- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

KAWTHAUNG, Burma — A fisherman in one Burmese village accused the nation’s military government of preventing relief aid from reaching disaster zones and attempting to cover up the extent of last week’s tragedy.

“Our government in Burma is lying when it says just a few people were killed,” the fisherman told a reporter for the Telegraph.

As he spoke, the Burmese navy was patrolling its territorial waters and looking for interlopers as it sought to preserve the dictatorship’s report that only 53 persons had died in last weekend’s devastating tsunami.

The splintered remains of a wooden bridge just ahead, on the large island of Palao Ton Ton, told a different story.

The fisherman said he saw 50 persons swept to their deaths from this bridge alone. The red-and-white woodwork lay smashed in pieces and a large gap yawned in the middle of the span.

“All the people were just swept away,” the fisherman, his face shaded by a wide-brimmed, khaki hat, said. He is sheltering at an inlet across the water when the tsunami struck with deadly force. He went to help but there were no survivors.

Burma yesterday raised its tsunami death toll to 53 yesterday, leaving disaster experts puzzled over how the nation escaped the massive destruction.

The government newspaper Myanma Ahlin, which reported a toll still lower than the United Nations estimate of 90, said most of the deaths, up from the 36 the government reported earlier, were in the Irrawaddy Delta area.

In the aftermath of the tsunami the government in Rangoon sealed off parts of its coastline, fueling concerns that thousands more people died in the disaster than it has been prepared to acknowledge.

Other fishermen spoke of a great loss of life farther up the coast at Kra Buri, 50 miles north of the border with Thailand.

While aid workers believe that Burma escaped the carnage that was visited on Indonesia, where about 100,000 people are feared to have lost their lives, they say the death toll is certain to be higher than Burmese officials have admitted.

“It is in the thousands,” estimated one foreign diplomat.

Burma is a closed society and the regime is hostile to outside influences.

Journalists are banned and tight controls are placed on the movements of aid workers and diplomats. The climate of fear instilled by almost four decades of military dictatorship is such that any Burmese willing to help in exposing suffering and loss of life faces a long jail sentence.

There are many remote islands that no one has yet reached. The fishermen who ply these waters and know them well tell of widespread devastation on the Coco Islands and the Mergui Archipelago.

The vast island chains, which belong to Burma, lie in a swath across the Andaman Sea, north of Thailand’s Phuket peninsula and south of India’s Nicobar island chain — both of which suffered heavy loss of life.

Two days after the tsunami, when neighboring governments were gratefully accepting overseas assistance in the mass rescue operation, the Rangoon government brushed aside most offers of help, accepting less than $200,000 from communist China.

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