Wednesday, 7 May 2008

How the 'rice bowl of Asia' was emptied

With a report from Reuters and AFP

Before disaster struck, the Irrawaddy delta was known for its lush paddies that provided fish and rice to most of Myanmar

Before Friday's devastating cyclone, Tin Maung Htoo remembered the Irrawaddy delta as a place full of trees and lush paddies that supplied most of Myanmar's rice and fish.

"This is the area that feeds the whole country," said Mr. Htoo, the executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma. As of yesterday, he still hadn't heard from any of his three brothers living in Rangoon, in the delta's eastern-most region, the area that was ground zero for cyclone Nargis.

As a high-school student, Mr. Htoo was forced to flee the country formerly known as Burma during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. He continued protesting against the military junta for six years - living first in Karen State, east of Rangoon, then in Bangkok - before he was arrested on immigration charges by Thai authorities. After Mr. Htoo spent three years in prison, Amnesty International lobbied for his release, and he has been living in Canada since 1996.

Mr. Htoo, 35, spoke regularly with his brothers in Rangoon, a densely populated city whose architecture dates back to Myanmar's British imperial rule.

"There are a few people who live in the cities that are well-off," Mr. Htoo said, "but the majority of them are very, very poor."

The Rangoon region and Irrawaddy delta were once known as the "rice bowl of Asia." The delta is a triangle of fertile land, mangrove swamps and tidal estuaries at the mouth of the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's longest river and its most important trade artery.

"It's a fertile region not only for rice but for fish as well, because the river comes down from the north to the south. ... So farmers, especially those who grow rice, will have a hard time because there is nothing left for them to eat," Mr. Htoo said.

Stretching from scattered islands in the Bay of Bengal to the southeast port city of Rangoon, the delta's base is about 240 kilometres long, its western flank about 290 kilometres. It is crisscrossed by a vast network of streams that swell to become small lakes during the May-October monsoon rains. Their muddy waters empty into the Andaman Sea.

Over the past 150 years, huge areas of mangrove forest have been cleared and used to grow rice. The destruction of those forests, which served as a buffer from the sea, is partly to blame for the massive cyclone death toll, the head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said yesterday.

"Why the impact is so severe is because of the increase of the population," said Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN, to which military-ruled Myanmar belongs. That has led to an "encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential area," he said in a speech in Singapore. "All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces."

The delta was jungle and high grass when it was annexed as Lower Burma by Britain in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War.

The colonial rulers, in charge until independence in 1948, encouraged migration and rice cultivation in the delta, commercializing its once feudal lands. Before independence, Myanmar was the world's largest exporter of rice, most of it grown in the delta.

Leaving the door open to disaster

Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has blamed encroachment into the mangrove forests for the high death toll from cyclone Nargis.


Exploitation of the forests began in 1942 to satisfy the military demands of the Second World War and continued throughout the insurgent period to 1972.

Complexroot system reduces bank erosion.

Wave energy may be reduced by 75 per cent during its passage through 200 metres of mangrove forest.


Roughly half the world's mangrove area has been lost since 1900 as a result of clearances for developments such as shrimp farms.

Lowlands converted to rice farms

Rising ocean levels kill trees by making the mud at the roots too salty

Increased population

The forests provide a filter for agricultural runoff such as fertilizers.


The formerly thick forest of mangroves is now a low forest of fewer, much smaller trees. This increases bank erosion and reduces coastal storm protection.


Cyclone threatens military's grip

The death and destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis and the government's feeble response has cast questions on the ability of Myanmar's military rulers to maintain their decades–long grip on power.

With a broad swathe of the already impoverished country reeling from the effects the storm, observers and analysts say widespread anger is likely to grow over the military's lacklustre handling of the crisis.

Secreted away in their purpose-built new capital of Naypyidaw, well away from the path of the storm, the Myanmar government was given two day's notice that Nargis was on course to make a direct hit on the country.

But few survivors say they were given even the vaguest warnings of the storm's approach.

Now, having redrawn the map of the Irrawaddy delta, speculation is growing that Nargis could also reshape Myanmar's political landscape.

Myanmar's tightly-regulated state television has shown footage of top generals handing out relief supplies at Buddhist temples and soldiers hacking away at fallen trees with axes and hand saws.

But the reality, many residents say, is far different.

Survivors who have been forced to virtually fend for themselves have noted the contrast with last September, when the military moved swiftly to crush anti-government protests.

"The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people," one retired civil servant in Yangon, the cyclone-hit former capital, told Reuters.

By Wednesday, five days after the cyclone hit, the government had deployed virtually no rescue teams of its own while foreign aid agencies were complaining they applications to enter the country were being held up in red tape.

Soe Aung, a democracy activist and spokesman for the Bangkok-based National Council of the Union of Burma, said despite the efforts of state media, the opinions of the people whose lives have been devastated by the cyclone would not be swayed.

"My friends and relatives in Burma say there is widespread anger among the people." he told Al Jazeera, referring to the former name for Myanmar.

"This is the worst disaster in the past few centuries in Myanmar," he said.


In an unfortunate twist of timing for the ruling generals, the cyclone ripped through the country just a week before it was due to hold a national referendum on a new constitution.

David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said that in a country like Myanmar - which places so much emphasis on symbolism and superstition - the timing of the disaster may lead many to question the military's continued legitimacy.

"The juxtaposition of the cyclone and the voting might cause many in Burma to feel this is an indication that the military should not be in power," he told the Associated Press.

The military had hoped that the referendum, scheduled for May 10, would go smoothly in its favour. It has postponed polling in the worst-hit areas, but said it will go ahead as planned elsewhere.

The new constitution – which took 14 years to draft - has been promoted by the military as the foundation for a return to democracy and national elections in 2010.

But as the full scale of the cyclone disaster emerges and the death toll continues to climb, the less effective the government's relief efforts prove and the bigger the potential questions over the military's legitimacy to rule.

'Angry and frustrated'

Larry Jagan, a Myanmar analyst based in Bangkok, said the military's determination to press ahead with the referendum amid the post-cyclone chaos would undoubtedly spark public anger.

"It shows the people what the real interests of the military are, and it's not the survival of the people," he told Al Jazeera.

"I think they will be increasingly angry and frustrated that they have to vote."

