While the people plead for food, the junta is handing out TV sets

Andrew Buncombe,Burma
Friday 09 May 2008 00:00 BST

People in the Burmese village of Nyung Wine, barely more than an hour outside Rangoon, are wondering why no one has visited them. Of the approximatly 200 houses close to a glittering gold pagoda next to the Kyauktan river, an estimated 185 were damaged by Cyclone Nargis. "Nobody has been to help," said a villager, U San They, as he led the way through the ruins of homes smashed by the storm that swept the Irrawaddy delta last Saturday, killing at least 23,000 people and leaving 1.5 million people at risk, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations..

In a nearby village, U Mya Wine, a bamboo dealer, said two homes occupied by members of his family had been destroyed. "I am sad," he said. "The house is damaged; there is no electricity or water. If someone came it would make me happy. But there has been no one so I am sad in my heart."

The news from the disaster experts about Burma's devastated delta region confirms the grim reality. An internal report by an international relief organisation says: "The situation at the temporary relief camps is horrific. There is no food. People have been relying on porridge. There is not enough shelter.

"People have just one set of clothes; some are even wearing jute bags. There is not enough drinking water. There are no sanitation facilities whatsoever. Many people have wounds that are not being attended. The estimated number of people in these 26 camps is 100,000."

Sheri Villarosa, the senior US diplomat in Burma, said she feared the death toll could reach 100,000.

But despite the obvious suffering, massive devastation and pressing need for urgent action, the Burmese authorities were continuing to insist yesterday that everything was under control. On the front page of the New Light of Myanmar – a state-run government publication – was a picture of the Prime Minister, Thein Sein, handing over 20 television sets and 10 DVD players as part of the "relief" operation. This, in a region where there has been no electricity since the 130mph storm struck.

What is required is water, food, medicine and sanitation facilities for hundreds of thousands of people, and an ability to deliver it to the remote areas where the storm did the most damage. Instead, what the government is providing is obstruction and further delay. Although the authorities finally gave clearance yesterday for the first major international airlift of food, relief organisations complain that the junta is still failing to co-operate and will not even arrange visas for dozens of aid workers.

"There is a small time frame with any disaster before things go pear-shaped and we are very close to that point at the moment," said Christopher Kaye, the country director of the UN's World Food Programme. "There are stocks of food in the country; the big problem is getting out to these areas. The only people who have been allowed there are Burmese nationals and they have done so [but] no foreigners have got to those places."

Evidence gathered by relief organisations and others who have visited the southernmost extremities of the Irrawaddy delta reveals a horrific reality.

Bloated corpses have been washed upstream in the aftermath of the massive tidal surge, most left decaying where they lie as the survivors try to rebuild their homes and hunt for food and drinking water. Some of the dead have even been stripped of their clothes. Animal carcases float in the water in which people have to wash.

In the relief camps set up by the government for the homeless, there is concern about the potential outbreak of diseases, including cholera and malaria. There is also a worry that people's entire livelihoods, livestock, fishing boats or otherwise, have been destroyed. The rice paddies on which millions depend have been flooded with saltwater.

Richard Horsey, regional co-ordinator of the UN's humanitarian operation, said of the Burmese government: "It is imperative at thispoint that they do open up and allow a major international relief effort to get under way."

In New York, where the US ambassador to the UN expressed "outrage" at the junta's slowness in responding to offers of assistance, the chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, said the UN was "disappointed" with the access granted.

Yet the government insists it has already taken the necessary steps. In the same newspaper that showed the Prime Minister handing over electronic goods, an article declared: "Various sub-committees formed for preparedness of natural disasters have visited the storm-hit areas and provided relief to the victims. Relief and resettlement measures are being taken."

A crucial question now is whether such sadness and frustration could result in protests of the sort that rocked Burma last September when tens of thousands of ordinary people and Buddhist monks took to the streets to demonstrate against the junta that has ruled the country for two decades.

A Western diplomat in Rangoon, who asked not to be named, said: "After September, it was not that the demonstrations eased off. The people were intimated off the streets but the authorities did not address the problems. If the situation here continues to deteriorate people are going to be increasingly desperate, so there is a potential for looting and violence. If the military come in shooting then they will turn against the military. There is a potential for political unrest."

Among new graffiti repeatedly written on underpasses in Rangoon were "X" marks, the symbol for voting "no" in this weekend's scheduled referendum for a new constitution that would cement the military's rule. The National League for Democracy opposition party, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has urged people to vote "no". Last night, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged the junta to postpone the poll to concentrate on the relief effort.

Suu Kyi is under house arrest in Rangoon. Like millions of Burmese other than the military-linked elite, Cyclone Nargis has left the Nobel peace laureate using candles for light. A neighbour said her roof was damaged.

One week after cyclone, 17 Britons are still missing

Seventeen Britons remain unaccounted for, but a Foreign Office spokeswoman said that with telephone lines down, problems with communications could be to blame. No British casualties have been reported. "We are aware of 17 British nationals that friends and family have not been able to make contact with," she said.

About 200 Britons live in Burma, while 7,500 British tourists are believed to visit the country every year. Britons residents in Burma were warned by the British embassy before Saturday of the incoming cyclone.

In the Commons yesterday, the Labour MP Denis MacShane urged the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to support the efforts by France at the UN to invoke the "right to protect" when a government deliberately fails to protect the lives of its citizens.

China and Indonesia rejected the French appeal in Security Council discussions. John Holmes, the UN chief humanitarian officer, said: "I'm not sure invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option."

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