YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar's ruling junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, appealed for disaster relief Monday as a cabinet minister warned that more than 10,000 people may have died in a devastating weekend cyclone, diplomats and state media said.
A state radio station reported the official death toll from cyclone Nargis had soared to 3,939, and that some 3,000 people were missing in one coastal town.
Foreign Minister Nyan Win told Yangon-based diplomats that the death toll could rise to more than 10,000 in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, where the storm wreaked the most havoc, according to Asian diplomats at the meeting.
The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the cyclone, which is the term used to describe hurricanes in much of the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Many rural buildings are constructed of thatch, bamboo and other materials easily destroyed by fierce storms.
Diplomats said they were told Myanmar welcomed international humanitarian aid, including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine, water purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first shipment of nine tonnes was scheduled to arrive from Thailand on Tuesday.
The disaster came just days before a referendum on a draft constitution pro-democracy advocates contend is aimed at merely perpetuating the military's nearly four-decade grip on power.
Residents of Yangon, a city of some 6.5 million reduced to shambles by the storm, said they were angry that the government failed to properly warn them of the approaching hurricane and complained that little had been done so far to alleviate their plight.
"This is not likely to change anything, but this might just add to the discontent that is so evident in the society," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University.
Yangon, where officials said 59 people died, was without electricity except where gas-fed generators were available. Residents lined up to buy candles at double last week's prices.
With pumps not working, most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long lines for drinking water and to bathe in the city's lakes.
Most telephone land lines, mobile phones and Internet connections were down.
With the city plunged into almost total darkness overnight, security concerns mounted, and many shops sold their goods through partially opened doors or iron grills. Looting was reported at several fresh food markets, where thieves took vegetables and other items.
"Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand.
With his shanty town house destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to the many homeless.
His entire morning was taken up with looking for water and some food to buy, ending up with three eggs that cost double the normal price.
Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was only clearing streets where the ruling elite reside, leaving other residents, including Buddhist monks, to cope on their own.
"There are some army trucks out to clear the roads, but most of the work was done with a dah (knife) by the people," said Barry Michael Broman, a retired U.S. State Department officer who was visiting Yangon when the cyclone struck.
"But some of these tree trunks are four feet (1.2 metres) thick," Broman added. "Thousands of trees were uprooted. All the roads were blocked by the trees."
At Yangon's Insein prison, 36 prisoners were killed and about 70 others wounded when guards opened fire during a moment of chaos when the storm hit Saturday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist exile group based in Thailand. Diplomatic sources in Yangon gave a similar account.
The association said around 1,000 inmates, none of them political prisoners, were locked inside the main prison hall after the storm destroyed one area of the jail.
Trying to keep warm, the prisoners started a fire that swirled out of control and panic erupted, prompting guards to open fire, the group said.
Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Thailand for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said relief talks with the Myanmar junta were ongoing, but that it appeared the UN has the green light to send in a team to assess the storm's damage as early as Tuesday.
Myanmar allows the presence of United Nations and non-governmental aid organizations but restricts their activities and movement within the country.
Allowing any major influx of foreigners could carry risks for the military, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 and the junta has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.