Jagan said after the initial shock passes, already skyrocketing food prices and general discontent could well prove a tipping point, triggering a revival of last year's street protests.

"Some people are suggesting – and I agree with them – that this is the final nail in the military's coffin," he said.

Aljazeera News

Junta 'co-operative'

A leading Australian aid agency says the Burmese military regime has allowed its efforts to provide urgent relief following the catastrophic aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

CARE Australia, which has operated in parts of Burma for 14 years, has already begun providing plastic sheeting for emergency shelter, food, water and other essentials.

With the latest death toll reaching 22,000 dead, 41,000 missing and expected to continue rising from the weekend cyclone, many aid agencies are still awaiting travel visas to enter the reclusive nation.

The US and Australia have led international calls today for the military junta to ease emergency entry restrictions.

CARE Australia spokesman Robert Yallop said today that authorities had been cooperative.

"We've had full support from the authorities, working with the UN. The scale is quite enormous," Mr Yallop told the Nine Network this morning.

"Every indication that we have at the moment is that we've been receiving full cooperation from the government authorities in Myanmar Burma.

"The UN is basically organising most of that interaction with the government authorities, but we have certainly had no impediment to our activities to date."
Mr Yallop said CARE's team in Burma had been shocked by the extent of the devastation, and called for Australians to donate money to the relief fund.

"The CARE Australia team's were out yesterday in areas just on the outskirts of Yangon (Rangoon), along the river. They were shocked," Mr Yallop said.

"What they found were that there were thousands of people who are now living in pagodas, in schools, who've lost their houses.

"We're beginning to provide plastic sheeting for shelter, provide food, water and other immediate needs.

"But the scale of this is quite enormous and in the coming days the requirements are going to be much, much greater.

"There are a lot of things that need to be brought in.

"We will be bringing in materials and equipment from Thailand, but what we really need at the moment is the generous support of the Australian public so that we can simply get enough resources to provide assistance for this effort."

John Sparrow, from Red Cross, said his organisation's 10-year history in Burma had smoothed the way for a timely aid effort.

"We have a working relationship with the authorities and we are hoping that the cooperation will continue through this operation," he told the Nine Network.

"The authorities are well aware of what has happened. They have set up a coordination effort among themselves."

Mr Sparrow said some villages were 90-95 per cent destroyed and he expected the death toll to rise.

"Aid is beginning to role, we have 70,000 Myanmar (Burma) Red Cross volunteers working right now to get materials to people affected by the storm. We need to get much more in," Mr Sparrow said.

"We have some stocks for relief goods pre-positioned in country.

"The two things that concern us most are shelter and clean, portable water."

Tim Costello, from World Vision, will leave from Australia for Burma today.

"There's no doubt everyone knows the political situation, everyone knows we're walking on eggshells. I'll need to leave it to other commentators to talk about the politics because we're there for a humanitarian purpose," he told the Seven Network.

"We've got 600 staff in there handing out blankets, mosquito nets, food and water."

Mr Costello likened the situation to the Banda Aceh disaster in Indonesia immediately after the disastrous 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

"The news trickled out very slowly and the response was much slower than in Sri Lanka," he said.

"There is no question democracies respond much much more quickly to these emergencies.

"This Myanmar government has invited us to assist, and we're going there. Whatever the other rights and wrongs of this political situation, we would have to leave to others speak about."

Mr Costello said World Vision would spend more than $3 million in the first four weeks, and called on Australians to donate money.

"I know it is a big ask, but it is our neighbourhood."


Burma's Dictatorship in the Hot Seat

The full extent of the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in Burma remains unclear. But one thing is apparent: the regime is unwilling to delay its planned referendum on the constitution, says DW's Tobias Grote-Beverborg.

Once again Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is making headlines. But not due to the referendum on the constitution which is meant to decide the country's political future and is scheduled for Saturday, May 10. Instead, the country ruled by a military dictatorship is in the news because of the natural disaster, whose full effect remains unknown.

Cyclone Nargis left behind a massive swathe of destruction in the country's south, above all. At least 15,000 people have been killed, according to official figures, while hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless and are in need of food, water and medication. The people are in such desperate straits that even the hard-hearted military regime must recognize that it can't cope with the catastrophe without foreign aid.

It's still unclear under what conditions the regime is accepting the aid. It is, however, clear that the cyclone has upset the dictatorship's plans. The planned referendum on the constitution was meant to ensure a continuation of military rule and it was supposed to be passed in the manner typical of a dictatorship, tacitly and closed off from the rest of the world.

In the limelight

But now the eyes of the world are on Burma and foreign aid workers may end up as unwelcome election observers. The junta hopes to avoid that by holding the vote as soon as possible -- that is, keeping it on Saturday. It's only allowing postponement of the vote in the regions hardest hit by the cyclone. The junta has once more shown how cynically calculating it is, seeing as in terms of logistics alone, the dimensions of the catastrophe make an orderly referendum impossible.

How long the regime can keep this farce going also depends on the conditions under which aid -- and aid workers -- is allowed into the country. The military leaders may of course hope they can rely on their neighbors; India and China have already promised comprehensive aid measures. And neither will meddle in Burma's "internal affairs," just as they haven't in the past.

Hopes of an Aceh scenario

However, as the number of victims increases and the need for aid for the survivors becomes ever more urgent, the junta cannot afford to reject further aid from abroad. The huge contingent of foreign aid workers who became a presence in Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami catastrophe nearly four years ago led to an end to the bloody civil war there. Parallels to the situation in Myanmar come to mind.

Discontent is already growing among the Burmese due to the military's apparent failings. For one, people weren't warned sufficiently or far enough in advance about the extent of the approaching cyclone. And now, national aid measures are moving sluggishly.

The referendum desperately needs to be postponed. One can only hope the referendum on the constitution takes place at a later date with international observers and that there will be truly free and fair elections in Myanmar. If that were the case, the catastrophe -- however cynical this may sound -- would also have done good.

Tobias Grote-Beverborg is the managing editor of Asia programs at Deutsche Welle (ncy).

ASEAN vows to help Burma

Southeast Asian nations have always been split on how to treat Burma given its reluctance to explicitly embrace democracy.

But now ASEAN nations are being urged to put their differences aside and support Burma's cyclone victims.

Presenter: Linda LoPresti
Speakers: ASEAN's assistant director of disaster management, Adelina Kamal.

