YANGON, Myanmar – The death toll in Myanmar’s devastating cyclone soared above 22,000 on Tuesday, with more than 41,000 others missing, state radio reported.
Meanwhile, international aid officials said up to one million people may be homeless in the wake of cyclone Nargis, which ravaged the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, early Saturday.
Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas wiped out, the World Food Program said.
Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the Irrawaddy River delta region, which is regarded as Myanmar’s rice bowl.
“From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge,” said a statement issued by Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon.
No Canadians are reported among the dead and injured. A Foreign Affairs Department spokesman in Ottawa said consular officials were attempting to contact all 57 Canadians known to be in Myanmar. Most were registered as being in the Yangon area.
Myanmar’s military junta has signalled it will welcome aid supplies for cyclone victims, the UN said Tuesday, clearing the way for a major relief operation from international organizations.
But UN workers were still awaiting their visas to enter the country, said Elisabeth Byrs of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“The government has shown a certain openness so far,” Byrs said. “We hope that we will get the visas as soon as possible, in the coming hours. I think the authorities have understood the seriousness of the situation and that they will act accordingly.”
Ottawa has set aside up to $2 million to provide urgent relief.
International Co-operation Minister Beverley Oda has said Canada is working closely with UN agencies, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations to determine how “Canada’s support can best meet the humanitarian needs of the people, once access is allowed by the Burmese government.”
President George W. Bush called on Myanmar’s military junta to allow the United States to help with disaster assistance, saying the U.S. already has provided some assistance but wants to do more.
“We’re prepared to move U.S. navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country,” he said.
Bush spoke Tuesday at a ceremony where he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the last 18 years, was made an honorary Canadian citizen on Monday.
The appeal for outside assistance was unusual for Myanmar’s ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations and closely controlled their activities. Several agencies, including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have limited their presence as a result.
Some aid agencies reported their assessment teams had reached some stricken areas of the largely isolated region, but said getting in supplies and large numbers of aid workers would be difficult.
Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, told NBC’s “Today” show that the cyclone, the term used for hurricanes in much of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region, had knocked down huge trees in the country’s largest city.
“And it blew down a significant portion of them, some of these are six, eight, 10 stories tall – huge trees, six feet (two metres). . . in diameter. So they came down on roofs,” she said.
The cyclone came only a week ahead of a key referendum on a constitution that Myanmar’s military leaders hoped would go smoothly in its favour, despite opposition from the country’s feisty pro-democracy movement. However, the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.
State radio also said that Saturday’s vote would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Irrawaddy delta, which took the brunt of the weekend storm. It indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.
The decision drew swift criticism from dissidents and human rights groups who question the credibility of the vote and urged the junta to focus on disaster victims.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties.
At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.