Powerful cyclone kills at least 351 in Myanmar



Residents of Myanmar’s biggest city lit candles on Monday, lined up to buy water and hacked their way through trees felled in a cyclone that killed more than 350 people, destroyed thousands of homes and caused widespread power cuts.

Older citizens said they had never seen Yangon, a city of some 6.5 million, so devastated in their lifetimes.

Despite the havoc wreaked by tropical cyclone Nargis across wide swaths of the Southeast Asian country on Saturday, the government indicated that a referendum on the country’s draft constitution would proceed as planned on May 10.

“It’s only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote,” the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said on Monday.

Pro-democracy groups in the country and many international critics have branded the constitution as merely a tool for the military’s continued grip on power.

Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and squashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.

The Foreign Ministry called resident ambassadors to a meeting on Monday and some diplomats said they expected the government to request foreign emergency assistance.

Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was doing little to help victims after Saturday’s storm, only clearing streets where the ruling elite resided but leaving residents to cope on their own in most other areas.

“Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?” a trishaw driver, who refused to be identified for fear of retribution, said on Sunday. “They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity.”

Residents, as well as Buddhist monks from the city’s many monasteries, banded together on Monday, wielding axes and knives to clear roads of tree trunks and branches torn off by the cyclone’s 190kph winds.

With the city’s already unstable electricity supply virtually nonfunctional, citizens lined up to buy candles, which doubled in price, as well as water since a lack of electricity-driven pumps left most households dry. Some walked to the city’s lakes to wash.

Hotels and richer families were using private generators but only sparingly, given the soaring price of fuel.

Public transport was almost at a standstill and vehicles on the road had to cope with navigating without traffic lights. Many stayed away from their jobs, either because they could not find transportation or because they had to seek food and shelter for their families.

“Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us,” said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand. With his shanty town house destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to the many homeless.

His entire morning was taken up with looking for water and some food to buy, ending up with three chicken eggs that cost double the normal price.

Airlines announced that Yangon’s international airport had re-opened for foreign and domestic flights on Monday.

Most telephone landlines, mobile phones and internet connections were down.

With the city plunged into almost total darkness overnight, security concerns mounted, and many shops sold their goods through partially opened doors or iron grills. Looting was reported at several fresh food markets, where thieves took vegetables and other items.

At least 351 people were killed, including 162 who lived on Haing Gyi island off the country’s southwest coast, military-run Myaddy television station reported. Many of the others died in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.

“The Irrawaddy delta was hit extremely hard not only because of the wind and rain but because of the storm surge,” said Chris Kaye, the UN’s acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon. “The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened.”

State television reported that in the Irrawaddy’s Labutta township, 75 per cent of the buildings had collapsed.

The UN planned to send teams on Monday to assess the damage, Kaye said. Initial assessment efforts had been hampered by roads clogged with debris and downed phone lines, he said.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticised for human rights abuses and suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

The Forum for Democracy in Burma and other dissident groups outside of Myanmar urged the military junta on Sunday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone – something it has been reluctant to do in the past.