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Burma Cyclone Death Toll Tops 22,000


Burma's government says at least 22,000 people are confirmed dead, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, and another 41,000 are missing. The military government has begun allowing foreign assistance and granting unprecedented access to some international aid agency representatives. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.

The first plane load of foreign aid has arrived in Rangoon from Thailand. More is to follow. Speaking after a meeting with Burma's ambassador to Thailand, Foreign Minister Noppadol Pattama says he was told 30,000 people are missing after the cyclone passed, Friday.

In the past, Burma's military government has been reluctant to accept foreign aid. However, analysts say the scope of this disaster forced the generals this time to welcome assistance. Thailand was among the first to send help, with at least nine tons of aid arriving in Burma, Tuesday. Thai Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsup says medical teams will go into the disaster areas.

The Thai official says Bangkok will dispatch a team of doctors to help prevent and control the spread of diseases that normally appear after a natural disaster of this type.

Officials estimate hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless.

The hardest-hit area is in the Irawaddy River delta region, where the vast majority of the deaths are reported. Ten-thousand people are said to have died in one town, alone. The area is Burma's main rice-producing region. Analysts say there is concern falling food production could trigger instability.

Witnesses in Rangoon say anger is building among residents complaining of the military's slow response to the disaster. Tuesday, much of the city remained without electricity or running water. Witnesses say it was largely citizens who were out clearing debris from the streets. Some complain they did not see any soldiers until 36 hours after the storm struck.

Burmese exiles watching events from neighboring Thailand say the disaster has been a big setback for the Burmese military, which has controlled Burma since 1962. Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political commentator in the Thai city, Chiang Mai, says the government's slow response and its willingness to accept aid this time is a sign of its inability to cope with the disaster.

"It clearly shows that the Burmese military despite its myth, despite its proclamation that they are the leaders, they can carry out a lot of things without any help from anybody," Aung said. "But this disaster, [of] this magnitude, apparently has put the military in a critical spotlight. Basically, that the cover, the myth, has been blown away and it clearly shows that they cannot deal with a disaster of such a magnitude."

Another unprecedented concession by the military government is its decision this week to grant access to more representatives of foreign aid agencies. The group World Vision Australia says its representatives received special visas this week to enter the country.

Diplomats of some western nations say they are still waiting to hear whether the Burmese government will allow assessment teams to reach the hardest-hit areas.

Among those waiting for access is a team from the United States. Monday, First Lady Laura Bush said the United States is ready to send help as soon as Burma allows an American disaster response team to enter the country.

The Burmese leadership Tuesday announced it will postpone a constitutional referendum in hard hit areas of Rangoon and the Irawaddy River delta. The poll, scheduled on May 10, will be pushed back to May 24 in those areas.

The government has portrayed the vote as a step toward moving the impoverished country toward democracy. The United States and other members of the international community call the process a sham because it has excluded members of the opposition.

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