KAMAL: ASEAN has this mechanism. We call it the ASEAN agreement on disaster management and emergency response, which was signed by the foreign ministers of ASEAN in July, 2005, and under that agreement we have already established the procedure for communicating for example the request to offer assistance from ASEAN countries is for one of the other ASEAN countries is hit by disasters, just like a cyclone that hit Myanmar a few days ago. So basically the mechanism under the agreement would facilitate ASEAN countries to help one another.

LOPRESTI: The ASEAN agreement on disaster management and emergency response though has not yet been entered into force. Is that correct?

KAMAL: That's correct. It's was signed by all the ASEAN countries in July, 2005, but the agreement requires for all the ASEAN countries to ratify, to make this enter into force.

LOPRESTI: So what's holding up the process, because it's been three years since you've agreed to it, or ASEAN has agreed to it. What's taking so long for it to come into affect?

KAMAL: Well, every country I believe has its own procedure and mechanism to actually get the agreement ratified. So some countries would have to go through the parliament for example and other countries it would be sufficient for them to get their cabinet's approval. So while we are waiting for the other four countries to ratify, we have to find six countries to ratify the agreement.

LOPRESTI: Which four countries have not ratified it?

KAMAL: The other four are Brunei, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia.

LOPRESTI: So Burma has ratified, has signed?

KAMAL: Myanmar has actually signed, well Myanmar is one of the ASEAN countries who signed the agreement.

LOPRESTI: And so they ratified it, and so have they specifically asked ASEAN for help?

KAMAL: They have not sent a formal request in written through the ASEAN mechanism, through the ASEAN Secretariat. They have not contacted us or sent any formal request in written, but we believe that they are open to assistance from ASEAN in the spirit of the ASEAN agreement on disaster management and emergency response, ASEAN countries are supposed to help one another.

LOPRESTI: What if you don't get Burma's approval, will ASEAN go in anyway?

KAMAL: For sure, because we have to respect the national sovereignty here. We've got to have Myanamar's approval, although that the offer is coming from us, we don't wait for Myanmar to request that we could also channel the offer from the other ASEAN countries. We have to get Myanmar's approval for sure, that's written in the agreement.

As mentioned by our Secretary-General, I don't think that Myanmar would say no to ASEAN's assistance.

LOPRESTI: In December, 2004, following the tsunami, there was agreement that there should be some kind of warning system, an early warning system put in the Indian Ocean and the South East Asian region. Why wasn't there any warning in regard to this cyclone, which was clearly on its way to Burma?

KAMAL: We have the tsunami warning system in place. There is a network, but it's not the same system as the one that would actually monitor the tropical cyclone and so forth. But there is an international cooperation basically where some of the ASEAN countries are part of that, as well as I'm concerned that cooperation would allow member countries to be notified. But in terms of what we are doing to monitor the situation, we would also rely on the information from the countries themselves and at the onset of disaster unfortunately, we didn't receive indication from or report from the Myanmar authorities and mainly because of the communication breakdown I believe.

Radio Australia

Postcyclone challenge for Burma (Myanmar): deliver relief fast

By David Montero

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - In a rapidly escalating death toll, a cyclone that ripped through Burma (Myanmar) on Saturday killed nearly 4,000 people, not 351 as originally announced, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in Asia since the tsunami of 2004, authorities said on Monday.

But that death toll, which accounts for only two of five areas hit, could rise as high as 10,000 in coming days, government officials said, while relief agencies warned that rescue operations would be critically hampered by the remoteness of the disaster region, home to 24 million people.

Concerns of higher death tolls have been further exacerbated by the political isolation of the military-led government of Burma, which has largely shut itself off from the outside world, and which many feared would reject international assistance.

But relief agencies said Monday they were confident that international relief would be allowed into the country, following a meeting between government officials and the head of the United Nations relief agencies in Burma on Monday. And state authorities issued appeals for international aid.

"The acting head of the UN agencies ... received positive indications that international assistance would be invited and accepted into the country," says Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program's Asia office in Bangkok, Thailand. "We are continuing assessments on the ground, and as soon as these assessments provide more details, we will be able to test that invitation.'

'Entire village wiped out'
When it set down with 120 mile-per-hour winds on Saturday, cyclone Nargis ripped apart cities, shantytowns, and villages throughout this nation of 56 million, leaving a path of destruction and hundreds of thousands homeless as it arced from the Irrawaddy delta in the southwest to Rangoon (Yangon), the former capital, farther north. The city was reduced to a chaotic standstill by Monday, with no electricity and long lines for water, the Associated Press reported, adding that at least one entire village has been wiped out.

The cyclone comes just days before the ruling military junta is scheduled to hold a referendum on an army-drafted charter for a new constitution. Government authorities insist the charter symbolizes their commitment to democracy, but critics have dismissed it as an eyewash that allows the Army to maintain the lion's share of power. Adding fuel to that criticism, authorities insisted the referendum would still take place despite the scale of the tragedy, a local newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, reported on Monday.

Death tolls on Monday were dramatically higher than originally announced. "The confirmed number is 3,934 dead, 41 injured and 2,879 missing within the Yangon and Irrawaddy divisions," Myanmar TV reported on Monday. Authorities had originally reported 351 deaths, but the numbers have been adjusted as damage assessment reports come in.

Perhaps responding to the sharp increase, the military government, which has ruled since 1965, agreed to a rare intervention from international relief agencies and made requests for emergency aid.

Mr. Risley says he is confident that, given the drastic scale of the disaster, the government will honor its side of the agreement.

Some relief efforts were already under way on Monday, and the World Food Program says it has 900 tons of food in storage warehouses in Rangoon. Neighboring Thailand, meanwhile, quickly responded that it would fly in aid by Tuesday.

Relief efforts could prove difficult
Even with the possibility of international aid flowing in, he and others say, relief efforts are likely to be extremely difficult and could raise the death toll if not handled properly.

"[Transportation of relief goods] will be one of the major challenges," says Risley. "We are very concerned that roads have been washed away or destroyed by the flooding."

Relief agencies warned that the fallout from the cyclone was likely to be more devastating than that from cyclone Sidr, which struck nearby Bangladesh last November and killed more than 3,000 people.

"In fact, this may be a larger tragedy," says Risley. "The next 10 days are very critical for the relief effort."

