Official Myanmar death toll increases to 78,000

Friday, May 16, 2008

State run television in Myanmar has reported that the death toll from the recent cyclone has increased dramatically to 77,738. In addition to this, 55,917 people are still officially missing.

In what are admittedly rough estimates, the United Nations (UN) estimates that more than 100,000 have died, while the International Red Cross projects 128,000 deaths. At least 10,000 people died just in Bogale Township in the Pyapon District of the country.

Image: Robert A. Rohde.

The United Nations has reported that 2.5 million people are homeless, or in need of help in the Irrawaddy Delta.

The military junta that governs the country says that it can handle relief operations and that they are going well. It is still turning down international offers to transport aid directly to the affected areas. According to state television, Prime Minister Thein Sein said, "We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage."

"Time is life," said Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development & Humanitarian Aid to reporters at Bangkok International Airport in Thailand. "No government in the world can tackle such a problem alone. This is a major catastrophe."

Michel was returning from a trip to Yangon where he was unsuccessful at urging the junta to allow direct aid despite its pride and paranoia about the outside world.

Aid groups, including UN agencies, say only a fraction of the required relief is getting through and, unless the situation improves, thousands more lives are at risk.

According to The New York Times, the United States and some European allies had considered a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for "humanitarian intervention" in Myanmar, which would give authorization for a relief mission without approval of the military authorities in Myanmar. The idea was dismissed after it became clear that China would veto any such resolution.

The US has a assembled number of ships, helicopters, transport airplanes and marines in the region, ready to assist in cyclone relief if given approval by the government of Myanmar. US officials say that helicopters can bring in assistance to areas inland from the coast and further help distribute supplies across the country. Myanmar has approved fewer than 20 cargo planes to bring supplies to the capital, Yangon.

Than Shwe has twice refused to converse with Ban Ki-moon, pictured here in 2007.
Image: Agência Brasil.

At the United Nations Headquarters, a row occurred when Myanmar's ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Tint Swe, interrupted the French ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert during a speech to the General Assembly. He accused France of sending a warship to Myanmar.

"It's not true," Ripert said. While the ship is operated by the French Navy, it is not a warship but a ship carrying 1500 tonnes of food and medicine, Ripert insisted. It also has small boats to reach the flooded Irrawaddy Delta. The ship will reach the coast of Myanmar on Saturday, awaiting approval to deliver aid.

Meanwhile, the UN is sending John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, to make contact with Myanmar's reclusive military leaders to improve UN access to the hardest-hit areas.

According to UN spokesperson, Michèle Montas, Holmes will arrive in Myanmar on Sunday. He will be carrying a letter from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Senior General Than Shwe, who has twice previously refused to converse with Ban.