Aid Getting to Cyclone Victims, Despite Junta

Buddhist monks walk to collect food

Buddhist monks walk to collect food in Kyouttan township, near Yangon, Myanmar, on June 21. Khin Maung Win/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khin Maung Win/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of representatives from the United Nations, the Myanmar government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been surveying villages in the Irrawaddy Delta region devastated by May's ferocious cyclone. They've begun to release preliminary findings, but their complete assessment is expected next month.

Many international experts feared large numbers of post-cyclone casualties as a result of the ruling junta's initial unwillingness to permit international aid workers into the country.

But journalist Simon Montlake, covering the crisis for The Christian Science Monitor, says that, fortunately, those secondary waves of deaths have not occurred.

The most recent death statistics, released Tuesday by Myanmar's government, put the death toll at more than 84,000, up from May's 77,000 total; Montlake says the apparent increase is the result of more accurate counting of deaths from the cyclone itself rather than its aftermath.

Montlake, speaking from Bangkok, Thailand, says that Myanmar's regime clearly made work more difficult for international relief workers, as well as turning away American military ships with aid.

"The initial blocking of aid by the regime had an impact on what happened," says Montlake. "But this idea that it led to a second wave of deaths is still very much unproven."

Even though U.S. and other international relief efforts were hindered, says Montlake, the region did get much-needed assistance. "In fact, most people did get some kind of help, often from their own communities," he says. "People from Rangoon basically just loaded up stuff in their car and tried to get help to people," he says. "So it was a very piecemeal effort, but we shouldn't believe that nothing got through and that no one got help."

Montlake says that smaller private organizations that have been working in the country for years figured out ways to get aid into the hardest hit areas. "Quite frankly," he says, "they know who to trust and who to pay to get things done."

Additionally, Montlake says that Buddhist monks aided in cyclone relief, but thinks the ruling junta may view their role as a challenge to its power.

Montlake says that Myanmar continues to block aid if it feels threatened. "People have been detained, had their stuff taken from them and actually been arrested," he says. "These were people who were seen as being too political or too critical of the government."

"There's always the danger that the government could pull the plug at any minute," Montlake says.

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