Israel to send assistance to Myanmar

Cabinet minister says more than 10,000 people may have died from cyclone that swept through country.

cyclone 224.88 (photo credit: )
cyclone 224.88
(photo credit: )
Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said Monday evening that Israel would send medical assistance and water sanitation supplies to Myanmar in the coming days to help the cope with the devastating effects of a cyclone that may have killed more than 10,000 people. The ministry is currently waiting for a list of needs from the Myanmar government, said Mekel. He said a meeting would be held at the ministry on Tuesday to finalize details of the shipment, which would be sent with the help of various Israeli NGOs. Israel has an ambassador in Myanmar, and neither she, the other embassy official there, nor the embassy itself were hurt by the storm. Myanmar's ruling junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, urgently appealed for foreign aid as a cabinet minister warned that more than 10,000 may have died in the storm, diplomats and state media said. A state radio station said 3,939 perished as Saturday's Cyclone Nargis battered coastal areas and in a matter of hours transformed Yangon, the country's largest city, into a pre-modern state of existence. But Foreign Minister Nyan Win told Yangon-based diplomats that the death toll could rise to more than 10,000 in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, where the storm wreaked the most havoc, according to Asian diplomats at the meeting. It was the greatest recorded natural disaster in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since a storm killed 2,700 people in 1926. The diplomats said they were told Myanmar welcomed international humanitarian aid including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine, water purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first shipment of 9 tons was scheduled to arrive from Thailand on Tuesday. The disaster came just days before a referendum on a draft constitution pro-democracy advocates says would merely perpetuate the military's nearly four-decades-long grip on power. How the disaster would affect Myanmar's political course remained uncertain. But residents of Yangon, a city of some 6.5 million, said they were angry that the government failed to properly warn them of the approaching storm and has so far done little to alleviate their plight. "This is not likely to change anything, but this might just add to the discontent that is so evident in the society," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University. Yangon, where officials said 59 people died, was without electricity except where gas-fed generators were available and residents lined up to buy candles at double last week's prices. With pumps not working, most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long lines for drinking water and bathe in the city's lakes. Most telephone land lines, mobile phones and Internet connections were down. With the city plunged into almost total darkness overnight, security concerns mounted, and many shops sold their goods through partially opened doors or iron grills. Looting was reported at several fresh food markets, where thieves took vegetables and other items. "Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand. With his shanty town house destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to the many homeless. His entire morning was taken up with looking for water and some food to buy, ending up with three chicken eggs that cost double the normal price. Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was only clearing streets where the ruling elite resided but leaving residents, including Buddhist monks, to cope on their own in most other areas. "There are some army trucks out to clear the roads, but most of the work was done with a dah (knife) by the people. But some of these tree trunks are 4 feet thick," said Barry Michael Broman, a retired US State Department officer who was visiting Yangon when the cyclone struck. "Thousands of trees were uprooted. All the roads were blocked by the trees." At Yangon's notorious Insein prison, 36 prisoners were killed and about 70 others wounded when guards opened fire during a moment of chaos when the storm hit Saturday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist exile group based in Thailand. Diplomatic sources in Yangon gave a similar account. The association said around 1,000 prisoners were forced to congregate and locked inside the main prison hall after the storm destroyed one area of the prison. Trying to keep warm, the prisoners started a fire that swirled out of control and panic erupted, prompting guards to open fire, the group said. Political prisoners in the prison, it said, were not among the victims. "The government misled people. They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared," said Thin Thin, a grocery store owner. Before it hit, the government had only put out "storm news," saying the cyclone would travel at about 50 kilometers an hour whereas it struck at almost four times that speed. Myanmar is not known to have an adequate disaster warning system and many rural buildings are constructed of thatch, bamboo and other materials easily destroyed by fierce storms. The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm. The storm has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and without clean drinking water, said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok, Thailand for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although talks were still ongoing, Horsey said it appeared the United Nations had the green light to send in a team to assess the storm's damage as early as Tuesday. Myanmar allows the presence of United Nations and non-governmental aid organizations but has restricted their activities and movements within the country. Individuals have had their visas terminated while some groups have pulled out in frustration at the restrictions. Allowing any major influx of foreigners could carry risks for the military, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery. However, keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore peoples' livelihoods. Relief Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Swe said the referendum could be postponed by "a few days" in the worst-affected areas, but state media indicated Monday that the May 10 date was still set. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years. Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates. "It is not likely that the devastation caused by the cyclone will lead directly to further street protests. This is because there is now a major hunt on by residents of Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta for clean water, candles, and basic foodstuffs," said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University. "Given the increasing commodity prices in Burma, and the overwhelming anger of the population against their enforced poverty, Burmese people are going about the process of burying their dead and trying to reconstruct their homes."