BAGO, Myanmar (AP) — 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 has killed at least 46 people and could affect 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 had climbed to 46, with more than 200,000 people affected in 11 of the country's 14 states and divisions. In addition to damage to houses and farmland, infrastructure has been very badly hit, with roads and rail lines cut in many places and telecommunication links broken.
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 the waters were slowly receding and that he hoped people could soon leave evacuation shelters, many of which are located in Buddhist monasteries. He told state television that the government plans to begin reconstruction after evacuated people return to their homes.
Suu Kyi on Monday used a small wooden boat to travel in flooded parts of Bago township, 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Yangon. She visited several shelters for flood victims and handed over donations of rice and drinking water on behalf of a foundation named for her late mother, a former diplomat.
Her National League for Democracy party released its nationwide list of candidates on Saturday and is expected to pose a tough challenge to Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the upcoming polls. Suu Kyi will run for re-election to parliament but is barred from becoming president under the constitution, which 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.
The current flooding also has affected the political process. The Union Election Commission extended its deadline for election candidates to register by a week to Aug. 14, noting that many need to deal with the crisis in their home areas.
The next session of parliament, scheduled to start Aug. 10, has been postponed indefinitely because lawmakers will be helping people in their constituencies, the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, said Monday.
UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, said the floods are hitting Myanmar's most vulnerable people, "children living in poverty and those recovering from violence and conflict."
In a statement, it said the displaced people living in Rakhine state were particularly vulnerable.
"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 said.