Trouble Brewing; Before, During and After Cyclone Nargis

June 16, 2008

The Lead-up

Cyclone Nargis ripped through Burma on May 2nd and 3rd , with the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon divisions the worst affected areas. This was the first large-scale natural disaster to hit the Burmese people and numerous people were killed; to date it is estimated 78,000 people died and 56,000 are still missing, while over 2.4 million people languish homeless and hungry. These survivors are in desperate need of aid, with poor living conditions leaving their health in jeopardy.

Before Nargis hit Burma, Indian and Thai meteorological agencies warned the Burmese government that a large cyclone was likely to hit the country. Conversely, Burmese weather forecasters announced the cyclone was not likely to hit the country, leaving the people unprepared. No emergency plans were laid out, no evacuation plans suggested.

A BBC journalist based in Burma interviewed the head of the Burmese weather forecast department in Rangoon early on the day the cyclone hit the country; the department head stated that Nargis would probably not hit Burma, and that it would pass through the usual cyclonic route, near Sittwe township, Arakan State. He went on to say that in the highly unlikely event that Nargis hit Burma, it would not be a disaster.

Even if a large-scale evacuation was overlooked, critics now state that if the Junta had put plans into action to rescue the cyclone survivors early, not as many people would have died. Put simply, in the days and weeks that followed Nargis, woefully inadequate assistance was offered to the people.

May 2nd , 2008

Quote from an IDP in Laputta: “The flooding started; at first the water came up to our knees, but before long it raised up to the second floor. Our whole family had to scramble up to the roof to escape being washed away, we stayed there in the rain for a long time. While we were on the roof, the wind began. It was hard to hold on, some of my children blew away in the wind.”

Nargis hit at 10 am on the 2nd of May and finished shortly after midnight, with some villages sustaining 70% damage in that time. With high winds and heavy rain, sea levels rose significantly along shore lines with widespread flooding. Many victims were holding trees to defend themselves against flooding, however the storm blew in at the same time and rendered their survival efforts useless. Whole areas were wiped out by water and wind.

Burma ’s former capital Rangoon was torn apart, with one local estimating over 90% of trees were flattened in Rangoon and surrounding areas. Billboards, previously plastered with ‘Vote Yes’ referendum propaganda, lay flattened alongside trees and houses, while monsoonal rains and tidal surges meant roads ran like rivers, with human bodies rushing through the torrent next to trees and debris. Rice stores were filled with rapidly toxifying rice, rendered useless even as stock feed.

The country lost all media access, and the Junta censored already heavily restricted print media and radio, and deemed any media-in-exile who reported on events ‘western puppets of propaganda’. If the Junta spied people listening to exiled radio stations like BBC, RFA, and VOA, those people were arrested on suspicion of being political activists in opposition to the government. Even in the face of a large-scale natural disaster the military government remained paranoid and highly suspicious.

With little in the way of clean-up organized by the government, the situation quickly deteriorated into chaos. A simple journey that once took an hour took one witness six hours; a morning bath was made near-impossible with a communal bathhouse filled with putrid water; drinking water doubled in price while the price of eggs tripled. Each day water supplies became more lethal, as broken pipes allowed sewage and toxins to flow freely through bodies of water already heavy with corpses. This was coupled with large areas of stagnant water which, in Burma’s tropical conditions, provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and mosquitoes. Many people were either prone to suffer from, or already suffering from water-borne illness. One source told us that, “The children and elderly are the worst affected, with so many already ill a disaster like this seems enough to tip them over the edge.” He went on to say that clean drinking water was non-existent for weeks in outlying areas, and although it could be found inside Rangoon, high prices excluded most people from buying it. Even where water purification tablets were sent, in coastal regions where salt water burst through banks and flooded water supplies, they were rendered useless.

Even in the less affected areas, damage was significant. A reporter recently returned from Mon State in Eastern Burma said the damage was obvious. “Many rubber trees had fallen; I cannot imagine the impact this will have on farmers who rely on rubber for their livelihood. Based on my observations I would say every garden had sustained damage, with 50%-100% of trees down.”

The ‘Clean-up’

For the 2.5 million survivors the outlook is grim. With the Junta creating obstacles for outside aid workers, international aid to the area has largely been kept from the people on the ground. Thirty-five days after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta in Burma, the military regime still blocked access to millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the immediate aftermath, one source reported that in Rangoon – Burma’s largest city – only minimal drinking water and electricity had returned after one week. The health of survivors lay in the hands of a dictator known to rely on astrological guidance that has so far seen him spend ten times as much on military as healthcare.

Not content with blocking international aid. the junta restricted many local aid teams attempting to travel into the Irrawaddy delta. Many groups were not permitted to travel deep into the delta, and were instead forced to hand over their aid supplies to local authorities. Although the claim was that local authorities would distribute the aid to survivors, many local donors know about corruption among the military officers; according to some interviews on external Burmese media, some donors have had to bribe army checkpoint officers to enable travel into areas outside Rangoon.

