With the death toll rising and the scale of the devastation wrought by cyclone Nargis becoming evident, the Burmese people are fighting against the onset of disease, for clean water and food, and a response from the nation’s xenophobic military leadership which can politely be described as woefully inadequate. Could a situation that approaches the 2004 tsunami in scale become worse, not through the efforts of mother nature, but those of a nation’s government?

Scale of the tragedy

Every day, the extent of the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis has been revised upwards, from alarming to grim to disastrous — and yesterday it became clear that this is not just a local, but an historic catastrophe. Foreign aid workers in Rangoon have concluded that as many as 50,000 people died in last Saturday’s cyclone, and two to three million are homeless, the worst disaster in the country’s modern history, and of a scale comparable with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. – Kenneth Denby, Times Online

State officials confirmed on Tuesday night that 22,000 people were killed by the cyclone, with 41,000 missing, a drastic increase that made the disaster the worst to hit Asia since the 2004 tsunami, which left some 230,000 people dead. Other reports suggested that Saturday’s death toll would rise significantly. Already, it has escalated quickly: from 351 on Saturday, to 4,000 on Monday morning, to 10,000 that night. By Tuesday morning, state-run television stated that 10,000 people alone had been killed in the town of Bogalay. Speaking from a phone on the Thai-Burmese border Tuesday, Nyo Myint, of the National League for Democracy party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says the death toll, calculated by reports from party sources across southern Burma, is more than 100,000. – David Montero, Christian Science Monitor

Reaction of the Burmese leadership

It is a fair assumption that the people’s suffering is not the junta’s primary concern. After all, this is a regime that lays waste to hundreds of villages every year in the course of an unending civil war, creating half a million displaced people even before the cyclone struck. It is far more likely that the generals recognise the crisis as the greatest threat to their regime since the army seized power in 1962. – Graeme Jenkins, Telegraph

At least one top government official, U Aung Thaung, the industry minister, has not bothered to go to the areas affected by the cyclone but has just carried on campaigning for Yes votes in the coming referendum in Taunghsin township of Mandalay. Furthermore, households who didn’t send one member to attend the meetings called to support the draft have been told that they will be fined 2000 Kyat (around US$ 1.60), in some places, 2500. – Eyewitness accounts, Rule of Lords

Relief efforts

It’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures. India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access. – The Acorn

US officials said the US had two naval ships conducting disaster response exercises, loaded with fresh drinking water and temporary shelters, two days’ sailing from the disaster area. “We’re prepared to help move US Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, and to help stabilise the situation,” Bush said. “Let the US come and help you help the people.” In Bangkok, UN officials were waiting anxiously for visas so they could begin a potentially massive relief operation. “The OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] team has assembled in Bangkok and is ready to deploy as soon as possible,” said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the OCHA. “We are waiting for the green light on visas.” — Reuters Alertnet

The scale of the disaster in the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation had drawn a rare acceptance of outside help from the diplomatically isolated generals, who spurned such approaches after the 2004 tsunami that killed 220,000 people in the region. But last night, Social Welfare Minister Maung Maung Swe said foreign aid teams wanting to enter the country to help with the relief effort would have to negotiate with the regime to be granted access. “For expert teams from overseas to come here, they have to negotiate with the Foreign Ministry and our senior authorities,” he said in Rangoon. — Mark Dodd, The Australian

The referendum

The idea that the Burmese people were at any stage “eagerly looking forward” to the opportunity to participate in a sham election was always fantasy; in the wake of the cyclone, it is positively surreal. Right now, the Burmese people are eagerly looking forward only to emergency aid – clean water, food, medicines and other supplies. They are also painfully aware that they can expect little help from a military regime whose response to the latest tragedy to befall them is both uncaring and ineffective. — Aung Zaw, OpenDemocracy

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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