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Aung Hla Tun
16 May 2008 10:38
Torrential tropical downpours lashed Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on Friday, deepening the misery of an estimated 2,5-million destitute survivors of Cyclone Nargis and further hampering the military government’s aid efforts.
In the storm-struck town of Kunyangon, about 100km south-west of Rangoon, thousands of men, women and children stood in mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication at the occasional passing aid vehicle.
Children mobbed any car that stopped, grimy hands reaching through a window in search of bits of bread or a T-shirt.
Despite such scenes and the latest storm, likely to turn already damaged roads to mud, Burma’s ruling generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly.
However, they issued an edict in state-run newspapers on Friday saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumours of local military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.
If emergency supplies do not get through in much greater quantities, foreign governments and aid groups say starvation and disease are very real threats.
Some cholera has been confirmed among survivors, but the number was in line with case levels in previous years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
“We don’t have an explosion of cholera,” Maureen Birmingham, acting WHO representative in Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok.
Diarrhoea, dysentery and skin infections have afflicted some cyclone refugees crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating May 2 storm.
The WHO, which has sent health kits, bleach and chlorine tablets to treat dirty water, said the peak threat from disease was 10 days to one month after a natural disaster.
EU urges opening up to aid
The European Union’s top aid official, Louis Michel, met ministers in Rangoon on Thursday and urged them to admit foreign aid workers and essential equipment to keep the death toll, which the Red Cross says could be as high as 128 000, from rising.
Burma state television raised its official death toll on Thursday to 43 328.
Independent experts say the figures are probably far higher, with British officials saying the number of dead and missing may be 200 000.
Michel, like so many other envoys before, has made little headway so far.
“Relations between Burma and the international community are difficult,” he said.
Earlier, the reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule, signalled they would not budge on their position of limiting foreign access to the delta, fearful to do so might loosen their vice-like grip on power.
“We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going on to the second phase, the rebuilding stage,” state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.
Underlining where its main attentions lie, the junta announced an overwhelming vote in favour of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held on May 10 despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.
Dribs and drabs
Two weeks after the storm tore through the heavily populated Irrawaddy Delta rice bowl, food, medicine and temporary shelter have been sent in dribs and drabs to devastated communities.
In Kunyangon, the junta has started distributing small amounts of emergency food.
But around the town, the countryside remains a mess of half-submerged trees and snapped electricity pylons or bamboo poles—the skeletal remains of a house—leaning at crazy angles.
Villagers say they are slowly burying the bloated corpses of friends and relatives that have littered the rice fields for the last two weeks. But the stench of death remains.
The United Nations says more than half-a-million people may now be in temporary settlements.
Frustrated by the speed of the official response, ordinary people were taking matters into their own hands, sending trucks and vans into the delta with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles and rice provided by private companies and individuals.
“There are too many people. We just cannot give enough. How can the government act as if nothing happened?” asked one volunteer, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
With almost total distrust of the government, private aid is being left in the care of Buddhist monasteries, to be distributed by the monkhood, who have immense moral authority.
Going through the roll-call of the needy is a grim task.
“We need to give aid to this family,” said one monk pointing to a list in a temple in one village.
“No,” another monk interjected. “They’re all dead.”—Reuters
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