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Keeping a lid on Burma's chaos

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The devastation caused by the cyclone

By Paul Danahar
BBC News, southern Burma


How do you keep control of chaos? That is the problem facing the military rulers in Burma in the wake of Saturday's cyclone.

Cars line up for petrol at a petrol station in Rangoon (7 May 2008)
Long queues of cars have formed outside every petrol station

In the past, when they feared things were getting beyond their grasp, their solution was simple: mass arrests.

But the latest challenge to the generals' demand for order could not be cowed.

The tidal surge that swept across the Irrawaddy Delta on Saturday had a mind of its own.

It wiped villages and towns off the map. The government says it killed tens of thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands more without food or shelter.

And it handed the generals the biggest challenge to their rule since the height of the pro-democracy movement in 1989.

Mounting frustration

The capital, Rangoon, was the scene of those demonstrations. Now it is a scene of devastation.

EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
Detail from UN cyclone map
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Trees lie tossed across roads, power pylons are bent and twisted, houses have been stripped of their roofs.

There are some supplies, even if their prices are sky-rocketing.

One man told me he had lost the roof of his house, but the price to repair it had trebled.

He spends most nights sleeping in a car that forms part of the long queues snaking for almost a kilometre (0.6 mile) at every petrol station.

Candles sold out long ago, most people spend their nights in complete darkness and their days hanging around waiting for water trucks.

And as they wait they express their frustration.

"There were soldiers everywhere during the demonstrations," one man said. "Where are they now?"

Life and death

Aid is starting to arrive, but not quickly enough. Huge sections of the Irrawaddy Delta lie cut off from the outside world.

As you travel through the delta you can see how life and death was simply a matter of a few feet.

The cyclone tore a path through this region, ripping trees, houses and people's lives to shreds.

Typhoon survivors in make-shift shelter in Irrawaddy Delta - undated photo
Huge sections of the Irrawaddy Delta are cut off from help

Amazingly it is possible to find devastation on one side of the road and near-normality on the other.

In a village called Pyapon, 700 homes stood devastated.

People were scavenging for what nature had left behind. It was not much.

They had heard that maybe help was coming from abroad, but so far they have received nothing - and this in an area that is easily accessible.

Help waiting

Much more of the delta is hidden behind broken bridges and blocked roads.

Somewhere there, 40,000 people are missing. Tens of thousands are dead; a million have no food and no shelter and in many cases no idea if the world cares.

The world does care but it cannot get in because the government is still dragging its feet on opening up to foreign aid workers.

The government has relaxed its grip on the aid groups permanently based here.

Those workers, local and international, are free to travel and do their best to help.

But there is much more help waiting on Burma's doorstep.

Days, hours and minutes are a matter of life and death in the aftermath of any disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now waiting for help.

But while the authorities discuss visas and permissions, people are probably dying.


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