THE helicopter, flying low over the paddy fields of the Irrawaddy delta, allowed the passengers on board a view down into a sodden hell. Scattered like grains of rice by the powerful winds of the cyclone and the destructive power of the tidal wave it whipped up, were the bodies of the lost – thousands upon thousands of men, women and children.
Yesterday, the death toll caused by cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma on Saturday at about noon, rose to 22,464, with a further 41,054 missing, according to the suspiciously precise figures of the country's military dictatorship. Yet fears were growing last night that those who survived the hand of nature may still succumb to the clumsy fist of their government which, despite calling for global assistance, continued to hold back international aid agencies on its borders.
Almost 60 years of suspicion towards the outside world will not be blown away overnight, but the effects of the worst cyclone since Bangladesh was struck in 1991, killing 138,000, may yet prise open the doors of this secretive nation now faced with a rising death toll and as many as three million people displaced by the disaster, according to Save The Children. The nation's leaders appear to be hedging their bets, aware of the necessity of finding a way to provide the destitute with life-saving water, food, clothes and accommodation, but fearful of the future ramifications of opening their borders to agencies they previously dismissed as riddled with spies.
Yesterday, a single aid plane touched down in Rangoon, while across the world aid agencies remain wrapped up in red tape. The flight from friendly Thailand landed at Rangoon's Mingaladon airport, but its 200,000 cargo of food, water and mosquito nets, brought in on a Royal Thai Air Force C130 was unlikely to make the slightest dent in the national catastrophe.
Several major international aid agencies were reporting that obstacles were being placed in their way, making swift action impossible.
The military junta which has already turned back journalists and banned tourists until after the country's 10 May referendum on a new constitution – now put back until 24 May in the hardest-hit areas – has been vetting all aid workers and insisting on supplies and equipment ahead of foreign personnel. Aid agencies want to ensure that the food aid goes to the right people and want their expert staff in to oversee their projects. "We believe the papers are being processed slowly", said one frustrated officer of an international aid agency contacted from Bangkok: "But we need to be there yesterday!"
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was hoping to charter a cargo plane from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to send in aid later in the week, but it did not yet have papers for accompanying staff.
The government, which normally shuns international attention, has at least appealed for foreign aid. Pro-democracy advocates, including the political party of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have denounced the planned new constitution as a way to maintain the power of a military that has become increasingly unpopular, if not hated, by many following its brutal suppression of Buddhist-monk led pro-democracy protests in September last year.
"The military regime has never had any intention of holding a free and fair vote," said Monique Skidmore, a Burma expert and professor at Australian National University. "They don't care if everyone votes or not. They care about the outcome, and I have no doubt they will manipulate the outcome in their favour."
Inadequate warnings about the approaching storm and the poor response by authorities once it struck will further anger the population.
"The myth they have projected about being well prepared has been totally blown away," said analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising. "This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term."
Rangoon yesterday was still largely without electricity and residents lined up to buy candles. Most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long queues for drinking water and bathe in the city's lakes.
Yesterday, George Bush, the US president, applied pressure on the government to open its borders to American aid, saying he was ready to use the US navy "to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilise the situation".
AID AGENCIES FACE A HUGE CHALLENGE
THE UN World Food Programme, which was preparing to fly in food supplies, last night offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to a million people possibly homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.
"We hope to fly in more assistance within the next 48 hours," a spokesman said. "The challenge will be getting to the affected areas with road blockages everywhere."
The affected region is less than 5 per cent of Burma's land area, but it is home to nearly a quarter of the country's 57 million population.
When the full force of Cyclone Nargis passed overhead, the 10,000 residents of the village of Hlaing Tha Yar, could do little but sit tight and pray their bamboo shacks stood up to the ferocious winds and for the most part, they did. Deep in the vast marshlands of the Irrawaddy delta, people were less fortunate, as winds of 120mph caused a sea surge that swept inland, killing most of the cyclone's 22,000 victims.
"No-one died around here. We were very lucky," said one resident. In the village, roofs had been ripped off about one in ten of the houses, simple bamboo structures with roofs made of leaves and walls of rush matting. But in most cases, they simply shook violently and bent before the force of the blast, before springing back up when the storm passed.
Yet the relative absence of destruction in villages such as Hlaing Tha Yar is making it all the more difficult for the government and aid officials to work out how many people have been affected, and who is in biggest need of help. However, even in Hlaing Tha Yar, 2km from the banks of the Rangoon River, there is already a shortage of clean drinking water only four days after the cyclone.