“We all ran outside, our windows fell in, the walls are cracked, most of the buildings in the town have been damaged”
That was the account given over the phone by a man in Tachilek in Burma’s Shan State, close to the epicentre of Thursday evening’s 6.8 earthquake. The disaster caused damage in northern Thailand, with one woman killed near the border with Burma.
By Saturday afternoon the death-toll in Burma itself was over 70, but, as ever, the lack of reliable information from inside the country means that it is difficult to gauge the full extent of the destruction, in a hilly and remote region.
The handful of international aid agencies permitted to operate in the military-ruled country said that they had been given access to the affected region, which lies in the borderlands with northern Thailand and Laos, a location known as The Golden Triangle, once the world’s biggest source of opium.
Granting such access would represent a positive development in itself, given Burma’s recent history, but in what could be prove to be a much-bigger disaster than the earthquake, unknown numbers of fishermen are reportedly missing after a March 14 storm off Burma’s coast, in the Gulf of Martaban.
Sketchy details started to come out of Burma over the last couple of days, with officials quoted as saying that 400 fishing boats failed to return to land after the storm, leading to estimates that between 3 and 4000 Burmese fishermen could be lost at sea.
Accounts leaked to Burma’s exiled media suggest that the Government in Burma has tried to hush up details of the losses, with media inside Burma, which must run all stories by the military censors, told not to report on the storm at the time.
The Burmese Government has a dubious track record when it comes to disasters, with the openness shown after last weeks’ earthquake, which caused tremors as far away as Bangkok and Hanoi, the exception rather than the rule.
In May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis killed around 140,000 people and left 3 million homeless in the Irrawaddy delta region, the Burmese Government initially refused to allow international aid into the devastated region.
It took huge international pressure to get the regime to relent, after 3 weeks of waiting, and then the deal was half-hearted. According to a recently-released US diplomatic cable from the embassy in New Delhi, the Burmese Foreign Minister said that foreigners would not be permitted to distribute aid after the disaster, which turned out to be largely the case as most aidworkers were not permitted leave Rangoon once they finally got into Burma.
For now, two months after Burma’s new parliament convened after what most see as a sham election process aimed at putting a civilian face on military rule, how the country’s rulers respond to disaster wil be take as a litmus test of whether real change can come to Burma.
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok.