Burma counts cost of killer cyclone

Residents in Burma’s biggest city lit candles today, 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 Rangoon, a city of around 6.5 million, so devastated in their lifetimes.

Despite the havoc wreaked by tropical cyclone Nargis across wide swathes of the south-east 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.

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.

Some in Rangoon 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.

“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 today, wielding axes and knives to clear roads of tree trunks and branches torn off by the cyclone’s 120mph winds.

With the city’s already unstable electricity supply virtually non-functional, 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 although airlines announced that Rangoon’s international airport had reopened for foreign and domestic flights today.

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.

At least 351 people were killed, including 162 who lived on Haing Gyi island off the country’s south-west 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 United Nations’ acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Rangoon. “The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened.”

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

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

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 Burma urged the military junta yesterday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone – something it has been reluctant to do in the past.

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