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Myanmar Cyclone's Devastation Rivals Tsunami

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Myanmar Cyclone's Devastation Rivals Tsunami


Myanmar Cyclone's Devastation Rivals Tsunami

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

One of the few aid agencies with people working in Myanmar offers a few hints at the devastation. The agency World Vision describes piles of bodies and a massive rice-growing region devastated. The nation formerly known as Burma might have suffered more from a cyclone than it did from the tsunami a few years ago - that's according to people at this aid agency.

We're going to get the latest this morning from NPR's Michael Sullivan, who's covering the story from Bangkok, and Michael, what have you learned?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Hi, Steve. I think what we can say right now is that what's going on is we're still trying to figure out just how widespread the destruction is that was caused by this thing and how many people were actually killed, and I think we're still trying to find out just how many people were left homeless by this thing.

I mean, there are some estimates that as many as several hundred thousand people were affected by this thing, but there's no firm estimates yet because these assessment teams that the few aid agencies operating in the country have on the ground are still out doing those assessments, and we just don't have any clear indication yet about what the real situation is. But we know, of course, that it's dire for many people.

INSKEEP: What is the terrain like that was struck by this cyclone?

SULLIVAN: It's very, very low-lying area, and that really complicated things here. Because the Burmese officials that were speaking today about this in the former capital, Yangon, were saying that there was basically this 12-foot-high wall of water that was generated by this storm, and it basically just inundated many, many villages near or along the ocean.

And that's basically where most of the casualties came from - not from the storm itself but from the wave that followed.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Michael Sullivan, who's reported on Myanmar and surrounding countries for years. He's reporting from Bangkok today. And Michael, I want to mention that like many other journalists, you're not in the country yet, not allowed in the country yet. And that raises another important question: Is this military government, this isolated government, going to let aid agencies in when they arrive offering help?

SULLIVAN: Aid agencies have already offered help, and some people say that the Myanmar government has accepted these offers, but I think it's not really clear yet. I mean, there are no reports as of now of international aid agencies actually getting new people into the country, people who weren't there already, and there's no reports of them getting, you know, plane-loads of food or water-purification tablets or, you know, plastic sheeting, any kind of portable shelter, into the country yet.

All they're doing now is distributing what they've already had in country on hand before this thing happened. So in theory, at least, from what I understand from yesterday in New York, that some people were saying that the aid agencies would be allowed in. But in practice, so far, it hasn't happened. There are many here who - in Bangkok - who have applied for visas for their people and they haven't gotten those visas yet. But they say they're optimistic that they'll get them probably tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Is that different than the pace of assistance that arrived after the tsunami, which I know you covered? Two or three days after was there actually aid arriving in other countries after the tsunami?

SULLIVAN: Yes. I mean, I think the countries involved there, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, they responded, you know, very openly. When this happened, they immediately recognized the consequences and they said, look, we need help. The government of Myanmar is a secretive government. It doesn't accept that much outside help, even in the best of times, and they're naturally suspicious of the international community in general and the West in particular.

And you know, they just don't like asking for help, and they don't really like the presence of international people on the ground, especially when it comes to this referendum that was planned for this coming weekend, this referendum on a new constitution the military is trying to get passed that many opposition groups say is, you know, just a sham, just a way for the military to stay in power.

They didn't want people around for this thing, and they certainly don't want journalists in to cover this thing, although the referendum in some of these affected areas now is said to be postponed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michael Sullivan is covering the latest that we can learn about a tropical cyclone that struck Myanmar, killing thousands. He's in Bangkok. Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we'll bring you more as we learn more.

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