Christian Science Monitor

Aid workers race to reach Myanmar cyclone victims

YANGON, May 7, 2008 (AFP) - Aid workers battled Wednesday to get food and water to desperate cyclone survivors in Myanmar, whose government is under fire after more than 22,000 people died in one of Asia's worst natural disasters.

More than 41,000 people are also missing, but the United Nations said foreign staff were still awaiting visas from the secretive military regime -- which said outside aid workers needed to "negotiate" to enter the country.

"Let the United States come to help you," said US President George W. Bush, leading international calls to let in foreign relief teams, as the United Nations said its staff were still awaiting visas days after the tragedy struck.

Tropical cyclone Nargis barrelled early Saturday into the southwest coast of Myanmar, once known as Burma and now one of the poorest nations on the planet.

UN officials said they were still unable to assess the full extent of the devastation wrought by the storm, especially in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta region, where entire towns were washed away.

At United Nations headquarters in New York, Rashid Khalikov of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs pleaded with the junta to open its borders to foreign aid.

"We cannot tell you are how many people are in need of assistance...It probably will be in the hundreds of thousands," he told reporters.

"We are trying to get maximum cooperation from the government in terms of visas and customs regulations. We really hope it will happen very quickly. We applied for visas. We have not got the visas."

Save the Children, one of the few relief agencies allowed to operate in the secretive and impoverished Southeast Asian country, said the toll would rise sharply in the coming days as more victims were found in hard-to-reach areas.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it went as high as 50,000," spokesman Dan Collinson told AFP.

State television said 21,793 people were killed and 40,695 were missing in Irrawaddy division, while 671 were killed and 359 people were missing in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city and the former capital.

In the delta town of Bogalay, 95 percent of the homes were destroyed, according to Social Welfare Minister Maung Maung Swe.

"Many people were killed in a 12-foot (3.5-metre) tidal wave," the minister told reporters.

Satellite images from US space agency NASA showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country under water.

Video footage of the disaster zone showed flattened villages, smashed bridges, and survivors forced to live out in the open.

The UN's World Food Programme said it had begun distributing 800 tonnes of food to the hardest-hit areas including Yangon, but that many coastal regions remained cut off due to flooding and road damage.

The United States -- usually one of the junta's toughest critics -- upped its total emergency aid offer to 3.25 million dollars.

"The United States has made an initial aid contribution, but we want to do a lot more," he added as he signed a law giving Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, the US Congress's top civilian honour.

A US disaster relief team was on standby, and the Pentagon said four naval ships currently participating in military exercises off the coast of Thailand could be redirected to Myanmar, if the junta gave the go-ahead.

"But that's all we can do at this point, is to plan, because we have not received a request from the Burmese government," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Richard Horsey, an OCHA spokesman in Bangkok, warned of the spread of disease, should survivors fail to receive clean drinking water.

"Getting it out to the affected populations will be a major challenge, given that there is widespread flooding," he said.

"The urgent need is for shelter and for water. Without clean drinking water, the risk of disease spreading is the most serious concern."

Despite the widespread devastation, the junta defied calls to postpone Saturday's referendum on a new constitution -- part of its slow-moving "road map" to democracy -- saying it would proceed except in the worst-hit areas.

Relief Web

'My town wiped out'

By Arjun Ramachandran

(SMH) - A Burmese Australian whose birthplace was "wiped out" in this weekend's devastating cyclone has pleaded for the country's military regime to let foreign aid agencies to enter the country.

Tropical cyclone Nargis has killed 22,000 people and more than 40,000 are still missing days after the storm smashed into Burma's southern coast.

Thann Naing, from Sydney, watched the news in horror as aerial images showed his birthplace, Myaungmya, under water.

"My home town has been wiped out just like that. I was crying," Mr Naing said.

"Most of my family [who are in Rangoon] are OK. But I'm worried - my extended family live in my birthplace but I don't know how bad it is - there's no communication, all mobiles and landlines are down.

"I've asked my friends in India and Bangladesh to find out whatever they can."

Mr Naing is chairman of the Burmese Community Welfare Group. He said the group was meeting on Sunday to establish a relief fund for victims of one what is one of Asia's worst natural disasters.

'Forget about the politics'

He pleaded to the Burmese government to accept foreign aid.

"The people are suffering down there. There's no way the government can do the immediate relief for those people - there's no food, no shelter.

"Forget about the politics, look at the people down there."

Mr Naing, a geologist at Macquarie University, said he had not been back to Burma since leaving in 1985 for Australia.

"I'm not allowed to go back to Burma because I'm a political dissident, and because of the political dissent of my father, who was also a political dissident who went to jail because he was friends with [former Prime Minister of Burma] U Nu."

Mr Naing now lives in North Ryde with his wife and 21-year-old daughter, who is in the third year of a law degree at Macquarie University.

He tried to visit Burma in 2001 to see his dying mother, aged 101, but his application was rejected.

Local aid agencies including World Vision, CARE Australia, Red Cross and Caritas Australia have launched appeals for donations.

Many of the agencies already had staff working in Burma when the cyclone hit, but were still assessing what additional aid they could send. According to news wire reports, aid workers have been battling to enter Burma.

"We are trying to get maximum cooperation from the government in terms of visas and customs regulations. We really hope it will happen very quickly. We applied for visas. We have not got the visas," said Rashid Khalikov from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Increase in visas

A spokeswoman for the Burma embassy in Canberra said there had been an increase in visa applications from Australians wanting to visit Burma, but would not elaborate on how many there had been.

"There are people wanting to go, yes. The inquiries have increased," she said. The embassy was also still assessing whether to approve the applications, she said.

"[It's based on] need - whether they need to be there or not."

Bruce Cameron, a NSW Fire Brigades officer involved with aid efforts in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, said nothing could prepare aid workers for the devastation they would encounter following a mammoth natural disaster.

"There are just creeks and mudflats littered with thousands of bloated, dead bodies. It's a horrible, horrible scene. There's local dogs coming out of the township looking for something to feed. It's as bad as anyone would want to see in real life or in a drama."

Mr Cameron, who helped coordinate Australian medical teams in Aceh, said the aid workers would have extensive training and experience in more localised accidents.