On the ground these politics are frustrating. Many cyclone survivors felt impatient with the local authorities as slow-moving aid was repeatedly mishandled by authorities. Corruption is rife throughout Burma’s different authority groups, beginning at the top and trickling all the way to the local authorities. In Karen state, a team of monks led a 200-strong group to the cyclone areas to donate food. The army checkpoint did not allow them through and all were forced to return. The team said they were very angry for being refused entry to the areas that needed aid so desperately. Local authorities had requested all aid be handed to them however the monks refused to do so. In one village local people said only the local authority’s family were able to eat good food while outside many of the victims stood waiting for food.

In Pyapon, one of the worst-hit areas, trishaw drivers submitted a letter to township authorities in the second week of May, describing how the chairmen of township quarters were selling sacks of rice to the local traders. “We saw them selling the rice with our own eyes. They usually sold the goods at night,” said the trishaw driver who wrote the letter and urged others to sign it. An elderly man in a village in Bogalay township reported the village chairman received some supplies, took them for himself then distributed inferior products. Many local aid workers claim that international aid has made its way from the hands of the Junta to the markets of Rangoon. In a recent interview with BBC’s Burmese section eyewitnesses confirmed seeing poorly-concealed international aid for sale at Rangoon market. When food is distributed the rations are meagre and of very poor quality; some survivors said they received just two potatoes and a handful of rice per family.

From May 4th the Junta’s organized and highly-controlled chaos was evident everywhere; one Rangoon resident said that during a visit to the Irrawaddy delta he had witnessed the police beating three or four children caught begging for food. One young boy said he and some friends were caught by the police as they carried food back to the temporary shelters they now called home. Despite their pleas of innocence, the police beat them badly.

Food distribution was not the only area the government succesfully hampered. Weeks after the storm the Junta had done little to clear dead bodies from waterways; one witness reported hearing a general instruct soldiers not to bother removing bodies, as the fish would eat them anyway. Further, the International Committee of the Red Cross said burying the estimated 78,000 killed soon became a lower priority than trying to assist the survivors. As a result, bloated bodies are still scattered around the Irrawaddy delta more than five weeks after the storm hit. Some have been dumped in canals and unmarked mass graves or cremated, while others remain untouched. Survivors in the delta said they initially attempted to identify bodies but were overwhelmed by the numbers of corpses clogging the rivers and washing up on the beaches.

State-run media showed the dictators helping their people, providing shelter and healthcare. Two weeks after Nargis hit, the head of the state General Than Shwe visited some areas badly affected by the cyclone. This was the first time he ventured out these areas to offer, or even be seen to offer, relief to cyclone survivors. The truth was not shown or published; ten Burmese journalists were arrested in the Irrawaddy delta for attempting to write a news story and taking photos. Burma’s Prime Minister General Thein Sein also visited the worst affected areas, saying, “I did not bring anything for you right now. I know your situation now. After I go back, the aid will come soon.” However, according to local donors, many villages still lack access to aid from government officers.

Many cyclone survivors need aid and equipment to regain their livelihood. Two weeks after the cyclone hit, the world worried for the cyclone victims in poor living conditions and with deteriorating health care. The world asked the Junta to provide aid and let the survivors work in their fields freely. The Junta however, continually refused international aid workers.

International Community vs General Than Shwe

The Junta asked for 11 billion dollars in aid from the international community to aid with cyclone survivor resettlement. In response, fifty countries sent delegates to an Aid Forum on cyclone survivors in Rangoon. Many foreign delegates questioned why the junta needed more than the international community’s estimates, and queried their request for monetary aid only. The world was not able to provide the requested amount, and instead demanded the Junta request provide more details about how 11 billion dollars will be spent on resettling survivors from Cyclone Nargis.

The US, French and British sent navy marine aid to the Burma’s ocean border in a huge offer of assistance to cyclone survivors and the UN Secretary General tried to persuade General Than Shwe to accept the proffered aid. After two weeks at sea the foreign ships were forced to return home with full cargo, having never received the General’s permission. Although most people on the ground agreed that the Nargis’ survivors are in desperate need of foreign aid, the Junta claimed that aid from the international community, especially US, was not wanted or necessary.

In the last week of May, ASEAN held a meeting for the ‘Burma disaster’ and discussed how best to handle and persuade the junta to allow free aid. The Prime Minister of Burma, General Thein Sein, told the meeting the country agreed to allow access to aid workers lead by ASEAN. They continued to refuse US, French and British aid. In that same week, the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki Moon was permitted to visit the Irrawaddy Delta for the first time. During his visit, he met General Than Shwe in Naypyihtaw who promised to allow all aid workers to enter and help the country’s cyclone survivors. In the first week of June, the Junta granted visas to all aid workers. However, many of them were only permitted to work around Rangoon division and not the Irrawaddy delta, which was the area most seriously affected by Nargis.

Analysts said the Junta were anxious about receiving foreign aid largely because the environment for an uprising in the Irrawaddy delta is perfect, as many cyclone survivors become frustrated about the lack of aid and how their government has handled the disaster, leaving them in appalling conditions. The government is fearful that foreign aid workers may learn how to attack Naypyihtaw or that conflict may arise between the US army aid workers and the Burmese army. General Than Shwe holds grave concerns for his own power, as to allow the US army access to the delta area may give them the strength required to attack the Junta.

