed on Thursday.

It said 159 government staff were among the dead, with 58 missing and another four who were injured. No other details were given.

The stunning new toll nearly doubled the roughly 71 000 dead or missing given by state media the previous day, and comes amid mounting foreign pressure on the country’s secretive military rulers to allow a full-scale aid effort.

Aid agencies believe 2,5-million people who survived the powerful storm are still in dire need of food, water, shelter or medical care, and have warned that the death toll will rise unless they get help immediately.

But the European Union’s aid chief, who held two days of talks with the ruling generals, said earlier that they would not budge on the issue of foreign disaster experts—angering the international community.

Heavy rains on Friday again pounded the devastated southern Irrawaddy Delta region, compounding the misery for one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world.

Sealed off

Louis Michel, the EU’s Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, was due to leave the secretive nation later in the day after failing to get permission to visit the delta, which has been all but sealed off to journalists and outsiders.

He said the regime, which has long been suspicious of the outside world and any influence that could weaken its control on power, would not explain why they continued to refuse visas for most foreign disaster emergency experts.

“They didn’t answer the question, and they did not give any reason,” Michel said.

But Western diplomats who declined to be named said the regime was taking them to the delta on Saturday, but have no further details about where they would be going.

Michel said he had been taken to “a rather perfect, organised camp” outside the main city of Rangoon, far from the flooded and devastated delta region where aid groups say many survivors have still not received help.

Burma’s south-east Asian neighbours, meanwhile, were gearing up for talks in Singapore on Monday aimed at convening a high-level donors meeting.

A UN source said a donor meeting would likely take place in south-east Asia, probably Bangkok, with May 24 suggested as a possible date.

The junta has said that the country will welcome aid shipments but has steadfastly refused to bow to international pressure to let in most outside workers, saying it can manage the disaster on its own.

Michel has warned that the impoverished country, once a rich British colony, is at risk of famine after Cyclone Nargis wiped out vast swathes of the country’s rice-growing delta region.

Despite the humanitarian emergency, the government announced victory in a national referendum on a new constitution, held last Saturday with parts of the country still under water and tens of thousands of people unaccounted for.

It said the vote, the first here since 1990, was a step on the road to democracy, but critics say it will only tighten the military’s grip on power. Another round of voting is scheduled for May 24.—AFP

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