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Myanmar Death Toll Reported at Nearly 4000
Thousands More Deaths Expected in Myanmar
The death toll from the devastating cyclone that struck Myanmar over the weekend escalated to nearly 4,000 people, the government said Monday, and the foreign minister told diplomats and United Nations officers that it could rise to 10,000.
If the numbers are accurate, the death toll would be the biggest from a natural disaster in Asia since the tsunami of December 2004, which killed 181,000 as it devastated coastlines in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of southeast and south Asia.
On Monday, Myanmar’s state television and radio reported 3,934 dead, 41 injured and 2,879 missing — all from a single town.
Hundreds of thousands of people were reportedly homeless and food and water were in short supply after Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta and the country’s main city, Yangon, early Saturday.
The estimate that the death toll could rise to 10,000, which would represent a dramatic increase from the government’s initial estimate on Sunday of 351 people killed, was announced at a briefing in Myanmar by three cabinet ministers, including the foreign minister, Nyan Win, according to Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the United Nations disaster response office in Bangkok.
“What is clear is that we are dealing with a major emergency situation, and the priority needs now are shelter and clean drinking water,” Mr. Horsey said.
A spokesman for the World Food Program, Paul Risley, said the government of Myanmar, which severely restricts the movements and activities of foreign groups, had given the United Nations permission to send in emergency aid.
“Stories get worse by the hour,” one Yangon resident reported in an e-mail message. “No drinking water in many areas, still no power. Houses completely disappeared. Refugees scavenging for food in poorer areas. Roofing, building supplies, tools — all are scarce and prices skyrocketing on everything.”
A human rights group based in Thailand, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which has provided reliable information from within Myanmar in the past, said that soldiers and police officers had killed 36 prisoners in Insein prison to quell a riot that started after the cyclone tore roof sheets off cell blocks, Reuters reported.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
Despite the devastation, the government said it would proceed with a constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday that is intended to formalize the military’s grip on power.
The junta that rules Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has closed the country off from the outside world and maintained its grip on power through force, while its economic mismanagement has driven the country deeper into poverty. Some analysts said the government’s response to the disaster could affect the pattern of voting by a population that has been under strong pressure to support the referendum. Some government-run enterprises or businesses with associations with the government have already required their employees to vote in advance.
Witnesses said the government was slow to address the disaster, and exile groups said some residents had told them they were angry about the weak response of the military, which just nine months ago carried out a violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations led by monks.
“This is what people I have contacted complain about,” said Aung Zaw, editor of the magazine Irrawaddy, based in Thailand. “These people were so active in September killing the monks, but where are they now?”
Dozens of people were reportedly killed during the crackdown last year, which was followed by a campaign of intimidation and arrests.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1965 and continues to suppress political opposition. The pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.
The immediate problem in affected areas is now survival, with water and electricity cut off, roads blocked by fallen trees, roofs torn off homes and prices for transportation and food rising fast.
“People are starving,” an unidentified resident was quoted as saying by the Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway.
“Fuel is becoming scarce,” the resident was quoted as saying. “People are likely to die of starvation. If international help doesn’t come within a week, it will be impossible to survive. There will be nothing left to eat.”
Mr. Horsey, of the United Nations, said teams representing various aid groups were trying to assess the damage in the disaster areas, where half the country’s population of 53 million lives.
Despite concerns from human rights groups that the junta would not allow outside aid groups into hard-hit areas, Mr. Horsey said, “There are discussions ongoing. My impression is that they are receptive to international assistance.”
Some aid had already been stockpiled in anticipation of natural disasters, he said.
“It will take a few days until a complete and accurate picture of the impact and of the numbers of people affected comes out,” he said. “The road network has taken a significant hit and moving around is difficult, and the communications network is essentially down.”
Even without the destruction from the cyclone, travel and communications can be difficult in the country because of its weak infrastructure, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch.
In Yangon, he said, people usually get only five or six hours of electricity a day, and some remote areas have no access to electricity. “So the fact that electricity is down is not really that important,” he said.
Jens Orback, a former minister for integration and democracy in Sweden, was in Yangon when the cyclone hit.
“Trees that were standing there hundreds of years fell easily,” he said, “and things from roofs fell down and the electricity went down and there were only flashlights. In the first days you couldn’t go anywhere by car. No telephones worked. The Internet was out, and there was a lack of information.
“What struck us also was that in the first daylight, nobody from the police, military or firemen was out working with the devastation, but people privately were there with knives and machetes and hand saws.”
Aung Zaw of Irrawaddy Magazine said that groups of monks joined residents in clearing the streets but that in one case they had been prevented from leaving their monastery by armed police officers. As centers of the September uprising, some monasteries remain under police or military guard, he said.
In advance of the referendum, the riot police had been reported patrolling the streets in a show of force said to have been more visible than the current military relief efforts.