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Cyclone Help For Irrawaddy Delta Survivors

Cyclone Help For Irrawaddy Delta Survivors


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Wounded and terrified survivors waited for help on Tuesday, picking through flimsy bamboo, thatch and wooden wreckage in villages flattened by Cyclone Nargis, which Burma's military regime said killed more than 22,000 people on the exposed Irrawaddy River delta.

International and local relief agencies, medical teams, food convoys and clearance teams grappled with paperwork, debris-covered roads, swollen rivers and a lack of telecommunications, unable to reach most victims along Burma's worst-hit southern coast.

Punishing winds and horizontal sheets of rain, lifted from the warm Bay of Bengal, caused death and destruction in a diagonal path across the delta after hitting the coast at noon on Saturday and shoving northeast past Bogalay town toward the port of Rangoon 12 hours later.

The weakening storm has since crept further northeast across mountainous terrain on the Burma-Thailand border, but survivors stuck on the delta are now in danger of disease, hunger and neglect.

Amid sweltering heat and humidity, mosquitoes, polluted drinking water and a lack of electricity, many people struggled on their own, helping neighbors if they could, while mulling the destruction of rice fields, fishing boats, and basic infrastructure.

International aid teams sought permission on Tuesday to immediately enter the xenophobic nation, which is often loathe to allow entry to people from nations it considers as enemies -- especially America and Burma's former colonial master, Britain.

Washington has spent the past few decades intentionally crippling Burma's economy by imposing economic sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation, in a failed bid to force the military regime to allow democracy. U.S. President George W. Bush, and first lady Laura Bush, have now offered to help Burma's cyclone victims, but the Bushes couched the U.S. offer in language criticizing the regime for allegedly failing to warn and protect its people from the storm.

"We know already that they are very inept," Mrs. Bush said on Monday.

Burma did not immediately accept Washington's offer, and was instead depending on the U.N., Thailand, India, China and other friendlier sources.

"The storm news was broadcast two or three days in advance," the regime said on Tuesday, appearing to defend itself from U.S. criticism. "The news about the coming storm was telecast, or broadcast, continuously on TV and radio," the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said, paraphrasing Foreign Minister U Nyan Win's remarks to foreign diplomats in Rangoon.

"The arrival time of the storm was at night, and therefore there was vision limit. There were no high hills on the sea sides. Due to the 12-foot high sea tide, some local people were not be able to move from their areas.

"As a result, there were deaths and destruction," the paper said. "Items that are in need are tents, plastics, tarpaulin, corrugated iron sheets, medicines, instant food, blankets, clothes, nails and communication equipment," the diplomats were told.

Burma suffers under one of the world's most repressive regimes -- and allegedly also one of the world's most corrupt -- according to diplomats, human rights groups and others who have monitored the country's lopsided economy which allows the ruling generals to prosper while most people remain poor.

U.S.-led sanctions against most international bank transactions and credit cards in Burma, means foreign cyclone assistance may require a large-scale use of cash for transfers and purchases of local goods.

Delivery of huge amounts of valuable food, medicine and equipment may also be routed through the military's hands.

The urgency may allow unscrupulous people to divert items for their own profit -- a problem also encountered in other countries during emergency situations.

Officials in Burma must not "try to profit from others' nightmare," the Asian Human Rights Commission said on Tuesday. "There is no room for corruption or moneymaking amid the destruction," the Hong Kong-based, non-governmental organization said. Burma's generals, however, may fear foreign aid groups will use the crisis to insert personnel and equipment beneficial to Burma's pro-democracy activists, minority ethnic guerrillas, and others who oppose the junta. India, which has extensive experience with Bay of Bengal cyclones battering its east coast, has meanwhile prepared two ships packed with food, medicine, tents and other material, to rescue people on the delta far from roads or airstrips.

Canada, Australia, several European countries, Japan, Singapore and China have pledged to make money and material available.

Closer to the devastation, Thailand has become an base for many international rescue teams who are loading their goods onto Thai C-130 transport planes or hoping to travel from Bangkok to Rangoon on aid missions.

The military regime in Burma, an impoverished country also known as Myanmar, said on Tuesday at least 22,000 people perished amid cyclonic winds, rain, collapsed buildings, and flash floods on the Irrawaddy delta.

It was impossible to immediately verify their numbers. International rescue teams, however, used satellite imagery to view vast swaths of land suddenly brushed barren by the cyclone, and muddy rivers dumping water across flat, silt-rich rural areas.

Those geographic indications of widespread damage could explain why so many people may have died on the densely populated delta. Unlike luckier survivors in the ravaged, urban port of Rangoon, also known as Yangon, people on the vulnerable delta mostly occupied hand-made homes which were easily destroyed.

They were also trapped on sea-level land which quickly flooded, and were unable to find boats, storm shelters, or swim against the debris-carrying currents.

"From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge," Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Rangoon, said in a statement.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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