Secretive Myanmar remains tsunami news black hole
Experts say, If the Andaman and Nicobars were badly hit, it seems likely that the Cocos islands were, too
MYANMAR’S assertion that it largely escaped the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami has failed to allay concerns about the disaster’s impact on one if the world’s poorest and most secretive countries, experts and aid workers said on Tuesday.
Military-ruled Myanmar has said only 59 of its people perished in the Dec 26 tidal wave that has claimed about 150,000 people, many on Thai and Indian islands very close to the Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma.
Burmese exile groups, who oppose the military junta in Yangon, have cited reports of destroyed fishing villages from travellers in the region suggesting at least 400 are dead. Aid agencies have estimated a toll of 90 dead.
“Definitely the death toll should be higher than what the military junta are saying, but as far as exact figures, it’s almost impossible to know,” said Soe Pyne of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, based in Maryland.
“There are some Burmese in Thailand, but they are afraid of getting sent home, so it’s up to people like us,” he said, adding that people inside Myanmar also fear the consequences of divulging tsunami details to outsiders.
United Nations officials have speculated that some 30,000 people in Myanmar need urgent aid. But a World Food Programme spokeswoman in Washington said the UN agency would get its first close tour of Myanmar’s disaster zone on Wednesday.
Secrecy, Callousness: US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in Phuket, Thailand satellite photographs suggest that Myanmar escaped the worst ravages of the tsunami. But he said he had no idea whether Myanmar’s military rulers were telling the truth about the death toll. The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma has issued statements saying that some 200 “Sea Gypsies” - members from the Salon or Moken ethnic groups in southern Myanmar - were lost at sea, along with other fisherman.
The exile group also said the tsunami casualties could include Chinese soldiers at naval listening posts on the Coco Islands. China is a major supporter of the Myanmar junta. David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University, said the Coco Islands were “the site of a major jail ... sort of like Devil’s Island.”
“If the Andaman and Nicobars were badly hit, it seems likely that the Cocos islands were, too,” he said, referring to Indian-ruled islands just north of the earthquake’s epicentre where some 900 bodies have been found and about 5,700 people are still missing. Steinberg said the generals who have run Myanmar since 1962 have always been economical with bad news. “Disaster, naturally or otherwise induced, tend to undercut the perceived legitimacy of the state, so they report them only reluctantly or in a tardy manner,” he said.
Hal Nathan, a California-based financial advisor and devout Buddhist who runs a charity to help Burmese people, attributed the blackout to a mixture of secrecy and callousness, as well as a poor communications in a land of few roads and phones.
“For them to admit international NGOs for surveys is to open up a discussion of the poverty in that country and the lack of infrastructure and the lack of health care. Fifty deaths or 5,000 deaths is, to the military government, ‘so what?’“ he said. “Even if the death toll were to rise significantly, I don’t think there would be a different response.” reuters