'Nothing can prepare you'

"But you can't compare a car accident with four people in it to thousands of people lying upside down in a river, or children coming out of an operating theatre missing a leg. It's very confronting and no amount of training or DVDs can prepare you for it."

The Australia Government has pledged $3 million in aid, including up to $1 million to Australian non-government organisations for emergency shelter and clean water, $1 million to the United Nation for food and $1 million to UNICEF for water purification.

A spokeswoman for AusAid, the agency that manages Australia's overseas aid, couldn't confirm whether any Australian medical teams had been sent to Burma. The NSW Health department said it had not yet been requested to be involved with aid efforts. - with AAP

Burma cyclone appeal information:

World Vision

13 32 40

Caritas Australia

1800 024 413

Red Cross

1800 811 700

CARE Australia

1800 020 046

Myanmar expels BBC reporter

Yangon - Myanmar's junta, which has appealed for international aid to cope with the disastrous impact of Cyclone Nargis, is barring foreign journalists from entering the country and has expelled one BBC reporter, state media said Wednesday. BBC Asia correspondent Andrew William Harding was stopped by Myanmar immigration officials at Yangon International Airport from entering the country on May 5 and sent back to Thailand, the state-run MRTV reported.

The military-controlled television station said Harding was on the government's "blacklist" for journalists.

Myanmar, which has been under military dictatorships since 1962, rarely allows foreign journalists to enter the country on journalist visas, and only allows China's Xinhua news agency to employ expatriates to be based in the country.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which has claimed more than 22,500 lives and left 41,000 missing, the government has thus far refused to allow foreign reporters in to cover the disaster, deemed the worst to hit South-East Asia since the December 2004 tsunami.

The regime, which has appealed for international aid, has been reluctant to waive visa requirements on aid workers seeking to bring disaster relief into the benighted country.

The government of Myanmar had not responded to a request to waive visa requirements for international relief workers waiting for permission to bring much needed aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, the UN said Tuesday.

The UN had asked the government in Myanmar to waive visas for relief workers assembled in nearby Bangkok so they can begin their journey to Myanmar, said Rachid Khalikov, an official of the UN emergency relief department at UN headquarters in New York. But the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok was closed on Monday for a Thai holiday.

"So far, there were no instructions for visas in Bangkok," Khalikov said.

In the past other countries have waived visa requirements to aid workers in relief efforts, such as Iran did following the devastating December 2003 earthquake.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 when General Ne Win staged a coup that overthrew the elected government of the country's first post-independence prime minister U Nu, and launched the country along the economically disastrous "Burmese Road to Socialism."

Ne Win enforced a policy of xenophobic isolationism, which was officially dropped along with socialism in 1988, but the habit of aloofness from the world community has persisted under the current crop of military leaders.

Earth Times

Monks, not military, help clean up

IT is being left to Burma's monks to help residents clear roads of fallen trees and other debris caused by killer tropical cyclone Nargis.

The gathering of cinnamon-robed monks was one of the largest groups seen in Burma's main city since September when they led mass anti-government protests that were violently put down by security forces.

"We are now relying on monks to clear this road," said one middle-aged woman who lived in the neighbourhood of western Rangoon.

"Of course we were hoping the authorities would come, but they haven't shown up yet. These monks came after the storm to help the people to clear the streets and to remove the trees," she said.

The streets of Rangoon are still strewn with hulking trees that were uprooted by the storm and thrown into cars and buildings. Chunks of roofs ripped off homes lie on the pavements, draped by downed power lines.

Witnesses have reported seeing few soldiers or police joining the relief effort after the weekend cyclone, which killed 22,000 and left 41,000 missing.

"We didn't see any military at all, just police in armoured cars. On Saturday afternoon, we did see some vans, but most of the guys were standing around smoking," said 32-year-old Pip Paton, who was travelling in Rangoon with her family when the cyclone struck.

"Military came out with big chainsaws in one or two areas, but mainly the locals were out chopping up trees themselves."

After the crackdown in September, which the United Nations estimates left at least 31 dead, most monks in Rangoon fled the city.

An abbot leading the monks said monasteries in the city had also been damaged in the storm, but residents had ensured they still had enough to eat.

"People are in difficulty, but they are still making offerings to us. Although our monasteries were damaged, so far we have no difficulties for food yet because people are still offering," he said.

Buddhist monks in Burma rely on donations from the public for their meals, in an act of alms-giving that earns spiritual "merit" for devotees.

The Australian

Editorial: Myanmar's two disasters


The military government of Myanmar - it's still really Burma - is not as insular, corrupt and oppressive as North Korea but it's a close runner up. And both governments show a stunning indifference to the welfare of their people.

That was glaringly on display in the aftermath of a lethal cyclone that ripped across Myanmar over the weekend. As of Tuesday the death toll was 22,000 and likely to rise further. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless and 41,000 are missing.

But the junta, which rules from a remote and luxurious capital, was focused not on relief but holding a referendum this weekend on a new constitution that will strengthen its hold on the government and give it an air of spurious legitimacy.

First lady Laura Bush, who rarely seeks out the bully pulpit, appeared at a White House news conference Monday to denounce the Myanmar government as ``very inept'' and accused it of failing to warn the public of the impending cyclone.

The same day President Bush signed a proclamation awarding a congressional gold medal to Myanmar's leading dissident, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose commitment to human rights and nonviolence has prompted the junta to keep her under house arrest for most of the last 18 years.

The depth of the government's unpopularity became apparent last fall Yangoon was rocked by huge demonstrations, led by students and Buddhist monks, protesting soaring fuel and food prices.

The protests were brutally suppressed leaving many to complain in the aftermath of the cyclone that the military was very good at clearing the streets of monks and students but not good at all at clearing the streets of debris.

The junta did appeal for international assistance and the U.N., EU and U.S responded. But the questions remained how willing the regime was to facilitate that aid. It will have to waive burdensome customs requirements for relief supplies and a torturous visa process for relief workers. And even in normal times the movement of aid workers was tightly controlled.

The world owes the people of Myanmar its help and sympathy; it owes the ruling junta only its contempt.

Brutal Burma's spy games

"Give us money, we'll distribute it"
The reply of Burma's corrupt military junta to international aid workers as they sought entry to the country was nothing short of shocking.

So is the regime's refusal of a State Department disaster-assistance team. Sixty-thousand are feared dead in the wake of a devastating tropical cyclone. Some fear the final death toll could rival that of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 225,000. Now is no time for spy games.

