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Former No. 2 Burmese leader said nearly 300,000 killed in Cyclone Nargis

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Cyclone Nargis killed about 300,000 people, but the former military junta's second most powerful leader insisted that the number would be released to the public "over his dead body," sources told a U.S. embassy diplomat, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable sent to the State Department. 

One month after Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008, the now disbanded State Peace and Development Council's Vice Senior General Maung Aye on June 7 told the Burmese business tycoon Tay Za the cyclone’s estimated death toll, according to a diplomatic cable dated June 11, 2008, that was sent from the embassy in Rangoon to the U.S. Secretary of State in Washington D.C. 

Survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Kun Chan Kone try to put their lives together again six months after the storm, in this file photo. Photo: Mizzima
"The government calculated that approximately 300,000 people had perished in the cyclone, but that this number would be released to the public ‘over his dead body,’ the cable quoted the businessman as saying. 

According to leaked diplomatic cables posted on the Wikileaks website, the regime’s leaders could not estimate exactly the scale of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis until a few days after the storm. 

Some government ministers told Rangoon-based diplomats at a meeting that the death toll had reached 10,000 with 3,000 missing on May 5, 2008, or three days after Nargis hit Burma, according to the leaked US cable.

The government’s official number released before the end of June was 84,537 people dead, 53,836 missing and 19,359 injured in the cyclone. After those numbers, the government did not release additional casualty figures.

The United Nations estimated the death toll at 140,000 and said an estimated 2.4 million people were seriously affected by the storm.

The Rangoon-based US embassy said it obtained information from a source who was close to a relative of Tay Za that Vice Senior General Maung Aye was responsible for the order to impose cumbersome travel requirements and access procedures on humanitarian workers seeking to aid the survivors of the storm.

Horrific images of the cyclone damage, death and plight of the survivors were circulated on the Internet, in the international media and on VCDs throughout Burma, which embarrassed the generals. As a result, the source said that Maung Aye ordered access to the Delta for international staff to be tightened, the leaked US cable said.

The government then announced more cumbersome travel and access procedures than had been discussed and agreed upon at the TCG meetings, the cable said, and UN and Asean officials viewed the new procedures as "unacceptable."

The embassy source said that he believed factions were beginning to form among the senior generals based on those with a more flexible approach toward international assistance, such as third-ranking General Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein and Minister of Agriculture Htay Oo and a hardline faction led by Maung Aye and Secretary-1 Tin Aung Myint Oo, who were bent on closely controlling the activities of foreigners in Burma.

Another significant development after Nargis struck was the replacement of Maung Aye with Tin Aung Myint Oo as head of the powerful Trade Council by junta leader Than Shwe, to create conflict between the two hardliners and assure they did not align against him, the cable said. This was how Than Shwe cultivated loyalty and achieved a balance of power in his inner circle, the source told embassy diplomats.

The source also said that if Than Shwe were not in good enough health to be president in 2010, he would give the job to Thura Shwe Mann, who was not only his preferred choice, but also the choice of the senior-general’s powerful wife, Kyaing Kyaing. 

The source said that Than Shwe planned to appoint Tin Aung Myint Oo as head of the military to counter-balance Thura Shwe Mann's power, and would appoint Agriculture Minister Htay Oo as one vice president, and the leader of the Union Pa-O National Organization, Aung Kham Htee, as the second vice president in order to appease ethnic cease-fire groups.

However, after the general election, Thein Sein was appointed president and Thura Shwe Mahn received the Lower House speaker post. Subsequently, the SPDC was officially dissolved at the end of March 2011, and both Than Shwe and Maung Aye retired.

The U.S. diplomat said that the unprecedented devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis succeeded in doing what no other situation had done before: uniting the West and Burma's Asian neighbours to bring unprecedented pressure on the regime to open up and allow international humanitarian workers unfettered access.
Last Updated ( Friday, 09 September 2011 23:00 )  

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