TOPICS: Did cyclone Nargis kill 300,000 people?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis crashed through Burma’s populous Irrawaddy Delta, the country’s military regime has been more forthcoming about the number of buffaloes and chickens that perished than on human casualties. For now, the official human toll in Burma, or Myanmar, stands at 77,738 deaths and 55,917 missing.

This figure was revealed in a small story that appeared at the bottom of page six in the May 17 edition of the New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece of the regime. That figure was almost double of what the notoriously secretive junta had revealed nearly 10 days after the powerful cyclone struck in the early hours of May 3. Since the country’s worst natural disaster in living memory, the official figures of dead and missing people have been revised at least four times. Some international humanitarian agencies have estimated the death toll to be over 130,000. Yet, even that number may be much lower than what a few civilian organisations working closely with the junta estimate. By the end of the first week, information gathered by the junta and discussed among a small group of senior military officers in the former capital Rangoon had put the death toll as high as 300,000, a source close to the junta, said. “They were shocked by the scale of the disaster and that is why they clamped down on information getting out and outsiders, like foreign aid workers, going into the delta,” he added.

This revelation was made a few days before another assessment of the affected areas was made by 18 humanitarian agencies in Burma. The latter estimated that at least 220,000 people are reported to be missing, in addition to 101,682 possible deaths, a local aid worker close to the agencies said. Burmese familiar with the terrain and demographic composition in the delta are not surprised by the possibility of deaths on such a monumental scale. “Some people say that the death toll in only Bogale town and the surrounding villages could be as high as 100,000,” Win Min, a Burmese national security expert who grew up in the delta, said. “At least 36 villages close to Bogale town were flattened.”

Bogale was one among seven townships that faced the brunt of the cyclone, which had wind speeds of 190 km per hour, churned up a wall of sea water 3.5 m high and swept 40 km nland on the flat terrain of the Irrawaddy Delta. The other badly affected townships were Labutta, Mawlamyinegyun and Kyaiklat. The area that was affected is vast, says Steve Marshall, a senior member of International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) office in Rangoon.

“We are talking of an area of 82,000 sq km, almost the size of Austria.”

What is more, the delta has the highest population density not only in Burma but is also very high when compared with the rest of Asia. There are 183 people per sq km in the delta, while in the rest of the country it is 72 people per sq km. There are 7.3 million people living in the cyclone-hit areas, of which four million people in the delta have been affected.