05/07/2008, 00.00
MYANMAR
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Alarm of disease and hunger for the survivors of Nargis

According to Save the Children, "millions" are homeless, while the decomposing bodies increase the risk of serious disease. Many areas are still isolated and lack food and water. The rice paddies of the Irrawaddy have been damaged, and food prices are sky high; three days from the constitutional referendum, the frustration of the population could reignite protests against the regime.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - There is an alarm of disease and hunger for the Burmese population struck by the devastating cyclone Nargis last May 3.  According to the director of Save the Children for the former Burma, Andrew Kirkwood, "millions" are homeless in the south of the country, and with the retreat of the water thousands of cadavers are decomposing and risk causing disease.  The official toll of the victims yesterday rose above 22,000, to which are added 41,000 displaced people, "but it is presumed that most of them have died", Kirkwood explains.  The many human losses can be attributed to the anomalous wave that spread through the Irrawaddy delta following the rise in sea levels caused by blasts of wind from Nargis.

The health emergency

UNICEF warns of the vital urgency of bringing aid as soon as possible.  In a statement, the UN agency for children explains that the survivors of the disaster now live in worrying sanitary conditions and without access to drinking water.  The looming spectre is that of malaria and dengue fever, but also cholera and dysentery.  The World Food Programme is distributing energy bars and other foodstuffs to some of the displaced around Yangon, the former capital, and has said that tomorrow new aid supplies will be sent to Labutta, the area hardest hit.  At this point, the military junta has opened to international aid only through the United Nations, and has accepted  "negotiations" with the NGOs that want to enter the territory for humanitarian operations.

The United States, Great Britain, the European Union, and China have provided funds for the emergency.  France has reduced its aid, accusing the military regime of not collaborating in a transparent way.  India and Thailand have sent aid by air and sea transport.

And the food emergency

Some of the coastal areas are still isolated, aid workers cannot reach them, and some of the people are unable to find food.  The risk of a food crisis is concrete, if one considers that the cyclone destroyed most of the rice paddies in the area of the Irrawaddy, which were ready to be harvested after the winter planting season.  This is the region that produces most of the rice in Myanmar, one of the leading rice producers worldwide.  Once the dimensions of the damage have been verified, it is feared that there will be repercussions for the entire worldwide system of food prices, which have already spiked sharply.

The lack of food in the country has pushed staple food prices sky high.  The risk is that the dramatic situation will act as a catalyst for popular protests, and all the more so in that the controversial constitutional referendum is just three days away.  The cost of cooking oil and eggs has almost doubled overnight.  Chicken and pork cost three times more, while the price of petrol has doubled.  "The people", recounts a student in Yangon, "feel they no longer have anything to lose, and will take to the streets against the regime".  Between last August and September, it was the unjustified rise in the price of petrol that had sparked demonstrations led by the Buddhist monks, which were met with a bloody repression.  In the view of the Burmese, who hold superstitious beliefs like many other Asian peoples, when a natural disaster strikes the country it is a sign that the government in power has lost its "divine mandate", and therefore must be replaced.

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