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BURMA: Did Cyclone Nargis Kill 300,000 People?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 24 2008 (IPS) - Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis crashed through Burma’s populous Irrawaddy Delta, the country’s military regime has been more forthcoming about the number of buffaloes and chickens that perished than on human casualties.

For now, the official human toll in Burma, or Myanmar, stands at 77,738 deaths and 55,917 missing. This figure was revealed in a small story that appeared at the bottom of page six in the May 17 edition of the ‘New Light of Myanmar,’ a mouthpiece of the regime.

That figure was almost double of what the notoriously secretive junta had revealed nearly 10 days after the powerful cyclone struck in the early hours of May 3. Since the country’s worst natural disaster in living memory, the official figures of dead and missing people have been revised at least four times.

Some international humanitarian agencies have estimated the death toll to be over 130,000. Yet, even that number may be much lower than what a few civilian organisations working closely with the junta estimate, according to information revealed to IPS.

By the end of the first week, information gathered by the junta and discussed among a small group of senior military officers in the former capital Rangoon had put the death toll as high as 300,000, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

‘’They were shocked by the scale of the disaster and that is why they clamped down on information getting out and outsiders, like foreign aid workers, going into the delta,’’ he added.

This revelation was made a few days before another assessment of the affected areas was made by 18 humanitarian agencies in Burma. The latter estimated that at least 220,000 people are reported to be missing, in addition to 101,682 possible deaths, a local aid worker close to the agencies told IPS.

Burmese familiar with the terrain and demographic composition in the delta are not surprised by the possibility of deaths on such a monumental scale. ‘’Some people say that the death toll in only Bogale town and the surrounding villages could be as high as 100,000,’’ Win Min, a Burmese national security expert who grew up in the delta, told IPS. ‘’At least 36 villages close to Bogale town were flattened.’’

Bogale was one among seven townships that faced the brunt of the cyclone, which had wind speeds of 190 km per hour, churned up a wall of sea water 3.5 m high and swept 40 km inland on the flat terrain of the Irrawaddy Delta. The other badly affected townships were Labutta, Mawlamyinegyun and Kyaiklat.

The area that was affected is vast, says Steve Marshall, a senior member of International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) office in Rangoon. ‘’We are talking of an area of 82,000 sq km, almost the size of Austria.’’

What is more, the delta has the highest population density not only in Burma but is also very high when compared with the rest of Asia. There are 183 people per sq km in the delta, while in the rest of the country it is 72 people per sq km. ‘’Over all in Asia the population density is 126 people per sq km, so the number in the delta is fairly high,’’ a U.N. population expert said in an interview.

The junta, in fact, confirmed how populous the delta is during a briefing Thursday in Rangoon to discuss relief and reconstruction efforts. It was to some 200 people from a broad constituency of diplomats, international humanitarian groups and United Nations officials.

There are 7.3 million people living in the cyclone-hit areas, of which four million people in the delta have been affected, the junta revealed, according to a diplomatic source present at the meeting. Another 1.5 million were affected in and around Rangoon, it added.

This official figure of the cyclone affected – 5.5 million – is more than twice the number what the international humanitarian groups fear have been affected. All last week, humanitarian groups had said the number of the affected was estimated to be 2.5 million people.

This latest figure of the affected people is a dramatic jump from the numbers the junta said were affected three days after the cyclone struck. The initial estimate was 975,858 people, according to information revealed to IPS.

But while the junta chooses to be selective about the human cost of the cyclone, it has been more candid about the precise number of buffaloes and chickens that died in the delta, a terrain that supplies Burma vast quantities of food such as rice and meat.

The junta told the foreigners assembled at the Thursday morning meeting that 136,804 buffaloes had died, of which three were ‘’government-owned buffaloes,’’ says Penny Lawrence, international director for the British humanitarian agency Oxfam, who attended that two-hour briefing.

Lawrence and the rest of the humanitarian community were also informed during this meeting – which was chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Thein Shien – that 1,250,194 chickens had perished in the disaster.

‘’They (the junta) think they know what happened and the statistics they are sharing are very accurate,’’ Lawrence told journalists on Saturday morning. ‘’The presentation lasted an hour and it was followed by eight questions.’’

The junta is hoping that the military precision with which it rolled out the numbers of dead buffaloes and chickens -among other official statistics from the disaster -will move the international community to pour money to help rebuild the shattered delta.

Moreover, the junta wants the 10.7 billion US dollars in foreign aid money to be channelled through official coffers, a request that poses a challenge to international donors, given the long history of the regime impoverishing its people despite the country’s impressive earnings from its ample natural resources, like gas.

Little wonder why Burmese living in exile, who are angered by the regime’s efforts to cover up the death toll and the hurdles placed in the way of assisting victims, say that the junta smells a windfall from so much death and devastation in the delta.

‘’This is the usual way of the military regime,’’ Sann Aung, a cabinet minister in Burma’s democratically-elected government forced into exile, told IPS. ‘’They never miss an opportunity to exploit the suffering of the people to profit for themselves.’’

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