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Myanmar toll rises but relief efforts lag

Times Staff Writers

The death toll continued to climb in Myanmar as state media reported Tuesday that more than 22,000 people had died due to a weekend cyclone and more than 41,000 were missing.

Efforts to reach the victims and help the estimated 1 million people left homeless by Tropical Cyclone Nargis remained mired amid bureaucracy, logistical problems and the isolation of many affected areas.

Myanmar’s military government has signaled that it will allow international aid groups to enter the insular Southeast Asian country. But many humanitarian groups said they were still waiting for visas and the few on the ground reported shortages of drinking water, food, housing and other necessities.

State television played up the role of soldiers in recovery efforts. CNN showed images of uprooted trees, roofless houses and fishing boats driven onshore by the storm in the Irrawaddy River delta region, regarded as Myanmar’s rice bowl.

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The cyclone, which brought 120-mph winds and 12-foot storm surges, was believed to be the worst natural disaster to hit Southeast Asia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 220,000 lives. Myanmar, relatively lightly hit then, opted for financial reasons not to participate in an extensive early warning system set up afterward.

The Myanmar government backed away slightly from its earlier vow to press on with a controversial referendum Saturday on a new constitution. Unaffected areas will still vote, officials said, and hard-hit areas will be given a two-week postponement.

The nation’s generals have touted the referendum as a key step toward democracy, but the United States and other critics are skeptical that the regime would loosen its white-knuckle grip on power in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

“If they go ahead and hold it, this shows they’re out of touch with reality,” said Zarni, founder of the London-based Free Burma Coalition, who, like many Myanmar natives, uses only one name. “The young officers are more in touch with the people, but the senior leadership is in a cocoon.”

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President Bush called on Myanmar’s government to let the U.S. military help with disaster relief.

“We’re prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation,” he said as he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the regime’s nemesis, democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. “But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.”

The Bush administration announced that it had boosted its initial offer of $250,000 for relief efforts by $3 million. The money would come from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Let the United States come to help you, help the people,” Bush said in a message directed at the leaders of Myanmar.

“At the same time, of course,” he added, “we want them to live in a free society.”

In addition to worrying about international pressures, Myanmar’s leadership faces dissatisfaction at home, analysts said.

Some residents waited in lines for nine hours to buy gasoline, and at one gas station in the suburb of Sanchaung, fights broke out among weary residents after someone tried to cut in line, the Associated Press reported. A short distance away, the Dagon Ice Factory drinking water company turned people away with signs that said, “No More.”

“Where are the police? Where’s the army?” asked Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, which is based in Thailand. “They were always ready when there were demonstrations to beat up people and shoot at them, but now where are they?”

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The Associated Press reported that Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns in hard-hit Yangon used axes and long knives to clear ancient fallen trees that once lined the city’s streets. Electricity remained cut off for nearly all of the city’s 6.5 million residents.

Win Min, an exile living in Thailand, said he was extremely anxious about his friends and family in Bogalay, where state media have reported that about 10,000 people have died. Win, like thousands of others, had been trying unsuccessfully to reach loved ones by telephone.

“I’m very worried the next time I go home I may not see some of them,” said Win, who teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Bogalay, shaped like a rectangle, is largely surrounded by water, he said, making it highly vulnerable. Almost every house is constructed of old wood and woven mats that would not withstand much punishment. And the main road to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, would quickly bog down, even if it were not blocked by debris, he added, making it difficult to transport aid and medical care.

“The real question is how they’re ever going to reach the affected areas,” Win said. “I hope the government will allow foreign ships and helicopters in, but so far I haven’t seen it.”

Rashid Khalikov, director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations in New York, said that the world organization had urged Myanmar’s government to waive visas for aid workers, as Iran and Pakistan did after earthquakes in 2003 and 2005.

“So far we have not gotten visas for people we wanted to go there,” he said at a news conference. “We really hope it will happen quickly. It will help us to better aid the people when we are able to assess their needs.”

