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Aid workers warn of 'unimaginable tragedy'

Desperate cyclone survivors poured out of Irrawaddy delta in search of food, water and medicine as aid groups said thousands more will die if supplies got delayed.

world Updated: May 11, 2008 13:42 IST
Aung Hla Tun

Desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis poured out of Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta on Sunday in search of food, water and medicine as aid groups said thousands more people will die if emergency supplies do not get through soon.

Buddhist temples and high schools in towns on the outskirts of Nargis's trail of destruction are now makeshift refugee centres for women, children and the elderly -- some of the 1.5 million people left clinging to survival by the storm.

The reclusive military government is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, but has made it very clear it will not let in the foreign logistics teams needed to transport the aid as fast as possible into the inundated delta.

"Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there's going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.

In the delta town of Labutta, where 80 percent of homes were destroyed, the authorities were providing just one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official told Reuters.

The scenes are the same across the delta, where as many as 100,000 people are feared dead in the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh.

"We have 900 people here, but we only have 300 lunch boxes. We gave it to the women and children first. The men still have not had any food," said one woman at a relief centre in the town of Myaung Mya, 100 km (60 miles) west of Yangon.

"More are coming every day," she said.

"Patriotic duty"

Despite the devastation, the junta has kept its focus firmly on its seven-step "roadmap to democracy" that is meant to culminate in multi-party elections in 2010 and bring an end to nearly five decades of military rule.

State media have not yet revealed anything about the results of Saturday's referendum although there is no doubt about the final outcome of the vote on a new, army-drafted constitution that enshrines the military's grip on power.

In the run-up to the vote, army-controlled newspapers and television pumped out a relentless barrage of propaganda telling the former Burma's 53 million people it was their "patriotic duty" to approve the charter.

"I voted yes. It was what I was asked to do," 57-year-old U Hlaing told Reuters in the town of Hlegu, northwest of the former capital Yangon, where voting has been delayed by two weeks. It has also been delayed in worst-hit delta areas.

Protests against referendum

Protesters in Japan, Malaysia and Thailand denounced the junta for holding the referendum.

"People are dying and they still want to go on with this artificial democracy," said Than Tun Aung, a refugee who led the protest in Kuala Lumpur.

Even before Cyclone Nargis hit on the night of May 2, groups opposed to military rule, and foreign governments led by the United States, had denounced the vote as an attempt by the military to legitimise its 46-year grip on power.

The government's feeble response to the disaster has only fed cynicism about the junta's determination to proceed with their "roadmap to democracy" leading to multi-party elections in 2010.

The Bush administration on Saturday sidestepped directly criticising the constitutional vote and instead said the focus of the junta should be on relief efforts.

Questioned by reporters, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to repeat stiff criticism the United States has leveled against Myanmar's leaders for a vote seen as solidifying the military's grip on the country.

"Our position on the referendum is well-known," Johndroe told reporters. "Our focus now is on getting assistance to the people of Burma and we would certainly hope that is the focus of the Burmese government as well."

The United Nations appealed for $187 million in aid, even though it is still not confident the food, water and tents flown in will make it to those most in need because of the junta's reluctance to admit international relief workers.

Myanmar state media says 23,350 people died and 37,019 are missing after Cyclone Nargis roared up the Irrawaddy delta the night of May 2 whipping up a wall of sea-water that hammered everything in its path.

Health experts warned that a "second disaster" loomed from diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria, even if survivors do manage to find food and shelter.

State-run TV in Myanmar warned of "foreign interference" in a repeatedly broadcast message on Saturday urging people to vote yes for the constitution.

Most people probably did just that. Of the 20 people Reuters interviewed near polling stations in Hlegu on Saturday, only two admitted to voting no. Even then it was in a whisper and with a nervous glance over the shoulder first.