Sadly, the Burmese junta — Myanmar, as its illegitimate rulers call the country — has long engaged in just that, sacrificing the interests of its people when expedient. Recall the last time that Burma made headlines. In August, authorities cracked down on thousands of saffron-robed Buddhist monks protesting in the streets against skyrocketing fuel prices. The "Saffron Revolution," the closest this repressed country came to freedom, was not to be. The government sent police and military forces into the streets to arrest, beat and "disappear" monks, reaffirming willingness to flout international will.

This time, the horror is more passive. Last week, warnings of the severity of Cyclone Nargis were widespread. The regime had ample time to prepare. A more normal and legitimate government would have allowed foreign aid workers early entry and at least attempted to evacuate the at-risk population. But, alas, this is neither a normal nor legitimate government. After seizing power in 1989, it has built Southeast Asia's most repressive regime, one that rivals North Korea in some respects for its brand of kleptocratic, autocratic misrule.

By late yesterday, the regime began to open the border to aid workers in earnest, but word had not reached downward. British aid workers were denied entry on visa grounds. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino put it so gingerly: "People who are willing to help and provide humanitarian assistance are not being received yet in Burma, and we really hope that they would change their mind."

Who could stand by such a regime as it fails its own people so miserably? The People's Republic of China, of course. It sponsors horrific governments on three continents. But, more surprisingly, the same can be said of Burma's neighbor and trading partner Thailand, as well as India. Nearly half of Burma's foreign trade is conducted with Thailand and about an eighth of it with India. No one begrudges these nations their right to engage a neighbor. But with economic relations comes political responsibility. Hopefully this week's tragedy demonstrates the folly of turning a blind eye to a trading partner's brutal abdication of basic responsibilities.

As magnitude of Myanmar loss grows, aid arrives

By Seth Mydans and Helene Cooper

BANGKOK (IHT): A powerful cyclone that destroyed a vast swath of coastal Myanmar and left many thousands of people dead prompted the country's military leaders to allow some foreign aid groups to deliver relief supplies on Tuesday. But the ruling junta came under increasing pressure to further open its doors — and even relax its tight political grip — to grapple with the growing disaster.

The Myanmar government put its tally of deaths since Cyclone Nargis struck early Saturday at 22,500 and said 41,000 people were missing. Such early estimates often prove inaccurate, and the wide path of this cyclone, which destroyed homes across the fertile Irrawaddy Delta and into Yangon, the nation's main city, left a large area of destruction, complicating rescue efforts and damage assessments for days or weeks to come.

Foreign governments and aid organizations worldwide began mobilizing a major relief operation, and some aid began flowing into the country. But President George W. Bush, speaking in Washington, continued a campaign to pressure the military government to allow fuller access to international relief teams and private charity groups.

His message mixed a new offer of American help with renewed criticism of a government the United States has denounced as one of the world's most repressive. But some international aid workers and foreign leaders said they feared that political pressure could make it more difficult to deliver aid in a timely manner.

"Our message is to the military rulers: let the United States come help you to help the people," Bush said Tuesday morning at a ceremony held to commemorate his signing of legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate who has been under house arrest in Myanmar for 12 of the last 18 years. "We want to do a lot more."

While Myanmar, formerly Burma, has so far accepted only a trickle of aid, the country's information minister, Kyaw Hsan, said Tuesday that the country would be seeking assistance "from at home and abroad." A United Nations spokeswoman in Geneva said disaster assessment officials were awaiting visas to enter Myanmar.

Maung Maung Swe, minister for relief and resettlement, said the cyclone's deadliest aspect was the surge of water it forced inland from the Andaman Sea.

"More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself," he said, in the first official description of the destruction. "The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages. They did not have anywhere to flee."

A spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program said that as many as one million people might have lost their homes and that some villages were almost completely destroyed. That estimate appeared to be a rough assessment based on aerial and satellite photographs of the affected region.

Bush's call for openness from Myanmar came a day after Laura Bush, the U.S. first lady, criticized the country's military leaders for failing to warn people before the cyclone hit on Saturday.

In reply, Australia's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, was among those who urged countries to focus on helping Myanmar instead of criticizing its government. "The priority now is rendering assistance to thousands of displaced people who urgently need our assistance," Smith said in Hong Kong.

Likewise, Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, a Washington-based aid organization, said the Bush administration's approach could be counterproductive. "To stand up and say, One message is we want to help and the other message is the government is incompetent, and oh, by the way, tomorrow we're giving a congressional medal to Aung San Suu Kyi, well, that gets their back up," Charny said. "I'm not saying the U.S. shouldn't have concerns about democracy. I'm saying that the idea is you try to make it easier rather than harder for the regime to take on international assistance."

White House officials countered that Myanmar's military leaders had long known the United States' position on human rights abuses there, and should be doing all they could to get help to the ravaged areas quickly.

"Maybe it's time to bury their pride and finally help their people out for the first time in decades," said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.

Shaken by the scope of the disaster, the authorities in Myanmar said Tuesday that in the areas most affected by the cyclone they would delay a vote on a new constitution that would cement the military's grip on power. The referendum will still go ahead on Saturday in other parts of the country but will be delayed until May 24 in the regions hardest hit, where more than a third of the population lives.

The postponement of the vote, a centerpiece of government policy, along with an appeal for foreign disaster aid, were difficult concessions by an insular military junta that portrays itself as all-powerful and self-sufficient, political analysts said.

"The task is very wide and extensive and the government needs the cooperation of the people and well-wishers from at home and abroad," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said at a news conference.

"We will not hide anything," he said. "Please ask the people not to be duped by rumors or fabrication."

With few defenders around the world, Myanmar's military rulers have often come under fire for their suppression of dissent, their brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators and their treatment of the democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. Now their slow response to the outpouring of aid offers from around the world has come under fire as well.

International aid agencies began distributing food in Yangon on Tuesday, but there was uncertainty that the assistance would reach people stranded without shelter in the more remote reaches of the Irrawaddy Delta.

A growing number of countries have pledged aid but bad roads, a lack of government cooperation and a breakdown in telecommunications could hamper relief efforts. Even before the storm hit, many towns and villages in the area were accessible only by boat or helicopter.