Khalikov said that the U.N. team was unable to apply for visas until Tuesday because the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, the Thai capital, was closed Monday for a holiday, and diplomats would not open it without permission from officials in Myanmar.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, citing a U.N. summary, said the most urgent needs were for plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits, food and fuel.

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She said U.S. assistance did not hinge on U.S. personnel working inside Myanmar.

“The assistance that we are providing is needs-based and it’s dependent on only us wanting to help them,” the press secretary said.

Perino said a U.S. team was in Bangkok. “But certainly the relief that the Burmese people need would be much better handled if we could get into the country.”

Analysts said the military rulers would be making a huge concession by agreeing to let in foreign humanitarian groups.

“I think this military regime totally gets that the people are angry,” said Monique Skidmore, a professor at Australian National University. “And they’re going to do what they can to be seen as helping the population. It’s really the least distasteful path at the moment.”

Last summer, the government summoned foreign diplomats to the new capital, Pyinmana, and accused them of meddling in Myanmar’s internal affairs, human rights groups said. And just last week an article appeared in the local press accusing foreigners of trying to hinder the referendum.

A ramped-up U.N. presence and the arrival of dozens of humanitarian groups in the coming days and weeks could tax the system in Myanmar on several counts, analysts said.

For one thing, there are huge logistical problems in an impoverished country with an inflexible government and where most resources are tightly controlled by the military.

It’s also unclear whether the control-obsessed regime would limit the number of aid groups allowed in based on how many trusted military officials it has with language abilities to handle and oversee the groups.

Moreover, many of the affected areas are strongholds for opposition groups that have been fighting for independence. And the economy is struggling and fragile.

“Three of the assessment teams reported very serious civil unrest around the few stores still open,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman based in Thailand with the U.N. World Food Program, which has staff members in Myanmar and hopes to get its first chartered plane into the country today. “When there was food and water for sale, large crowds were unable to obtain any, and prices are much higher.”

The sudden arrival of relatively high-paid aid workers looking for decent accommodation could further tax the system, fueling inflation. Yet the government is aware of the risks it faces in not allowing outside help.

“They are truly ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t,’ ” said Tim Huxley, the Singapore-based director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.

The crisis could provide an opportunity for outside aid groups to show low-level Myanmar government and junior military officials that they are not out to undermine the system -- a theme of state propaganda, analysts said. At best they also may be able to show through their work how resources can be distributed without corruption, nepotism or political favor.

The military, however, will almost certainly want to take credit for the relief effort, control aid distribution and get foreign agencies out of the country as soon as possible.

Although the Myanmar regime has few defenders, Zarni said, the crisis has afforded an opportunity to lead by example and to improve people-to-people contacts.

“This is a massive opportunity that should not be missed,” he said.

With a bit of luck, some analysts added, this disaster could break the extended logjam between Myanmar and the outside world, in the same way the 2004 Asian tsunami eased tensions between the Indonesian military and rebels in Aceh on the island of Sumatra.

“OK, I’m an optimist,” said Adrian Vickers, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.

“But there’s a potential that this could be the thing that breaks the deadlock.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

henry.chu@latimes.com

Magnier reported from Beijing and Chu from New Delhi.

Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to help

These are some of the aid agencies accepting contributions for assistance to those affected by the cyclone in Myanmar.

AmeriCares

88 Hamilton Ave.,

Stamford, CT 06902

(800) 486-4357

www.americares.org

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Direct Relief International

27 S. La Patera Lane,

Santa Barbara, CA 93117

(805) 964-4767

www.directrelief.org

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International Medical Corps

1919 Santa Monica Blvd.,

Suite 400,

Santa Monica, CA 90404

(800) 481-4462

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www.imcworldwide.org

International Relief Teams

Attn: Myanmar Cyclone

4560 Alvarado Canyon Road, Suite 2G,

San Diego, CA 92120

(619) 284-7979

www.irteams.org

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Operation USA

Memo “Myanmar Cyclone”

3617 Hayden Ave., Suite A,

Culver City, CA 90232

(800) 678-7255

www.opusa.org


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