U.S. fears 100,000 may die; France suggests humanitarian invasion
BANGKOK, THAILAND - Small quantities of drinking water, food, tents and other vital supplies reached Myanmar's devastated Irrawaddy Delta region Wednesday, as bodies floated uncollected in swollen rivers and sea-flooded rice paddies five days after a cyclone roared through.Survivors, speaking in video interviews, gave harrowing accounts of clinging to palm tree trunks to escape swirling floodwaters, then escaping to high ground in rickety boats, the Associated Press reported. A U.S. diplomat said that the death toll, now tentatively at least 22,000, could reach 100,000.
As evidence mounted of long-term damage to one of the world's premier rice-producing zones, international aid agencies expressed new frustration that a huge operation to help the estimated 1 million survivors is being held up by military rulers' reluctance to let foreign relief experts into the country.
Four Asian citizens who are part of a U.N. emergency team were cleared by the government to enter Myanmar, also known as Burma, on Thursday. But a fifth member, a Westerner, was denied permission, and about 40 others remained uncleared, the United Nations said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the government to speed the arrival of workers and supplies "in every way possible."
"The government authorities have never had to deal with a disaster on this scale before, and it is imperative that the lessons from other major disasters can be applied rapidly, rather than having to be re-learnt," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As impatience mounted, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, proposed invoking a newly established U.N. doctrine known as "responsibility to protect" in order to deliver aid directly to people without waiting for official approval. France pressed the idea at a Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday. But China, Russia, South Africa and Vietnam blocked the initiative on grounds that the council -- which deals with threats to international peace and security -- had no business meddling in a domestic crisis. Some U.N. officials voiced irritation with the proposal. "I'm not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option at this particular moment," said John Holmes, the U.N.'s chief emergency coordinator. "I'm not sure it would be helpful to the people we're actually trying to help." Myanmar is also known as Burma. Red tape or astrology?
Shortly after the disaster, the Myanmar military authorities said they would welcome international help. No one knows whether the continuing delays are caused by the generals having trouble overcoming their traditional xenophobia, particularly towards Westerners, or by simple bureaucracy.
The ruling generals are also known to consult astrologers before making a decision.
The Myanmar government has said the cyclone killed at least 22,000 people, with another 40,000 missing.
Shari Villarosa, head of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, told reporters Wednesday she was hearing indications that the death toll may rise to 100,000, the Associated Press reported.
Despite the continuing uncertainty, the Rome-based World Food Program has sent four aircraft containing 45 metric tons of high-energy biscuits and other supplies from storage facilities in Bangladesh, Italy, United Arab Emirates.
Staff members of WFP, which has long operated non-emergency programs in Myanmar, worked with private relief personnel to distribute some 90 tons of rice to destitute civilians on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
City residents are facing the prospect of weeks without electricity, a worsening shortage of drinking water, and spiraling food prices, as authorities slowly begin the massive task of cleaning up and repairing the city's shattered infrastructure. According to the government, 671 people were killed in and around the city.Middle class seethes
State-controlled newspapers have appealed for patience and public understanding of the challenge confronting the authorities, while state TV has aired images of soldiers delivering aid goods. But among the colonial-era former capital's middle class residents, anger is growing at the military, which many people see as slow to respond to the catastrophe.
Five days after the storm, many residents are still busily working to clear away decades-old trees that once lined streets but that now choke them. "Around my neighborhood, the men are going out with saws and choppers from the kitchen," said Ma Thanegi, a prominent Myanmar writer, in a telephone interview.
Ludu Sein Win, a retired journalist, said in a telephone interview that "in the past, if one person came out holding a poster for a protest, dozens and dozens of soldiers and police came out in five minutes. But now nobody can help us. They say we have to do everything by ourselves." A total blackout
City workers have begun the massive job of restoring the electricity system, which was totally knocked out by the cyclone, with virtually all power poles uprooted.
Without electricity, water pumps can't run, leading households to scramble for clean drinking water.
Many of Yangon's more affluent residents have long relied on small, diesel-fueled generators to provide electricity during the long power outages that plagued the city even before the disaster. Such generators can run water pumps -- if there's fuel, which is now running short.
Water trucks are selling to poorer families, but at high prices. Food prices too have risen fast in local markets, putting a huge burden on poor families.
But Ma Thanegi said she believes it is unfair for middle-class Yangon residents to gripe, given the unprecedented scale of the disaster.
"The government can't be helping the people rich enough to have phones," she said.
"There are a lot of people without homes, with nothing at all. I think the government is doing the best they can with the resources, expertise and technical support they have. There is no experience of anything on this scale before."