Burmese state media say it is now believed that as many as 10,000 people are dead and thousands more missing after Tropical Cyclone Nargis ripped through parts of the country, destroying homes, bringing down power lines and knocking out communications. Earlier figures had put the death toll far lower. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.
With some telephone lines working again and the airport at the main city, Rangoon, reopened, reports of death and destruction trickled out of Burma Monday, giving a glimpse of the extent of the enormous devastation the cyclone inflicted on the impoverished country.
Among those arriving in Bangkok Monday, on one of the first flights out of Rangoon, was Sweden's former Minister of Democracy and Integration, Jens Orback, who tells VOA the main city is paralyzed.
"The electricity went out," he said. "The telephones didn't work. The TV, the radio, the cellular telephones, everything was wiped out. When talking to people, they were very upset in the beginning that nobody from the military, from the police, from the fire forces were out on the street. Only private people were there with machetes, actually trying to get rid of the trees.
"I talked to some civilians on the market and they were a little bit surprised that nobody was doing anything," he added. "Because if there's anything that are very present in Burma otherwise, it's police and military but there were none of them out in the hours after the disaster."
Thousands are homeless, and much of the city remains without water or public transportation.
The few reports coming in from the countryside suggest the devastation is widespread. Burmese state radio said nearly 3,000 people were missing in one town, Bogalay, in the country's Irawaddy River Delta - an area believed to be especially hard-hit.
In a rare gesture, at a meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of U.N. agencies and international aid organizations, the military government said it welcomed humanitarian assistance . Analysts say the military leadership has in the past refrained from accepting foreign aid for fear of appearing weak.
Burmese officials called for aid including roofing materials, medicine, tents, blankets, and water purifying tablets. Thailand, Burma's neighbor and one of its biggest trading partners, announced it would airlift aid on Tuesday.
The disaster comes at a sensitive time for Burma's military junta, which is trying to build credibility in the face of international criticism over its violent crackdown last year on Buddhist monks and other mostly peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.
The generals say they plan to go ahead with a constitutional referendum next Saturday. They say the vote is another step in the process of returning Burma to democracy following more than four decades of military rule. Members of the international community, including the United States, have called the referendum a sham because the drafting of the document excluded the country's main opposition groups.
Professor Win Min, an expert on Burmese politics at Chiang Mai University in neighboring Thailand, says the government is taking a risk by pushing ahead with the referendum at a time when people are struggling to survive and recover from the disaster.
"Now, people may see nothing to lose and people may even get angry that the government is not really caring about them, but just caring about the referendum," he said. "The urgent need for the people is not the referendum, but relief."
Adding to public frustration are rising prices of basic goods. Reports from Rangoon said the price of gasoline and some basic food products quadrupled since the cyclone hit.
The United Nations said it was sending a disaster assessment team into the country in an effort to mobilize aid. It is not clear how much access the team will have inside Burma. The Burmese authorities normally enforce tight restrictions on the movements of aid organizations in the country.