Burmese refugees in the United States, worried about the fate of loved ones in their native Myanmar, charged Tuesday that the country’s military regime had caused the death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis to soar by not warning the public and evacuating low-lying areas in advance.
Myanmar’s government, which estimates that more than 22,000 people died after the storm struck the country’s delta region Saturday, knew at least 36 hours in advance that the cyclone was coming but failed to alert people living in its path, refugee activists charged.
They also criticized the regime for being too slow in mobilizing military relief efforts and for refusing to allow the United States and other nations to provide millions of dollars in immediate aid to the victims.
“We are shocked and angry because so much death and destruction could have been prevented if the government gave a warning,” said Ko Pyi, who fled Myanmar in 1990 and now lives in Anaheim.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been ruled by brutal military regimes for nearly all of the last 46 years. Its leaders have isolated the country from the Western world and jailed its most vocal critics. In September, the government cracked down on protests led by Buddhist monks, killing dozens.
Once one of the richest countries in Asia, it is now one of the poorest.
Pyi said he and his wife had been anxiously calling “night and day” trying to get through to family members in the stricken area. The couple finally managed to reach a cousin who had repaired the phone line to his home.
The cousin reported that many huge trees had fallen in the area, blocking roads. There had been no sign of the army or any other outside assistance.
At the same time, Pyi said, army crews were reportedly cleaning up damage in neighborhoods of Yangon, the former capital, where many of the country’s generals live -- even though damage there was relatively minor.
Pyi and other activist refugees criticized the regime for focusing its efforts on a referendum Saturday to adopt a new constitution instead of on helping cyclone victims.
The constitution would guarantee continued military rule of the country.
The military hopes that adopting a constitution will ease political pressure from the international community over its human rights abuses and detention of political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The regime postponed the election for two weeks in the area hardest hit by the cyclone, but balloting will be held as scheduled in the rest of the country. Critics contend that the election is rigged.
“The military government is going ahead with the referendum because they only care about themselves,” said Pyi, a leader of the group Friends of Free Burma. “They really want this referendum to go ahead so they can legitimize their rule.”
Nyunt Than, a Burmese political refugee who lives near San Francisco, said he also has relatives in the delta region and is worried that they may not have survived.
“The people in Burma are already on the edge of survival,” he said. “Many are living hand to mouth, struggling to live daily. This cyclone hit without any warning or preparation -- we are devastated.”
Nyunt Than, who heads an activist group called the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, said he believes that the toll will be several times higher than the official figure of 22,000. “The regime is notorious,” he said. “They always lie.”
Aung Din, a former student activist who spent four years in a Burmese prison before fleeing in 1993, said many lives could have been saved.
“I am really, really mad at this military government,” he said. “People are being killed not only by the cyclone but by the regime because of their handling of the disaster.”
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, said the advancing threat from the cyclone was so clear that some foreign embassies evacuated personnel before the storm hit.
“With sufficient preparation I believe we could have saved many lives,” he said. “The number of casualties would have been much lower.”