YANGON - Torrential rain lashed victims of Cyclone Nargis on Friday as Myanmar's junta admitted more than 130,000 people were dead or missing, putting the disaster on a par with a 1991 cyclone that killed 143,000 in neighboring Bangladesh.

In a shock update to a death toll that had consistently lagged behind international aid agency estimates, state television in the army-ruled former Burma said 77,738 people were dead and another 55,917 missing.

village hit by Cyclone Nargis
A boy watches as a man builds a shelter in a village hit by Cyclone Nargis, near the Myanmar capital Yangon, May 16, 2008.

The May 2 storm has left another 2.5 million people clinging to survival in the delta, where thousands of destitute victims are lining roadsides, begging for help in the absence of large-scale government or foreign relief operations.

In the storm-struck town of Kunyangon, around 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Yangon, men, women and children stood in the mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication to the occasional passing aid vehicle.

"The situation has worsened in just two days," one shocked aid volunteer said as crowds of children mobbed his vehicle, their grimy hands reaching through the window for scraps of bread or clothing.

Their desperate entreaties expose the fragility of the military government's claims to be on top of emergency aid distribution for victims of the cyclone, which flooded an area of delta the size of Austria.

Aid groups, including United Nations agencies, say only a fraction of the required food, water and emergency shelter materials is getting through, and unless the situation improves thousands more lives are at risk.

Given the junta's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on the movement of most international aid workers, independent assessments of the situation are difficult.


The generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly, justifying their refusal to allow major aid distribution by outside agencies and workers.

They also issued an edict in state-run media saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumors of local military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.

With international pressure and outrage at the generals' intransigence growing, the European Union's top aid official flew to Yangon to push for more access for foreign aid workers and relief operations before the death toll spikes even higher.

Like so many envoys before him, the EU's Louis Michel came away empty-handed but continued to urge the reclusive junta to shelve its pride and paranoia about the outside world and admit foreign help before it is too late.

"Time is life," he told reporters at Bangkok airport. "No government in the world can tackle such a problem alone. This is a major catastrophe."

Many cyclone refugees, crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating storm, have already gone down with diarrhea, dysentery and skin infections.

In an ominous development, officials said one international health agency had confirmed cholera in the delta, although the number of cases was in line with normal levels at this time of year in a region where the disease is endemic.

"We don't have an explosion of cholera," World Health Organization (WHO) official Maureen Birmingham said in Bangkok.


Earlier, the reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule, signaled they would not budge on their position of limiting foreign access to the delta, fearful that doing so might loosen their vice-like grip on power.

"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.

Underlining where its main attentions lie, the junta this week announced an overwhelming vote in favor of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held on May 10 despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.

Two weeks after the storm, food, medicine and temporary shelter are still only getting through in dribs and drabs.

Ordinary people were taking matters into their own hands, sending trucks into the delta with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles, and rice provided by private companies and individuals.