Burma death toll soars as diplomats tour delta

Burma’s ruling military junta took diplomats on a tour of the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy delta on Saturday as its toll of dead and missing soared above 133 000 people, making Cyclone Nargis one of the most devastating ever to hit Asia.

In the past 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceeded Nargis in terms of human cost — a 1970 storm that killed 500 000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh, and another that killed 143 000 in 1991, also in Bangladesh.

However, with an estimated 2,5-million people clinging to survival in the delta, and the military government refusing to admit large-scale outside relief, disaster experts say Nargis’s body count could yet rise dramatically.

Cases of cholera, endemic to much of Burma, have been found although the number of outbreaks are no more than would normally be seen at this time of year, health officials said.

Meanwhile, the military, which has ruled unchecked for the past 46 years, continues to insist it is capable of handling aid distribution, seemingly out of fear that an influx of foreigners might loosen its vice-like grip on power.

With heavy tropical downpours also hampering the aid effort, the generals took Rangoon-based diplomats into the delta to see the army’s relief operations, although it was expected to be a stage-managed and highly sanitised trip.

One envoy who went on a similar tour of a storm-hit district of Rangoon, the former capital, described the neat rows of tents on display as ”happy camps”.

In the delta, the junta will have to work much harder to keep the diplomats away from the destitute.

Near the town of Kunyangon, columns of men, women and children stretched for kilometres alongside the road, begging in the mud and rain for scraps of food or clothing from the occasional passing aid vehicle.

”The situation has worsened in just two days,” one aid volunteer said as children mobbed his vehicle, their grimy hands reaching through the window for something to eat.

Many storm refugees are crammed into monasteries and schools and are being fed and watered by local volunteers and private donors who have taken matters into their own hands, sending in trucks laden with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles and rice.

Death toll soars

In a rare sign of agreement with international aid agencies, the junta sharply raised its toll from the May 2 disaster on Friday night to 77 738 dead and another 55 917 missing.

It has also been admitting a steady stream of aid flights to Rangoon, including about four a day from the United States military, the generals’ arch-enemy.

However, aid agencies say only a fraction of the required relief is getting through to the inundated part of the delta — a stretch of land the size of Austria — and unless the situation improves, thousands more lives are at risk.

Given the junta’s ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on the movement of most international aid workers, independent assessment of the situation is difficult.

With international concern and frustration mounting, a stream of envoys is flying in to try to coax the generals out of their deep distrust of the outside world.

The latest is the United Nations’s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, who is expected to arrive in Rangoon on Sunday and meet Prime Minister Thein Sein, the fourth-highest-ranking member of the junta.

The European Union’s top humanitarian officer, Louis Michel, left empty-handed on Friday night but continued to urge the generals to shelve their pride and paranoia. ”Time is life,” he told reporters at Bangkok airport. ”No government in the world can tackle such a problem alone. This is a major catastrophe.”

Crimes against humanity?

Holmes will be carrying a third letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to junta supremo Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban’s requests for a conversation, a spokesperson said.

Ban is not the only one loosing patience.

France’s UN ambassador said the junta was on the verge of a ”crime against humanity”, and dismissed claims by his Burma counterpart that Paris was sending a warship to sit off the coast.

French envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert said the ship, Le Mistral, is operated by the French navy but is not a warship. It is carrying 1 500 tonnes of food and medicine as well as small boats, helicopters and field hospital platforms.

”We are still trying to convince the authority of Burma to authorise us to go there,” Ripert said. ”The ship will be off the coast of the delta, but in international waters, tomorrow [Saturday]. We still hope they will not refuse that.”

Three US navy vessels are already hovering off the coast ready to go in with relief supplies, but the Pentagon insists it will not do so until it gets the go-ahead from the Burmese authorities. — Reuters

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