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Allegations Burma Govt downplayed cyclone warnings

The World Today - Wednesday, 7 May , 2008 12:15:00

Reporter: Alison Caldwell

ELEANOR HALL: Now to Burma where the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis has now climbed to
22,000 with another 41,000 people still missing.

And as aid begins to reach the survivors, there are new allegations that Burma's military
government may have deliberately withheld information about the impending disaster from its
citizens.

Yesterday the United States First Lady, Laura Bush, accused Burma's state-run media of knowing
about the cyclone but of failing to issue a timely warning. Now there are allegations that Burma's
weather bureau knew about the storm 48 hours before it hit but downplayed its severity.

Alison Caldwell has our report.

(Sound of crowd murmur)

ALISON CALDWELL: Survivors are slowly picking up the pieces in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

BURMESE MAN: Electricity shot as well as water supply cut off. We are feeling sorry without water
and electricity.

BURMESE WOMAN (translated): We need water, we need food. As long as we have rice, that will be
enough. Mosquito nets are not so important but we need clothes, blankets. Their clothes are rain
soaked and the huts they lived in were built on bamboo stilts and now these are all destroyed.

ALISON CALDWELL: Some of the villagers in the worst hit areas have started rebuilding their homes
while food and medicine have begun to arrive.

Dr Kyi Minn is World Vision's regional health advisor based in Rangoon.

KYI MINN: Most of the areas are inaccessible by roads right now because of the flood and all the
trees blocking the roads. Also, in some areas we might need the support from the nearby villagers
to help out with the essential things like portable water and the basic food needs.

ALISON CALDWELL: According to the UN, those left homeless, number into several hundred thousands.

With a population of close to 210,000 people, Labutta is in the south western area of the Irrawaddy
delta.

Aye Kyu is a local doctor. He says half of the coastal city has vanished along with dozens of
surrounding villages. Through an interpreter, he explains what the survivors had to endure:

AYE KYU (translated): All the victims were brought to the town and I asked them, "How many of you
survived?" and they said about 200, 300. Then I asked them "How many people in your area? They said
about 5,000.

The waves were 12, 13, 20 feet high and when the houses were covered in water, they stayed on the
roof but the houses were destroyed by strong winds. Those who survived were those who clung to the
trees but they were badly bruised and scratched from the trees and the pounding of the waves.

ALISON CALDWELL: It's been alleged the Burmese military knew about the storm some 48 hours before
it hit.

Than Lwin Htun is a Burmese journalist with the Voice of America program based in Washington. He
has been speaking with local journalists about the warnings which were issued in the lead up to the
cyclone. He says people were kept in the dark about the true extent of the storm.

THAN LWIN HTUN: They announced in the Burmese radio, state-run radios and the state-run newspaper
carried the news, but the problem is that they played down the extent of the incoming storm.

ALISON CALDWELL: When it hit, Cyclone Nargis winds were recorded at up to 190 kilometres per hour.

Than Lwin Htun says the director of Burma's weather bureau briefed journalists ahead of the
cyclone. He has listened to the briefing.

THAN LWIN HTUN: He very much played down the situation and said referring Burma as a lucky country
to compare with the neighbouring countries. So, he said that once the storm entered the land it
would be weakened, for example like that. So the Burmese meteorological department said that the
wind will be about 40 to 45 miles per hour and then there would be heavy rains. That is all they
said.

ALISON CALDWELL: As far as aid goes, Australia is sending $3-million to Burma. Comparatively
speaking, that's generous.

France has offered $326,000, the US, just $263,000, the EU $3.2-million, Thailand $310,000 while
China is sending just over $1-million.

US President George W. Bush says his country would like to do a lot more for Burma.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We are prepared to move US navy assets to help find those who have lost their
lives, to help find the missing and to help stabilise the situation but in order to do so, the
military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.

ALISON CALDWELL: Aid agencies are still waiting for travel visas to enter the reclusive nation.
While his people die, Burma's Social Welfare Minister has told relief agencies to negotiate with
the Foreign Ministry.

A lack of specialised equipment is also slowing the distribution of aid. Only four helicopters have
been sent to the worst hit areas. Thailand flew in nine tonnes of food and medicine, but a
cameraman on the plane said supplies were unloaded by hand as no forklift trucks were available.

ELEANOR HALL: Alison Caldwell reporting.