05/06/2008, 00.00
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Death toll from cyclone Nargis rises to 22,000

Military government announces humanitarian agencies must negotiate with regime their entry into Myanmar. Burmese remain sceptical about the regime’s real openness. Four days since the disaster United Nations officials still waiting for entry visas.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – The death toll from cyclone Nargis is rising by the hour. The latest official statement speaks of 22,464 dead and 41,000 missing, figures bound to get worse. On some Burmese blogs people speak of more than 50,000.

Despite the ruling junta’s desire to see its constitutional referendum held on 10 May whatever may come, state TV announced the ballot was postponed till 24 May in the affected areas, the Irrawaddy area and 40 ridings in Yangon.

Four days after Nargis hit it is still difficult to evaluate the scope of the disaster because phone lines are down and communications are interrupted.

Meanwhile the junta still appears to be of two minds over international emergency aid.

Myanmar’s Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe announced that teams of foreign experts and international aid are welcome but that they must negotiate with the authorities how to operate in the country.

It seems the generals have given the green light only to United Nations agencies, but many UN officials are still waiting for an entry visa. By contrast, Myanmar’s military rulers have always dismissed foreign NGOs as ‘neo-colonialist tools.

At the time of the 2004 tsunami the generals kept their traditional isolationist stance, rejecting foreign aid. This is why Burmese analysts remain sceptical about the regime’s real level of openness, expecting that it will be very limited insofar as the population’s real needs, at least until vote counting in the controversial referendum is over.

Interestingly the Mizzima News, which is close to the exiled dissident community, reported that in a secret memo the authorities have directed all security agencies to be on “high alert,” monitor international organizations and prevent their free movement until May 10, the scheduled date for the referendum.

Another factor is raising doubts about the military government’s real openness. Nargis affected areas are also home to separatist groups like the Karen National Union, which have not signed a cease-fire with the regime.

Last April state newspapers launched a campaign against one of the most credible international humanitarian agency, the International Red Cross, charging it with supporting the Karen rebels.

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