Myanmar struggled Monday to recover from a cyclone that killed more than 3,900 people and perhaps as many as 10,000, while its military leaders proceeded with a constitutional referendum on Saturday that would cement their grip on power.
If these numbers are accurate, the death toll would be the highest from a natural disaster in Asia since the tsunami of December 2004, which devastated coastlines along Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of South Asia and claimed 181,000 lives.
Tens of thousands of people were homeless after the cyclone, and food and water were running short.
“Stories get worse by the hour,” one Yangon resident, who did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution, reported in an e-mail message. “No drinking water in many areas, still no power. Houses completely disappeared. Refugees scavenging for food in poorer areas. Roofing, building supplies, tools — all are scarce and prices skyrocketing on everything.”
Officials said they would open the doors of their closed and tightly controlled nation to international relief groups. So far, most foreigners and all foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.
They also said the controversial referendum would proceed. “It’s only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote,” an official statement said Monday.
But witnesses and residents said the military had been slow to respond to the devastation of the cyclone and some suggested that the government’s performance could affect the vote in the referendum.
Residents said that they were being pressured to vote “yes” and that riot police officers had been patrolling the streets before the cyclone in a show of force that was more visible than their relief efforts afterward.
Nine months ago, security forces had fired into crowds to disperse huge pro-democracy demonstrations led by monks killing dozens of people, and in the months since the government has carried out a campaign of arrests and intimidation.
State-owned television had reported early Monday that 3,934 people had died in Cyclone Nargis, which swept through the Irrawaddy Delta and the country’s main city, Yangon, early Saturday. The broadcast said nearly 3,000 were missing, all of them from a single town, Bogalay.
That report was followed by a briefing at which three Cabinet ministers told diplomats and U.N. officials that the death toll could reach 10,000 people in the delta region, an area that is home to nearly half the nation’s 48 million people, according to Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. disaster response office in Bangkok.
That estimate represents a dramatic increase over the government’s initial estimate on Sunday of 351 people killed.
“What is clear is that we are dealing with a major emergency situation, and the priority needs now are shelter and clean drinking water,” Horsey said.
A spokesman for the World Food Program said the government of Myanmar, which severely restricts the movements and activities of foreign groups, had given the U.N. permission to send in emergency aid.