Bago, Myanmar — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited one of the country’s many flood-afflicted areas Monday, raising her profile during a national disaster that could have consequences in this November’s general election.
Over the weekend President Thein Sein visited the areas in central Myanmar hit hardest by flooding from almost continuous rains since mid-July. On Friday, he declared four areas of the country disaster zones, but only after he had come under a barrage of criticism in the press and on social media for failing to quickly mobilize relief.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement announced Monday that the death toll from flooding has climbed to 46, with more than 200,000 people affected in 11 of the country’s 14 states and divisions. In addition to the damage to housing and farmland, infrastructure has been very badly hit, with roads and rail lines in many places cut, and telecommunication links broken.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, rides a boat as she leaves after visiting a monastery where flood victims are sheltered in Bago, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. A report issued Saturday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs cited Myanmar disaster officials estimating that more than 156,000 people had been affected by flooding. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
Some coastal areas took a double beating late last week when a tropical storm whipped through, posing a particular danger to badly built and poorly located camps in Rakhine state for more than 100,000 people displaced in the past few years by ethnic conflicts.
Thein Sein, meeting Sunday with flood victims in northwestern Sagaing division, said waters were slowly receding and that he hoped people could soon leave evacuation shelters, many of which are located at Buddhist monasteries. He told state television that the government plans to begin reconstruction once evacuated people return to their homes.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party is expected to pose a tough challenge to Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the upcoming polls, on Saturday named its nationwide list of candidates. Suu Kyi will run for re-election to Parliament but is barred from becoming president under a constitution that was drafted under military rule.
A referendum on the constitution was held in 2008 as Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis, which killed about 140,000 people. The military government’s inability to mount a useful relief effort, and initial reluctance to accept foreign assistance, did much to discredit its ability to run the country.
Suu Kyi on Monday used a small wooden boat to travel the flooded areas in Bago township, 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Yangon. She visited several shelters for flood victims, where on behalf of a foundation named for her late mother, a former diplomat, she handed over donations of rice and drinking water.
UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s rights and emergency relief organization, said the floods are hitting Myanmar’s already most vulnerable people, “children living in poverty and those recovering from violence and conflict.”
In a statement, it described as particularly vulnerable the displaced persons living in Rakhine state, which it counted at 140,000 people.
“Shelters, latrines, bathing facilities, learning spaces and other facilities in the camps were constructed for short-term use, and damage is expected because of heavy rains and winds,” it explained.