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Burma Cyclone Death Toll Has Risen To Nearly 4,000

By Luis Ramirez

Burma Cyclone Death Toll Nearly 4,000

State television in Burma says the death toll from Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country Saturday, has risen to nearly four-thousand. It says almost 3,000 people are missing. As VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok, the military government in Burma has not called for international assistance.

Photo released by Democratic Voice of Burma shows a fallen tree as seen on a street after tropical cyclone Nargis hit Rangoon, 04 May 2008
With some telephone lines working again and the airport at the capital, Rangoon, reopened, reports of death tolls and damage trickled out of Burma, Monday, giving a glimpse of extensive devastation in many parts of the impoverished country.

Witnesses said thousands of people were searching for missing relatives, clearing fallen trees and other debris from roads and struggling to repair their homes after fierce winds ripped off roofs in Rangoon and other cities. Much of the capital remained without electricity, Monday.

Residents complained of a slow response by the military. Monday, the government had yet to call for international assistance. Professor Win Min, an expert on Burmese politics at Chiang Mai University in neighboring Thailand, says Burma's military rulers have historically been reluctant to seek outside help in times of disaster.

"The government normally doesn't want to ask for international assistance because they don't want the people to believe that the government is not capable of helping the people," he said. "Plus, they are worried that people will give credit to the international community for solving their problems. And, they're also worried that that would be like foreign interference. Normally, they are reluctant to ask, unless there are no other options."

The storm came at a sensitive time for Burma's military junta, which is trying to build credibility in the face of international criticism over its violent crackdown last year on Buddhist monks and other mostly peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.

The government says it plans to go ahead with a constitutional referendum next Saturday. It says the vote is another step in the process of returning Burma to democracy following 46 years of military rule.

Western governments, including the United States, have called the referendum a sham because the drafting of the document excluded the country's main opposition groups.

Professor Win Min says the government is taking a risk by pushing ahead with the referendum at a time when people are struggling to survive and recover from the disaster.

"Now, people may see nothing to lose and people may even get angry that the government is not really caring about them, but just caring about the referendum," he said. "The urgent need for the people is not the referendum, but relief."

Adding to public frustration are rising prices of basic goods. Reports from Rangoon said the price of gasoline quadrupled over the last few days.

The United Nations said it was sending a disaster assessment team into the country in an effort to mobilize aid.


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