YANGON, Myanmar – A cyclone killed more than 350 people and destroyed thousands of homes, state-run media said Sunday. Some dissident groups worried that the military junta running Myanmar would be reluctant to ask for international help.
Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit at a delicate time for the junta, less than a week ahead of a crucial referendum on a new constitution. Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and squashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.
Some in Yangon complained the 400,000-strong military was doing little to help victims after Saturday’s storm.
“Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?” said a trishaw driver who refused to be identified for fear of retribution. “They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity.”
The Forum for Democracy in Burma and other dissident groups outside of Myanmar urged the military junta Sunday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone – something it has been reluctant to do in the past.
It would be difficult for other countries to help unless they received a request from Myanmar’s military rulers.
“International expertise in dealing with natural disasters is urgently required. The military regime is ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone,” said Naing Aung, secretary general of the Thailand-based forum.
The storm’s 120 mph winds blew the roofs off hospitals and cut electricity to the country’s largest city.
Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, said the storm’s whipping winds and torrential downpour had caused “major devastation throughout the city.”
“The Burmese are saying they have never seen anything like this, ever,” Villarosa said.
At least 351 people were killed, including 162 who lived on Haing Gyi island off the country’s southwest coast, military-run Myaddy television station reported. Many of the others died in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.
State television reported that in Labutta township, 75 percent of the buildings had collapsed.
The U.N. planned to send teams Monday to assess the damage, said Chris Kaye, the U.N.’s acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon.
Yangon residents also said Sunday that the price of gasoline had jumped from $2.50 to $10 a gallon on the black market.