Situation "desperate" following Myanmar cyclone

The Myanmar cyclone left large parts of the country under water Keystone

Six days after a devastating cyclone hit southern Myanmar the government is failing to cope with the after-effects, according to a Swiss journalist on the spot.

This content was published on May 8, 2008 - 17:04

Peter Achten tells swissinfo that as victims wait for essential supplies to arrive from abroad, dissatisfaction is growing over the military authorities' response. Foreign aid is trickling in, but aid workers are stuck on the Thai border waiting for permission to enter Myanmar.

Achten, who reports for Swiss public radio, happened to be in the main city of Yangon when the storm struck on Saturday. Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta were the areas worst affected.

swissinfo: Can you describe the situation in Yangon at present?

Peter Achten: Right now the situation in Yangon is quite chaotic in terms of aid. Foreign aid is coming in slowly. The first aid came from neighbouring countries – India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh – and on Thursday some planes came in from the United Nations World Food Programme.

On the other hand, the military are making a lot of trouble for all those aid workers waiting in neighbouring Thailand. They have difficulties getting visas etc.

There are over one million people in need of food, shelter, clean water, medicine and so on. Up till now they have received nothing. So the situation is still very desperate.

swissinfo: What effect has the cyclone had on the infrastructure and functioning of Myanmar's main city?

P.A.: In the city centre, all the main streets were cut by debris but the constructions are concrete, so the damage wasn't too great. But as soon as you get to the outskirts of Yangon, where there were a lot of wooden-framed houses, a lot of people have lost their homes. And the latest death toll for Yangon is 600.

But the situation is much worse in the Irrawaddy delta west of Yangon. There over 5,000 square kilometres is under water. In just one district, we were told, there are 80,000 dead.

All the pictures we get from state media show utter destruction. People are waiting for food, clean water, medicine... and the aid is not coming in.

swissinfo: There are reports of thousands of dead bodies left lying to rot in the fields. Can you confirm this?

P.A.: Yes, these reports are true. Even on the outskirts of Yangon you see some dead bodies, but also dead cows. So there is a big fear of disease spreading. Medical help is needed very quickly and clean water is the biggest problem.

swissinfo: Reports say the military are not doing enough to get the aid through?

P.A.: Yes, the military were very slow in responding. I think they just have another agenda. On Saturday there will be a referendum on the new constitution and probably the military don't want too many foreign observers inside Myanmar.

You have to remember that only a few months ago there were huge demonstrations, which had an economic cause, and the military clamped down very hard. Probably they are very aware that this is a very dangerous situation for them. So the military are looking very closely at who they will let in, which countries they want to come in.

And a lot of people I have talked to are angry about the very slow response of the military. They say usually the military forces are very fast in clamping down, but now when we need them they are not here.

swissinfo: Do the authorities want to show that they can cope themselves or is it more a fear of foreign influence?

P.A.: The simple answer is that the military want to stay in control. And you can only stay in control if you have everything in hand.

On state media you see the military continuously coming to people's aid. But this is pure propaganda. On the first and second days after the cyclone you didn't see one single soldier. Only on the third day did you see some in front of ministries where they were cleaning up, or outside the villas of government officials or rich businessmen. But otherwise people had to take care of themselves.

swissinfo: You've mentioned that people are angry. Do you think - particularly if Yangon is affected by food shortages - that there could be more riots, like those last year?

P.A.: I think the danger is there. Since the cyclone hit, rice prices in Yangon have doubled and trebled, and fuel prices have gone up. Building materials are virtually unavailable and simple nails cost a fortune. I think it will be a big problem for the government to keep a lid on this anger, which is building up. That's evident.

swissinfo: How long do you think people will be prepared to put up with this situation?

P.A.: Right now they have one big problem: to survive another day. But maybe in two or three months there will be a problem unless the government lets in massive amounts of foreign aid and unless it really does something for the people. But I don't think that will happen.

swissinfo-interview: Morven McLean

In brief

Estimates of the number of dead from Cyclone Nargis have risen steadily since it hit on Saturday.

Shortly after the cyclone, several thousand were feared to have died.

The government's latest estimate is roughly 23,000 dead.

The country's military dictatorship refused to allow major aid deliveries to enter the country in the days immediately following the storm.

US and UN aid has now begun to arrive.

Nargis was the worst cyclone to hit Southeast Asia since 143,000 people were killed in neighbouring Bangladesh in 1991.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 230,000 people.

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Swiss Contribution

Switzerland is sending money to Myanmar to aid the cyclone victims, both via the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SFr500,000) and various NGOs, including the Swiss Red Cross.

The Swiss public is being invited to donate money via the Swiss Solidarity Foundation. Payments can be made to postal account 10-15000-6, Swiss Solidarity, 1211 Geneva 8, with the donation marked Burma/Myanmar. They can also be made online.

Swiss disaster experts, including drinking water and building specialists, have been dispatched to the region.

The Swiss contribution will focus on providing medical care, safe drinking water and shelter for cyclone victims.

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