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    Southeast Asia
     May 28, 2008
Murky measures in Myanmar's disaster
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - Over three weeks since Cyclone Nargis crashed through Myanmar's populous Irrawaddy Delta, the country's military regime has been more forthcoming about the number of buffaloes and chickens that perished than on human casualty and missing counts.

The official human toll in Myanmar, or Burma, now stands at 77,738 deaths and 55,917 missing. This figure was revealed in a small story that appeared at the bottom of page six in a May 17 of the New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece of the regime.

That figure was almost double of what the notoriously secretive

 

junta had revealed nearly 10 days after the powerful cyclone struck in the early hours of May 3. Since the country's worst natural disaster in living memory, the official figures of dead and missing people have been revised at least four times.

Some international humanitarian agencies have estimated the death toll to be over 130,000. Yet even that number may be much lower than what a few civilian organizations working closely with the junta estimate, according to information revealed to Inter Press Service (IPS).

By the end of the first week, information gathered by the junta and discussed among a small group of senior military officers in the former capital Yangon had put the death toll as high as 300,000, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. "They were shocked by the scale of the disaster and that is why they clamped down on information getting out and outsiders, like foreign aid workers, going into the delta," he added.

This revelation was made a few days before another assessment of the affected areas was made by 18 humanitarian agencies in Myanmar. The latter estimated that at least 220,000 people are reported to be missing, in addition to 101,682 possible deaths, a local aid worker close to the agencies told IPS.

It's unclear how many of those additional deaths could have been averted if the junta had allowed a rapid multinational response to the disaster. The junta stands widely accused of criminal negligence in its initial response to the disaster, including its decision to bar foreign aid workers from entering the country. Many international humanitarian organizations were outraged when the junta declared its search and rescue mission complete barely two weeks after the killer storm first hit and declared it was concentrating on reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Burmese familiar with the terrain and demographic composition in the delta are not surprised by the possibility of deaths on such a monumental scale. "Some people say that the death toll in only Bogale town and the surrounding villages could be as high as 100,000," Win Min, a Burmese national security expert who grew up in the delta, told IPS. "At least 36 villages close to Bogale town were flattened."

Bogale was one among seven townships that faced the brunt of the cyclone, which had wind speeds of 190 kilometers per hour, churned up a wall of sea water 3.5 meters high and swept 40 kilometers inland on the flat terrain of the Irrawaddy Delta. The other badly affected townships were Labutta, Mawlamyinegyun and Kyaiklat.

The area that was affected is vast, says Steve Marshall, a senior member of the United Nations-affiliated International Labor Organization's office in Yangon. "We are talking of an area of 82,000 square kilometers, almost the size of Austria."

What is more, the delta has the highest population density in Myanmar and is also very high when compared with the rest of Asia. There are 183 people per square kilometer in the delta, while in the rest of the country there are 72 people per square kilometer. "Over all in Asia the population density is 126 people per square kilometer, so the number in the delta is fairly high," a UN population expert said in an interview.

The junta, in fact, confirmed how populous the delta is during a briefing last Thursday in Yangon to discuss relief and reconstruction efforts with some 200 people from a broad constituency of diplomats, international humanitarian groups and UN officials.

There are an estimated 7.3 million people living in the cyclone-hit areas, of which four million people in the delta have been affected, the junta revealed, according to a diplomatic source present at the meeting. Another 1.5 million were affected in and around Yangon, it added.

Double the death toll
This official figure of the cyclone affected - 5.5 million - is more than twice the number of people the international humanitarian groups fear had been affected. Last week humanitarian groups had said the number of the affected was estimated to be around 2.5 million people.

This latest figure of the affected people is a dramatic jump from the numbers the junta said were affected three days after the cyclone struck. The initial estimate was 975,858 people, according to information revealed to IPS.

But while the junta chooses to be selective about the human cost of the cyclone, it has been more candid about the precise number of buffaloes and chickens that died in the delta, a terrain that supplies Myanmar vast quantities of food such as rice and meat.

The junta told the foreigners assembled at the Thursday morning meeting that 136,804 buffaloes had died, of which three were "government-owned buffaloes" says Penny Lawrence, international director for the British humanitarian agency Oxfam, who attended the two-hour briefing.

Lawrence and the rest of the humanitarian community were also informed during this meeting, which was chaired by Prime Minister General Thein Sein, the junta's point man for the disaster relief effort that 1,250,194 chickens had perished in the disaster.

"They [the junta] think they know what happened and the statistics they are sharing are very accurate," Lawrence told journalists on Saturday morning. "The presentation lasted an hour and it was followed by eight questions."

The junta apparently hopes that the military precision with which it rolled out the numbers of dead buffaloes and chickens - among other official statistics from the disaster - will move the international community to pour money to help rebuild the shattered delta.

The junta had requested US$11.7 billion in foreign aid in the run-up to Sunday's pledge meeting held in Yangon and attended by delegates from 50 different countries. The actual commitments made at that meeting were considerably lower at between $50 and $150 million, earmarked for relief activities rather than reconstruction.

Potentially larger donor commitments have been predicated on the regime first opening access to foreign aid workers to the worst-hit delta regions. After an independent assessment is made, a new flash appeal will be made to foreign donors on June 12, according to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary general Surin Pitsuwan.

ASEAN will deploy a rapid assessment team to Myanmar on June 30 after a two-day training session in Jakarta, according to Surin. The junta's initial $11.7 billion proposal, including an apparent request that aid money be channeled through official coffers, poses a challenge to international donors given the regime's long history of impoverishing its people despite the country's impressive earnings from natural resources and energy revenues.

It is little wonder why Burmese living in exile, who so far have been angered by the regime's apparent efforts to cover up the death toll and placed hurdles in the way of efforts to assist victims, contend that the junta senses a potential international windfall from so much death and devastation in the delta.

"This is the usual way of the military regime," said Sann Aung, a cabinet minister in Myanmar's democratically-elected government forced into exile. "They never miss an opportunity to exploit the suffering of the people to profit for themselves."

(Inter Press Service with additional reporting by Asia Times Online.)


Thai ties bind Myanmar cyclone relief (May 24, '08)

Aid pries Myanmar's closed door (May 22, '08)

No foreigners, no cameras for Myanmar (May 15, '08)


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