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Originally published January 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 6, 2005 at 12:34 AM

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Secrecy hinders damage assessment in Myanmar

Superstition, distrust and a secretive military regime are making it difficult to assess the death toll and damage from the Dec. 26 tsunami in Myanmar, a country ruled by dictators...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Superstition, distrust and a secretive military regime are making it difficult to assess the death toll and damage from the Dec. 26 tsunami in Myanmar, a country ruled by dictators since 1962.

"There's an age-old superstition that if there's a big natural disaster, there's going to be a new king or a regime change," says Stephen Dun of Seattle. "That's one of the reasons they're keeping a big blanket on this whole situation."

Dun serves on the board of the US Campaign for Burma, a human-rights and pro-democracy group, and is an elected representative of the Karen National Union. The Karen tribe, the largest and most powerful of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, has been fighting the government for decades.

The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, says 59 people were killed by the tsunami, with an additional 43 injured and three missing. In neighboring Thailand, by contrast, there are more than 5,000 confirmed dead and 4,000 missing.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in Phuket, Thailand, that satellite photographs suggest Myanmar escaped the worst ravages of the tsunami. But he said he had no idea whether Myanmar's military rulers were telling the truth about the death toll.

Yesterday, officials from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and Red Cross said the government's official number of 59 deaths was in the right range.

Yet dissidents and human-rights activists still don't believe those figures, reflecting a general skepticism of the regime's pronouncements, including those regarding natural disasters.

David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University, says the generals who have ruled since 1962 have always been economical with bad news. "Disasters, naturally or otherwise induced, tend to undercut the perceived legitimacy of the state, so they report them only reluctantly or in a tardy manner," he said.

In Myanmar, early numbers were especially sketchy. The government-controlled newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, published condolence messages from military generals to surrounding nations the day after the tsunami, but waited two days to publish an initial death toll of 36.

Aid workers did not have free access to some of the potentially hardest-hit areas along the coast, where navy patrols and military roadblocks normally prevent access to military radar installations. Also, in the coastal Tennaserim Division, the area around a controversial natural-gas pipeline is heavily guarded. Construction of the pipeline has been linked to human-rights abuses, environmental damage and forced displacement of villagers, human-rights groups say.

Yesterday, the WFP's team visited villages around Myanmar's southernmost town of Kawthaung and was working its way up the isthmus. The team reported many fishing villages escaped serious damage on the coastline just north of Thailand's hard-hit resorts of Khao Lak and Phuket.

"I'm not a geologist; I've got no idea why Myanmar was relatively unscathed," said WFP Asia Director Anthony Banbury.

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Loss of fishermen feared

Yet the WFP says 30,000 are in immediate need of food, shelter and water, and hundreds of Myanmarese fishermen are believed to have perished along the Thai coast.

The government's ministries of health and social welfare officially refused offers of international relief assistance, saying they could cope on their own. But they later changed their minds.

The military junta ruling Myanmar is reluctant to open the door to international aid groups or the international media, Dun and other dissidents say, because greater access might expose human-rights abuses, poverty and neglect of widespread health problems such as HIV/AIDS.

The government also tightly controls the media. The only real source of independent news is international radio reports. If those programs reported massive earthquake and tsunami damage in Myanmar, Dun says, it could "give the people hope [for regime change], and that's dangerous."

Eyewitnesses have counted more than 400 deaths in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, Tennaserim Division and Rakhine Coastal regions, says Aung Din, policy director for the US Campaign for Burma. More than 100 fishing boats are missing, carrying as many as 10 fishermen each.

Still unknown is the fate of hundreds of Salon or Moken people, so-called "Sea Gypsies," expert swimmers and divers who mostly live as marine nomads on rickety boats, fishing by day and anchoring at night offshore from the 800 or so small islands of the Myeik Archipelago.

In a news release, the Myanmar Embassy in London said the country was largely spared because the islands of the Myeik Archipelago, unlike Phuket, are still sparsely populated and have no tourist industry.

"Besides, these islands have probably shielded the more populous coastal towns and villages of the southern ... region," the release said.

That's possible, says research geophysicist Steven Ward of the University of California, Santa Cruz — but not according to his computer model.

Strong waves likely

Based on the earthquake epicenter and aftershocks, which were mostly north of the epicenter, Ward believes the resulting fault stretches almost 620 miles north through India's Nicobar and Andaman islands. Given the length of the fault, he says, the waves would have been equally strong in Myanmar as they were 120 miles away in Phuket.

The islands may have dissipated some of the tsunami's force, Ward says, but what of the people who fished around the islands?

Humanitarian groups that have long provided relief to people displaced by Myanmar's decades-old civil war are focused on providing aid.

"Everybody talks about clean water being the key issue," says Larry Dohrs of Seattle Burma Roundtable, an aid and education group. "All the wells for coastal communities would get fouled up. Seawater in everybody's well. That's where international assistance would help, and that's what they're [Myanmar officials] shrugging their shoulders at."

Think long term, says Hal Nathan, founder of the Foundation for the People of Burma, a nonprofit aid organization that provides medical and other basic supplies for people displaced by war in Myanmar.

"We haven't gotten any aid into the area affected," he says. "Even the United Nations can't get in. But we plan to go over the next couple months. They'll need medical treatment, clothing, clean water, rebuilding homes."

Reuters and The Associated Press material is included in this report.

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