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A disaster in Myanmar

Reuters, May 5 2008

Perhaps 13,000 people are killed, and a great many more are hurt and homeless, as a cyclone strikes Myanmar

BANGKOK, Thailand -- JUST a few days before the military dictators who run Myanmar (Burma) were to conduct a bogus referendum to justify a new constitution entrenching their brutal rule, an even worse misfortune has struck the benighted South-East Asian country.

<< A Myanmar Buddhist Monk makes his way past a fallen tree following a devastating cyclone, Sunday, May 4, 2008, in Yangon (AP)

On the night of Friday May 2nd and continuing on Saturday morning a terrifying cyclone, the worst storm in living memory, struck the regions around the main city, Yangon, flattening entire villages with winds of up to 120mph (190kph).

It took until Monday night for the extent of the disaster to become clear, when the government admitted that at least 10,000 people have been killed, a further 3,000 are missing, and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless.

Electricity and drinking-water supplies have been wiped out in many areas. Many who survived the storm are now vulnerable to deadly disease. It looks like being the worst natural disaster to hit Asia since the tsunami that killed around a quarter of a million people in December 2004.

Myanmar’s security forces are quick on the scene and ruthlessly efficient when it comes to suppressing protests such as last year’s monk-led demonstrations. But they are likely to be deeply inadequate at organising rescue operations now that the people need their help. The job will thus largely fall to international aid agencies.

The government, sensibly, has said it will welcome foreign aid, showing a small glint of humanity and gaining some credit from the outside world. However, it is wise never to overestimate the common sense or underestimate the callousness of this, one of the world’s most paranoid regimes. It remains unclear if the government is willing to allow in extensive aid. On Monday night, as the extent of the devastation was revealed, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said the government had given aid agencies a “cautious green light” to start sending help.

Several neighbouring countries have been quick to offer assistance. India and Thailand - both of them deservedly criticised for cosying up to the regime for the sake of getting access to Myanmar’s rich oil and gas resources - are sending food, medicines and other supplies. Although Western countries have recently tightened their sanctions against the Burmese government, they are likely to be more than willing to send substantial aid.

The disaster may have ill effects well beyond Myanmar’s borders. UN agencies such as the WFP are already suffering huge strains on their finances because of the soaring cost of rice and other food staples. Having another big emergency on their hands may force them to divert scarce resources from other needy parts. Worse, the cyclone, which hit Myanmar’s main rice-growing areas, may intensify the worldwide panic over scarce rice supplies that have led to food riots in dozens of countries.

When Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 it was the world’s biggest rice exporter and one of Asia’s most developed countries. The army, in power since 1962, has overseen a dramatic decline and it is now one of the continent’s poorest states. It still produces a modest surplus of rice overall, although the army’s tight restrictions on the freedom of movement mean people in some areas go hungry while there is rice to spare elsewhere. The government had agreed to supply tens of thousands of tonnes of rice to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but, the WFP says, it is now unclear if it will be able to do so.

So far, the government is maintaining that it will proceed with its referendum on a new constitution, which the superstitious junta has scheduled for the “auspicious” date of Saturday May 10th. The constitution, scripted during a drawn-out and farcical process overseen by the generals, will give them the power to continue intervening in politics at will, if and when there is a nominally civilian government. It would also reserve 25% of parliamentary seats for army officers, giving them a veto over constitutional changes.

It is hard to see how they could hold a proper vote amid such devastation—but then it never was going to be a proper vote anyway. There have been many reports of people being coerced to vote “yes” and intimidated if they have dared to call for a “no” vote. Maybe as the extent of the disaster sinks in, the generals will treat the storm as an ill omen and postpone the voting.

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Myanmar Cyclone Disaster Fast Facts

Toll as at May 9, 2008

Dead (official)
Missing (official) 41,054
Dead (US estimate) 100,000 plus
Homeless (UN estimate) 1 million- plus

International contributors

$10 million
$3 million
UNITED STATES $3 million
AUSTRALIA $2.8 million
$2 million in aid.
CANADA $2 million
INDONESIA $1 million
SPAIN $775,000
GERMANY $775,000
CHINA $500,000
FRANCE $320,000
GREECE $300,000
JAPAN $267,570
THAILAND $100,000
$2.1 million
SRI LANKA $25,000

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