"If it were a different situation we would be mobilizing some helicopters now," said Tony Banbury, regional director of the United Nations World Food Program. "We recognize that the government may not want international helicopters flying in their country for better or worse."

Two of Myanmar's neighbors sent supplies immediately: Thailand dispatched a transport plane on Tuesday loaded with food and medicine to Yangon, and India sent two naval ships carrying food, tents, blankets, clothing and medicine.

The Bush administration said Tuesday that it was offering $3 million in aid. But the American aid is to be funneled through a team from the Agency for International Development that had not been permitted to enter Myanmar as of late Tuesday.

In addition, Bush said he was prepared to use navy warships and aircraft "to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation." Still, he added: "In order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."

A Burmese political analyst called Bush's condition "a cheap shot." The analyst, Aung Nain Oo, who is based in Thailand, said: "The people are dying. This is no time for a political message to be aired. This is a time for relief. No one is asking for anything like this except the United States."

At the United Nations on Tuesday, Rashid Khalikov, director of the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, said workers from his agency had yet to enter the country to help the United Nations officials already there.

United Nations aid workers — he did not say how many — applied for visas at the embassy in Bangkok only on Tuesday, Khalikov said, because the embassy was closed Monday for a Thai holiday. He said that by late Tuesday the visas had not been issued, and that the United Nations was urging Myanmar to cut through the red tape it normally imposes on visitors.

Khalikov said natural disasters presented major challenges for any government and that it was too soon to gauge the extent of Myanmar's cooperation with the international aid effort.

Residents of Yangon, reached by telephone, described a city in tatters, with fallen trees, a lack of power and water and, in the poorer outskirts, badly damaged homes. Tank trucks were selling water from Inya Lake, in the center of the city, they said.

The high winds blew roofs off the cages at the zoo, one person reported, and a baboon or gibbon was spotted Monday sitting on top of a giant plastic ruby in the middle of a traffic circle near Shwedagon pagoda.

"He refused to get down," the resident said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a government ban on unofficial news. "This afternoon, when my driver and I drove by, the ruby and the monkey were gone."

There were several accounts over the weekend of monks leaving their monasteries to help clear away storm wreckage, even as the military offered little help to residents.

"Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself," said Caryl Stern, who leads the United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef, in the United States.

Unicef said that it had sent five assessment teams into affected areas and that relief supplies were being prepared for delivery.

Seth Mydans reported from Bangkok, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Andy Newman contributed reporting from the United Nations, and Thomas Fuller from Bangkok.

Congress votes to reject junta

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution yesterday calling for the U.N. Security Council not to accept the Myanmar military junta's constitution. The bill will now go to the Senate for a vote.

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, along with 50 co- sponsors, presented the resolution that denounces "the one-sided, undemocratic, and illegitimate constitution drafting process and referendum by the Myanmar military junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)."

Yesterday's vote comes in the wake of a fierce cyclone that claimed the lives of tens of thou sands of people in Myanmar, also known as Burma. According to the Associated Press, up to 1 million may be homeless as foreign coun tries mobilized to rush in aid after the country's deadliest storm on record.

In a prepared statement, Holt said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Burmese people today. Despite this horrific natural disaster, the Burmese junta has announced it will go ahead with its scheduled constitutional referendum on Saturday. This referendum is a sham, a farce, fake, pretend, bogus, fraudulent, spurious, and phony."

Myanmar's military leaders said a vote scheduled for this Saturday on a key referendum in their proposed constitution would be delayed until May 24 in areas strongly affected by the storm, according to the Associated Press. State radio indicated that balloting in other areas would proceed as had been scheduled, which has drawn criticism from pro-democracy and human rights groups.

"More than natural disasters of the moment, however high their toll may be, the heavy yoke of the Burmese military has victimized the people of Burma for more than 20 years. By passing this resolution, we condemn the scheduled referendum for the sham that it is and urge Burmese rulers instead to engage in a real dialogue," Holt said.

New Jersey

Myanmar and the free press

The people of Myanmar can take comfort that in spite of the isolationist policy of their military junta, they will not have to deal with the devastating cyclone that tore through their country over the weekend by themselves.

Already, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has mobilized the international community to help the impoverished Southeast Asian country deal with the disaster, which according to reports on Tuesday morning, has left more than 15,000 people dead and another 30,000 missing.

The death and destruction left behind by the cyclone are simply too big for the reclusive regime to handle. Myanmar urgently needs international help. Going by the experience of similar calamities that have afflicted countries in the region, there is no reason the world would not come to the rescue.

Past experience with major natural disasters in this part of the world, however, also shows that the tragic stories of the cyclone must be told independently. This means that for Myanmar to secure all the help it needs, the regime must open up the country to international journalists.

The tsunami that brought such destruction to countries bordering the Indian Ocean in late 2004, particularly the Indonesian province of Aceh, where more than 200,000 people died, brought out the best in international solidarity.

Assistance did not only come from obvious groups like the United Nations, foreign governments and charity organizations. Ordinary citizens were moved to help the people of Aceh, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. They came from all walks of life, including prison inmates in Hong Kong and American schoolchildren donating their allowances for children in Aceh.

The assistance did not stop with the immediate need for relief supplies, but went well into the rebuilding of villages, communities and people's lives. Aceh could not have recovered without this international assistance.

Called the worst natural disaster in recorded history, the tsunami was matched by the generosity of people around the world, which was unprecedented in terms of the amount of money pledged and raised.

There was an aspect of this unlimited generosity that was rarely mentioned. The donors had the unimpeded media, Indonesian and foreign journalists, to thank for bringing the stories of the tragedy into their living rooms.

In the case of Aceh, it was more by default than by design that the media had a free hand in looking for stories that needed to be told to the world. Foreign journalists were among the first to enter Meulaboh, a town on the western coast of Aceh that was completely isolated for three days after the tsunami.

The Aceh administration was so devastated, with a third of its employees dead in the disaster, that there was virtually no or little government to speak of. Journalists arriving to cover the tsunami not only found destruction, but also challenging terrain with little transportation, power or hotel facilities, and certainly no assistance from the government.

They had to be resourceful. Not surprisingly, some of the best journalism emerged from the Aceh tsunami, carrying powerful messages for people around the world to help in whatever way they could. Free access and unimpeded reporting certainly helped.

