YANGON, Myanmar — A cyclone killed more than 350 people and destroyed thousands of homes, state-run media said Sunday. Some dissident groups worried that the military junta running Myanmar would be reluctant to ask for international help.
Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit at a delicate time for the junta, ahead of a crucial referendum Saturday on a new constitution. Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and quashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.
Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was doing little to help victims after Saturday's storm.
"Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?" said a trishaw driver who refused to be identified for fear of retribution. "They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and suppression of prodemocracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
In September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.
The Forum for Democracy in Burma and other dissident groups outside of Myanmar urged the military junta Sunday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone — something it has been reluctant to do in the past. It would be difficult for other countries to help unless they received a request from Myanmar's military rulers.
The storm's 120 mph winds blew the roofs off hospitals and cut electricity to the country's largest city.
Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, said the storm's whipping winds and heavy rains had caused "major devastation throughout the city."
"The Burmese are saying they have never seen anything like this, ever," Villarosa said. "Trees are down. Electricity lines are down. Our Burmese staff have lost their roofs."
At least 351 people were killed, including 162 who lived on Haing Gyi island off the country's southwest coast, military-run Myaddy television station reported. Many of the others died in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.
"The Irrawaddy delta was hit extremely hard not only because of the wind and rain but because of the storm surge," said Chris Kaye, the United Nations' acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon.
State television reported that in the Irrawaddy's Labutta township, 75 percent of the buildings had collapsed.
Yangon residents also said Sunday that the price of gasoline had jumped from $2.50 to $10 a gallon on the black market and the cost of everything from eggs to construction supplies had tripled.