At Least 120 Dead in Burma Earthquake

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Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

A Buddhist monk looks at a damaged pagoda after an earthquake at Wat Chedi Laung in Chiang Rai province, north of Bangkok, March 25, 2011

Aid workers said on March 25 that at least 120 people were killed by the magnitude-6.8 earthquake that hit the day before, rattling high-rises in Bangkok and sending people streaming into the streets of Hanoi. Details of the disaster were slowly seeping out from Shan state in northeastern Burma, a relatively remote region near the border with Laos and Thailand in the heart of the area known as the Golden Triangle. Homes, monasteries and government offices were among the 390 buildings damaged or destroyed, according to Burma's state-run media.

Burma's government put the toll at 74 dead and 111 injured. But a reporter working for the Irrawaddy, who traveled to the quake zone on March 25, said local Red Cross officials confirmed that 120 were dead, with the figure expected to rise. He also said the military was tightening checkpoints along the border. During the last natural disaster to hit Burma — Cyclone Nargis in 2008 — the government was criticized for placing state security over humanitarian concerns and refusing international relief workers access to the disaster area in a timely fashion. There has been no call yet from the Burmese government for international assistance in dealing with the latest quake.

Although Burma's state-run media reported on the earthquake promptly on the evening of March 24, no video footage was shown that day or the next. The only image was in a state-run newspaper that showed a damaged bathroom in a home. Still, the government is becoming more open about disasters than it was in the past. During the 1980s, a large section of the city of Mandalay was destroyed by a fire, but the news did not reach the outside world until a Western journalist traveled there nearly five years later. Burma's rulers, and many of its people, are notoriously superstitious, and disasters, natural or otherwise, are seen as portents of bad fortune to come.

The March 24 earthquake was centered near the small town of Loimwe and was just 6 miles (10 km) below the ground's surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The mountains of Shan state are the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Indo-Australian plate butts up against the Eurasian plate. Earthquakes in northern Burma are fairly common, but details are often sketchy because the area is remote and Burma's government keeps a tight rein on information. Parts of Shan state are notoriously lawless, places where ethnic militias smuggle drugs, weapons, people and other contraband across the Mekong River into Laos and Thailand. Some use the proceeds to fund insurgencies against the government, while others are allied with the government.

Scores of homes were leveled in the towns surrounding the quake's epicenter, and the Irrawaddy reported that one military barracks had collapsed. Keng Tung, the largest nearby town, with a population somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, appeared untouched. Neither electricity nor water had been disrupted in Keng Tung, 56 km north of Loimwe, according to state media.

In neighboring Thailand, one woman died in the northern province of Chiang Rai when a wall of her house collapsed. Condominiums and office towers swayed for more than 10 sec. in Bangkok, more than 500 km to the south of Shan state. Two aftershocks, measuring 4.8 and 5.4 on the Richter scale, were felt in Mandalay and Hanoi, also hundreds of kilometers away. Thai officials have put on hold plans to build nuclear power plants following the recent earthquake in Japan that damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima.