Tue, May 06, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Hundreds of thousands homeless in Myanmar

PRIORITIES Despite the devastation wrought by a cyclone, the military junta says that it will proceed with its planned referendum on a new constitution

AGENCIES , YANGON, MYANMAR

Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without shelter and drinking water in Myanmar after a devastating cyclone tore through the Ayeyawaddy (Irrawaddy), a UN official said yesterday.

Aid agencies scrambled to deliver plastic sheeting, water and cooking equipment from stockpiles in the country.

The death toll from Cyclone Nargis over the weekend has reached 3,969, state television said yesterday, warning that thousands more may have been killed in the disaster.

More than 2,000 people were officially listed as missing, it said, adding tens of thousands more may have been killed in the remote towns of Bogalay and Labutta in the Ayeyawaddy delta.

That death toll is likely to climb as the authorities make contact with hard-hit islands and villages in the delta, the rice bowl of the country of 53 million.

“It’s clear that this is a major disaster,” said Richard Horsey, head of the UN disaster response office in Bangkok after an emergency meeting.

“How many people are affected? We know that it’s in the six figures. We know that it’s several hundred thousand needing shelter and clean drinking water, but how many hundred thousand we just don’t know,” he said.

The International Federation of the Red Cross said teams were trying to assess the damage and aid requirements in the five declared disaster zones.

“We are issuing water purification tablets, clothing, plastic sheeting, cooking utensils and hygiene items. We’re trying to mobilize portable water from local businesses,” said Michael Annear, head of Red Cross Southeast Asia disaster management unit.

“We’re preparing to send more stuff into the country. We have not been restricted,” he said.

A new policy imposed on foreign aid agencies in 2006 requires travel permits and official escorts for field trips. It also tightened rules on the transport of supplies and materials.

“That is the existing situation for international staff. The way most agencies work is they use national staff who have more freedom to move,” said Terje Skavdal, regional head of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

It is not know whether Myanmar will need to import emergency rice supplies. If it does, it is likely to inflate yet further the already sky-high prices of the staple.

The World Food Programme said it has stocks of about 500,000 tonnes inside the country, but not near Yangon.

State TV was still off the air in Yangon and clean water was becoming scarce. Most shops had sold out of candles and batteries and there was no word when power would be restored.

Despite the devastation wreaked by Nargis, the junta vowed to press ahead with its controversial referendum this weekend on a new constitution, which critics say will entrench military rule.

“We don’t want any democracy, we just want water now,” a 30-year-old man said as he lined up at a neighbor’s well.

But the junta, based in the remote new capital of Naypyidaw, insisted that “the entire people of the country are eagerly looking forward” to the referendum, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon, were she is under house arrest, was damaged, but the Nobel peace laureate was unhurt, a Myanmar official said.

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