The international community is the Junta’s number one enemy, largely because they view any offers of help as interference designed to create instability inside Burma. The Junta called the pro-democracy opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) a puppet of the western world. They often condemn the NLD for having cooperated with the international community to tarnish the reputation of the country. The Junta’s bitter enemy is the US. The Junta has a bad human rights abuses record and because of this the US has attempted many times to bring Burma to the UN Security Council (UNSC), accusing Burma of being a threat to international security. But, Burma has big supporters in Russia and China who are able to use their powers of veto in the UNSC and render any anti-Burma claims useless.

Some world leaders have accused the junta of committing crimes against humanity for failing to offer sufficient aid and repeatedly refusing foreign aid. There has been some suggestion the Junta should be brought before the Hague Court for these crimes against humanity, and the US defense minister slammed the Junta as murderers who would continue to kill their people in the wake of cyclone Nargis if they continue to refuse international aid.

Despite this, the Junta continues to refuse large offers of international aid and has stated the Burmese people do not need international aid and could instead survive on the local foods they were used to like frogs, fish and water greens. These statements of General Than Shwe were published in the opinion page of state-run media, and went on to suggest that the situation was not bad enough to warrant the acceptance of, and potential transfer of power to, international forces.

Now

In Burma today, the overwhelming sense is that the regime is more concerned with keeping foreigners out than allowing aid in. Unless international relief arrives quickly, the death toll of Cyclone Nargis will continue to rise at an alarming rate.

Despite an increase in the number of aid workers receiving visas, in the Irrawaddy delta cyclone survivors are still yet to receive any official aid, with most aid destined for the region instead handed to authorities who redistribute it or hoard it. Some substandard aid was offered by local authorities; in some areas survivors are so desperate that the corrupt authorities’ offer of waterlogged rice not usually fit for human consumption was readily accepted.

In the Irrawaddy delta, 20% of crops were destroyed, and almost all properties sustained heavy damage, animals were killed and cultivation machinery was destroyed. The Delta area was previously known as ‘Burma’s Rice Bowl’, as the majority of Burma’s economy-boosting rice-crop comes from the Irrawaddy Delta. The big concern now is that Burma will soon have a rice crisis as thousands of farmers were killed and the sea water destroyed their crops and due to high salinity potentially irreparably damaged the fields for future rice production. However, determined and resilient cyclone survivors claim that if only the government would provide aid they could grow enough rice at least for their own consumption.

Some critics have focused on the Junta’s inaction prior to Nargis, suggesting that because they knew about the cyclone evacuation plans should have been put into action. The Junta was irresponsible with the lives of it’s people and because of this, some people condemn then and demand compensation for the cyclone survivors. The Burmese deputy defense-minister Aye Myint counters that, saying that the government gave enough warning to the people prior to the cyclone’s arrival. A brief and confusing statement was printed in the newspaper and therefore the government can absolve itself of responsibility for the dire situation now facing so many of its people. Many others have bowed out of this argument, stating that it only serves to detract from the appalling treatment of the people of Burma in the aftermath of Nargis.

The Junta claims it has completed relief operations and will now turn to reconstruction. They will implement this second scheme for resettling Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and allowing them to grow rice freely. On the ground however the truth couldn’t be more different; many IDPs have been forced out from their makeshift homes to work on labor farms, and to reconstruct their own houses with rationed bamboo – five pieces per family. They have no food to start growing food, diseases are rampant throughout the makeshift refugee camps, and in some camps up to one quarter of inhabitants are suffering from serious diarrhea. In the past two weeks tens of thousands of IDPs have been ordered to leave the camps and return to their devastated homes.

Now, six weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, about 54 percent of the affected population has received some sort of humanitarian assistance, according to UN estimates. That means about 1 million people have gone without adequate shelter, water, food, and access to health care for over forty-five days. Eyewitnesses state that many people still stand by roadsides begging for food; despite the desperation of the situation police fine people who beg for food 3,000 Kyat (approximately THB 100).

As a strongly Buddhist nation, many prominent people of Burma are stating this natural disaster was evil intervention designed as retribution to a junta that brutally murdered and detained many monks during lat year’s Saffron Revolution. Their beliefs state that if a government is truly good no harm will come to the country. Burma’s government is not good and has failed to provide its people with what they need in teh wake of a mammoth natural disaster.

The people’s requests were not major. Having lived under a military dictatorship for too long, these people are strong and resilient; prior to Nargis, 70% of the population of Burma survived on less than $US1 a day, below the international poverty line benchmark. Now tens of thousands of people are surviving on coconuts and filthy water, with the Junta openly declaring that because they are jungle people they can easily survive without need of aid. They need clean drinking water, shelter and basic medicine. They need their fundamental human rights adhered to.

**Due to communication failures in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, this article was written with the assistance of worldwide news agencies.

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