The international response would have been vastly different had there been the usual restrictions imposed on journalists visiting Aceh, which was then still considered a zone of conflict between the Indonesian Military and Aceh separatist rebels.

The Myanmar junta sadly has banned foreign journalists, even from well-meaning neighboring countries like Indonesia, from visiting the country as part of its repressive policies. They, or rather their people, would stand to benefit from the generosity of people around the world if the regime were more open.

The world will certainly look beyond the repressive policies of the regime in lending humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. The question is, can the Myanmar junta do the same and allow unimpeded access not only to charity organizations but more particularly to international media, to help tell the tragedy to the rest of the world.

The Jakarta Post

Burma's cyclone death toll soars

The death toll from Burma's devastating cyclone has now risen to more than 22,000, state media have said.

Another 41,000 are missing three days after Cyclone Nargis hit the country, causing a huge tidal surge to sweep inland, according to state radio.

The report came as aid agencies begin what they expect to be a major relief operation to help hundreds of thousands left without clean water and shelter.

Burma's government has been criticised over its handling of the crisis.

A number of Burmese nationals and some foreigners have said they had not been properly warned by the country's military leaders about the approaching storm.

Some witnesses have also said the government's response to the disaster has so far been slow and inadequate.

US President George W Bush has urged the military leadership to give access to American disaster assessment teams, saying his country was ready to use its navy "to help find the missing, to help stabilise the situation".

Mr Bush was speaking as he signed legislation awarding the top US civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the detained Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The US later said it had offered $3m of aid, up from an initial contribution of $250,000. The UK said it had promised £5m ($9.9m), the EU offered 2m euros ($3.1m), while China said it had given $1m.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country had limited its financial contribution to 200,000 euros ($310,000):

"It's not a lot, but we don't really trust the way the Burmese ministry would use the money," he said.

Horrific scenes

State media reported on Tuesday that 22,464 people had now been confirmed dead and another 41,054 people missing as a result of the cyclone. As rescue teams get to areas presently cut off, those figures are expected to rise.

Almost all of the deaths occurred in the Irrawaddy river delta region, where more people were killed by the tidal wave than the cyclone itself, Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told reporters in Rangoon.

"The wave was up to 12ft [3.5m] high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said. "They did not have anywhere to flee."

Some 95% of the homes in the city of Bogalay in the Irrawaddy delta were destroyed and most of its 190,000 residents are now homeless, he added.

The neighbouring cities of Labutta and Pyapon have also been badly affected. A doctor in Labutta told the BBC that half of the city had vanished and dozens of surrounding villages washed away.

Satellite images released by the US space agency, Nasa, showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country under water, destroyed roads, downed power lines and flattened houses.

One of the few aid agencies permitted to work inside Burma, World Vision, described scenes of horror in the affected areas, with fields strewn with bodies and desperate survivors without food or shelter.

"They saw the dead bodies from the helicopters, so it's quite overwhelming," said Kyi Minn, an adviser to World Vision's office.

Foreign journalists are being denied entry to Burma, but a BBC reporter who has made it to Rangoon, its largest city and former capital, says he saw evidence of massive destruction, with houses torn down and trees ripped from their roots.

Parts of the city have had power and water restored, but most people are still running short, he adds.

Aid appeal

International aid agencies and the United Nations have begun a major relief operation to help the hundreds of thousands of survivors left homeless by the cyclone.

The UN World Food Programme said its food aid had begun to reach people in and around Rangoon. Additional truckloads of food are due to be dispatched on Wednesday to Labutta, which it said was the area hardest hit.

It said many of the coastal areas in the Irrawaddy delta remained cut off due to extensive flooding and road damage.

The WFP said it had more than 800 tonnes of food available in its warehouses in Rangoon and would airlift more supplies into Burma as soon as possible.

WFP country director Chris Kaye said the government had provided "some valuable co-operation", but said "much more" would be needed.

Thailand has already flown in some aid, India is sending two naval ships, and Bangladesh has said it will fly food and water purification tablets to Rangoon on Wednesday. Many other countries have promised further assistance.

Rashid Khalikov from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that some UN aid work was being delayed by visa restrictions.

He said the UN was urging Burma to waive the requirement for UN staff to have entry visas as the governments of Iran and Pakistan did after similar natural disasters.

Referendum delay

Correspondents say Burma, isolated and impoverished, has long been wary of the international community and there are doubts over how much access the government will allow aid workers.

Burma's leaders have said they will accept external help, in a move that correspondents say could reflect the scale of the disaster.

"The task is very wide and extensive and the government needs the co-operation of the people and well-wishers from at home and abroad," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying on Tuesday.

"We will not hide anything. Please ask the people not to be duped by rumours or fabrication," he said, adding that $4.5m of disaster aid had been set aside.

Burmese state television reported on Tuesday the government had decided to postpone to 24 May the referendum on a new constitution in areas worst-hit by the cyclone - including Rangoon and Irrawaddy.

But it said that the vote initially planned for 10 May would proceed as planned in the rest of the country. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) criticised the decision to press ahead.


Was Burma's cyclone predicted?

By Steve Jackson
BBC News

As the scale of the disaster in Burma becomes clear, questions are being asked over how much the authorities knew about the magnitude of the approaching storm.

US First Lady Laura Bush has accused the military government of failing to act to protect its people.

She says the Burmese authorities were well aware of the threat from Cyclone Nargis, but failed to issue a timely warning to those in the path of the storm.

India's meteorological agency, which monitors cyclones in the Indian Ocean, says it warned the Burmese authorities 48 hours before the storm struck.

The agency says it told Burma where the storm would hit land and how severe it was expected to be.

Burmese citizens have complained that they were not properly alerted, but Burmese state television issued a statement in English saying warnings were given several days beforehand.

"Timely weather reports were announced and aired through the television, and radio in order to keep the people safe and secure in nationwide," the statement said.

Certainly state media did give some warnings of a storm, but people in Burma say the severity of the cyclone was unclear and no instructions were given as to what action they should take.

Officials from the UN's disaster reduction agency in Geneva say it is clear many people did not have time to seek refuge in secure buildings.

They say the scale of the devastation suggests there was not a proper early warning system.

Burma's military government is likely to face many more questions about how prepared the country was for such a storm and how many lives could have been saved if a tried and tested early warning system was in place.