Burma asks for aid as cyclone death toll tops 10,000

Burma's reclusive junta made a rare plea for foreign aid on Monday as the death toll from the weekend's devastating tropical cyclone climbed past 10,000.

Burma's reclusive junta made a rare plea for foreign aid on Monday as the death toll from the weekend's devastating tropical cyclone climbed past 10,000.

State media reported late Monday that about 10,000 people were killed in the town of Bogalay alone, meaning the number of dead across the country is likely to balloon.

Countries around the world, including Canada, responded to the appeal for help by announcing donations, though some help was conditional on the authoritarian regime opening the country up to relief workers. Canada promised $2 million in aid.

Authorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are struggling to assess damage and casualties in the wake of Saturday's Cyclone Nargis, said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN's disaster response office in Bangkok.

The cyclone came ashore at the delta of the Irrawaddy River, the country's most heavily populated region. Rangoon has also been hard hit, Horsey said.

Earlier in the day, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win confirmed on state television that his government was ready to accept assistance from the international community.

Diplomats based in the former capital, Rangoon, said they were told the junta was welcoming international humanitarian aid, including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine, water purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first shipment was scheduled to arrive from Thailand on Tuesday.

Extra U.S. aid conditional

The Burmese government was in talks with international agencies to discuss aid requirements and how to get help to the worst-affected areas, Horsey said. The UN has been invited to send aid and expert help, news agency reports from Rangoon say.

Speaking in Washington, Laura Bush, President George W. Bush's wife and the White House's chief voice on human rights and political conditions in Burma, said the U.S. embassy in the Southeast Asian nation is providing an immediate $250,000 US in aid from an existing emergency fund to humanitarian organizations working on the ground.

The U.S. is prepared to send additional aid, but that is conditional on Burma allowing a U.S. disaster response team into the country to assess the needs, she said. The State Department said permission was denied.

Bush also criticized the ruling junta for deciding to go ahead with a May 10 constitutional referendum, describing it as a sham, and questioned why leaders didn't warn citizens earlier about the storm.

"We know already that they are very inept," she said.

With several hundred thousand people homeless, Horsey said, the most immediate needs will be clean drinking water, food, medicine and materials for repairing houses or sheltering people whose homes have been devastated.

The relief organization World Vision estimated Monday that as many as two million people may have been affected by the cyclone.

James Tumbuan, World Vision's national director for Burma, said from Rangoon that the former capital has "totally collapsed."

"All the roads were blocked with fallen trees," he said. "The way [it] used to look, with its big trees, has been totally changed." 

Freelance journalist Andrew Chant, talking to CBC News from Bangkok, said most of the casualties are in the densely populated rice-growing areas in the Irrawaddy River delta around Rangoon.

"People there live along rivers and streams," Chant said, "and they'll have experienced a double hit from both the winds and rising waters."

There is rising concern that extensive damage to rice paddies could lead to food shortages all over the country, he said.

Workers from several international aid agencies have been travelling in Rangoon and outside the city to discover how much aid is needed, and where help is needed most.

World Vision spokesman James East told CBC News that assessment teams from his organization were having trouble getting out of the city because of blocked, flooded and damaged roads.

"Our people are saying they haven't seen anything like it," East said.

Size of disaster still unknown: official

Telecommunications to many areas have been cut by the storm, according to Michael Annear of the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Bangkok.

"Widespread destruction is obviously making it more difficult to get aid to people who need it most," Annear said. 

In Rangoon, people huddled in darkened rooms and stood in line to buy candles and cooking gas as the city's already unreliable electricity supply remained severely disrupted. Winds approaching 160 km/h blew roofs from hospitals, schools and government buildings.

The Associated Press reported from the city that residents were angry that the military regime had so far extended a helping hand only to wealthy neighbourhoods, leaving others to fend for themselves. Burma's authorities are ensconced in the newly built capital city, Naypyitawm, far from the cyclone-affected area.

People were staying away from work Monday to find food and shelter for their families, AP reported.

"Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," said Tin Hia, who runs a roadside stand repairing umbrellas for passersby. His makeshift hut in one of the city's many slums had been destroyed, he said.

Burmese-Canadian community concerned

Members of Canada's Burmese community have been in contact with relatives in their homeland, according to Tin Muang Htoo of the activist group Canadian Friends of Burma.

"It's typical that storms are hitting" at this time of year, Htoo told CBC news, "but this time, this is the worst.

"After this crisis, there will be lots of difficulties dealing with food crisis and sanitation, especially with water."

Htoo called on Canada to offer help to hard-hit people in Burma.

A spokeswoman for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda told CBC News on Monday that the government was working on an aid plan for Burma that was to be ready by later in the day.

The cyclone came just a few days before the military junta was to hold a referendum on a new constitution that could lead to multi-party elections in 2010. State media are insisting the vote will go ahead on Saturday as scheduled, but government ministers have told diplomats that a postponement is possible, news agencies report.

Pro-democracy groups say the proposed new constitution would merely perpetuate military rule in the country.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more detained when the military regime cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks and students.

With files from the Associated Press