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Where Are Burma's Earthquake Casualties?

by Sonny Inbaraj

Burma's Hardline Generals Now In Control Of Country

(IPS) BANGKOK -- It remains one of the greatest mysteries so far on how Burma, with over 2,000 kilometers of its coastline along the Andaman Sea directly exposed to the devastating tsunami waves that killed over 140,000 people in the region the day after Christmas, managed to escape with minimal damage.

A simulation produced by the Japan-based National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology showed the tsunami waves, which on Dec. 26 were spawned by a huge undersea quake in northern Sumatra, hitting the coast of Burma's Arakan state and the Irrawaddy and Tenasserim divisions.

Logically speaking, southern Burma should have been hit as bad as neighboring Thailand -- where the death toll is currently more than 5,200.

But no, says Anthony Banbury, the World Food Program's regional director for Asia.

"It's hard to explain and I honestly have no explanation at all why that coast was spared compared to other areas that have had tremendous damage from the tsunami," he told a press conference on Wednesday.

On Tuesday the WFP managed to get an assessment team into Tenasserim division's Kawthaung, at the southernmost tip of Burma directly facing the Andaman Sea, and reported that the damage was minimal.

"The WFP team reports that Kawthaung has escaped damage from the tsunami. Life is going on as normal there; there are Thai tourists in the town -- and there are less than 10 deaths reported," said Banbury.

"The team was allowed to move a little bit along the coast and saw a number of coastal villages that were left unscathed after the tsunami," he added.

Burma's military junta has put the number of dead at 59, a figure that Banbury said was "fairly accurate."

"The reports of deaths that we're aware of and which we believe are accurate are a total of between 30 to 60 deaths caused by the tsunami," he said.

But the WFP director said the estimate was by no means conclusive and the UN agency would be doing more assessments on how to bring emergency food aid to the affected areas.

"We have identified approximately 10,000 people in the Irrawaddy division, which is the delta area south of the capital Rangoon, in need of food assistance," Banbury pointed out. "These 10,000 are people affected by the tsunami and they need immediate aid."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in the Thai island resort of Phuket, where current search and rescue operations are going on, that satellite photographs suggested Burma escaped the worst ravages of the tsunami.

But he said he had no idea whether Burma's military rulers were telling the truth about the death toll.

Powell is now in Jakarta, where he will join UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and senior politicians around the world in Thursday's donors meeting to focus of rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the devastating tsunamis.

In the meantime, the Australian Labor federal opposition has called on Prime Minister John Howard to pressure Burma's military regime to provide more details about the impact of the tsunami in that country.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said it is an issue that must be raized during Thursday's donors' summit in Jakarta.

"As Mr. Howard heads to Jakarta for the summit on the tsunami impact on the region, he can urge ASEAN (the Association of South-east Asian Nations) -- of which Burma is a member -- to apply some leverage on the regime in Rangoon to come clean with what precisely has occurred in the aftermath of the tsunami," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Suspicions were raized when on Dec. 27, the day following the disaster, the junta-controlled 'New Light of Myanmar' reported only "messages of sympathy" sent to by the generals to neighboring countries, while giving no report on local impact.

"It took two full days for the regime to officially report a minimal of 36 deaths, 45 injured, 14 missing, and 788 homeless displaced, and 17 coastal villages destroyed," said the Burma lobby group ALTSEAN in a report on the tsunami impact on the country..

"On Jan. 1, the regime updated these figures to 59 dead, 43 injured and 3,205 made homeless," added the report.

ALTSEAN said this delay in announcing the causality figures was indicative of the regime's desire to "bury the event and its impact on the local population."

"This irresponsible behavior poses a serious threat to the health of local populations and hampers international relief assistance. Burma's military regime must be held accountable for its lack of attention to its population," ALTSEAN's Debbie Stothart told IPS.

But what's worrying is that the situation has been less clear on Burma's islands. This is where the regime together with the Chinese armed forces have their military installations. So for obvious reasons these areas will remain off-limits to relief agencies.

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reported that army radar installations on Coco Islands, in the Indian Ocean, had been partly destroyed by the tsunami and Chinese military officers were among the victims.

According to the DVB, military radar installations in the Mergui Archipelago and Heingyi Island could also have been destroyed together with an illegal Thai gambling casino operating under the regime's consent on an island in southern Burma.

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Albion Monitor January 5, 2005 (

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