Myanmar admits 'weak' flood response as monsoon misery spreads

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Flood-affected residents (L) commute through floodwaters on a raft in Kalay, upper Myanmar's Sagaing region.

SITTWE, Myanmar - Myanmar&39;s government on Tuesday admitted its "weak" response to massive floods had hampered evacuation efforts, as rain-battered Asian nations counted the rising cost of this year&39;s monsoon.

Flash floods and landslides in Myanmar have claimed at least 46 lives and affected some 215,000 people, swallowing huge tracts of land in what the United Nations has described as a "major natural disaster". 

Tens of thousands of people remain cut off as officials warned that swollen rivers are now threatening to inundate low-lying southern areas of the country.

The quasi-civilian government has come under mounting criticism on social media, accused of underplaying the scale of the disaster.

It prompted a rare concession from the government which is particularly concerned about its image just months ahead of a general election in November.

"The government&39;s weak response to the disaster led to misunderstandings about evacuation efforts," state-backed English-language newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported, citing government spokesman Ye Htut.

Suspicion of officialdom lingers after Myanmar&39;s previous junta government was accused of callous indifference in its sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which left nearly 140,000 people dead or missing.

Relentless seasonal downpours have lashed much of South and Southeast Asia in recent weeks.

The annual monsoon is a lifeline for farmers across Asia but heavy rains and powerful cyclones can also prove deadly.

By Tuesday the death toll in India from days of rain rose to 180, the majority in West Bengal after receding waters yielded more bodies.

Around 1.2 million people have been forced from their homes after rivers burst their banks in the wake of Cyclone Komen -- which barrelled through the Bay of Bengal late last week.

Pakistan meanwhile has seen 118 people die so far, with 810,000 affected, as poorly built mud homes collapsed under heavy rains. 

Scores have also died in Vietnam and Nepal.

- &39;Major natural disaster&39; -

Myanmar has designated four states and regions -- Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing and Magway -- as "natural disaster" areas, warning that flooding is spreading southwards.

But the nationwide picture remains patchy.

Roads are damaged or inundated, phone lines are down and electricity has been cut to large areas, raising fears that tens of thousands of people -- many of whom already live in abject poverty -- are in dire need of help.

Soldiers loaded aid into helicopters in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe early Tuesday, an AFP reporter at the scene said, as rescuers battled to reach isolated villages.

Flooding has started to recede in many areas around the city, but thousands of homes and farms have been destroyed, while many communities in the rugged and impoverished state remain virtually cut off.

A Sittwe police officer requesting anonymity told AFP that by Sunday 37 people had died from floods in the state, indicating the final national toll could surge, while seven were missing.

Flood waters reached rooftop level in many parts of Myanmar, forcing people into canoes or makeshift rafts to reach safety.

Warning the toll was likely to rise, UN Acting Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Eamonn Murphy said relief resources will soon be stretched across the vast country.

"It is quite clear that we have a major natural disaster," he said, adding Myanmar&39;s government had been "much more prepared" this year compared to previous disasters.

But speaking later to AFP, Information Minister Ye Htut said the government was struggling to deliver aid to the worst-hit areas such as mountainous Chin state bordering India.

"We are sending supplies to Chin by helicopter... but as it&39;s by helicopter, it&39;s limited," he said,  adding China is the only country currently providing relief on the ground. 

He said some regions were suffering their worst inundations in a century, adding that the huge scale of the disaster had overwhelmed local recovery efforts. 

Myanmar&39;s current government has appeared eager to show it is mobilising, but as online discontent grew Tuesday it threatened to prosecute anyone found spreading "false news relating to natural disaster with the intention of frightening people".