Burma Reels as Storm Toll Rises

  • Share
  • Read Later

People walk past an uprooted tree in Rangoon, May 6, 2008, after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma's main city on Saturday.

The people of Burma take omens seriously. For centuries, the paths of planets and vagaries of weather have been scrutinized by astrologers, who divine a relationship between celestial irregularities and earthly mayhem. So when a tropical cyclone tore across the country May 2-3, killing more than 22,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless in the Irrawaddy Delta and the commercial capital of Rangoon, Burmese couldn't help but note the curious timing: On May 10, the country's thuggish ruling junta was set to hold a constitutional referendum, the first step toward what the military has called a "discipline-flourishing democracy." Critics dismissed the plebiscite — which has been postponed because of the natural disaster — as nothing more than a political ruse to legitimize the military's grip on power, noting that the proposed constitution reserves a hefty chunk of parliamentary seats for the army and bars top opposition leaders from holding office. Then the heavens opened and the winds lashed. The gods, it appeared, weren't happy with where Burma's leaders were taking their country.

Cleaning up after a catastrophe is hard work in any country — witness the debacle that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But few places are less prepared than the isolated, desperately poor nation of 53 million that is Burma. Ruled by a clique of reclusive generals since 1962, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has degenerated from a resource-rich country that upon independence from the British 60 years ago was hailed as a model for modern Asia into an economic disaster zone. So paranoid are members of the junta about any outside influence that in recent years they have severely curtailed movements by foreign aid groups, forcing several organizations, including the International Committee for the Red Cross and the French arm of Doctors Without Borders, to abandon their field offices. While some NGOs reported that their foreign workers were being granted special visas by the military to help with reconstruction efforts, the previous NGO blackout means that little infrastructure exists to help get supplies to the needy quickly.

Disease outbreaks spread by mosquitoes, dirty water and poor sanitation were among the World Health Organization's biggest concerns after a devastating cyclone hit Burma, home to one of the world's shoddiest health care systems.

WHO was waiting Tuesday for permission from the country's ruling junta to send in medical teams, but demolished infrastructure would likely hamper early efforts, said Vismita Gupta-Smith, spokeswoman for WHO's regional office in New Delhi.

"The communications are broken down and the roads are not operational," she said. "But the officers are on the ground and are ready for rapid assessment, surveillance and mobilization."

Teams will work to prevent mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, as well as diarrhea and other outbreaks that can spread quickly in the wake of natural disasters because of a lack of clean water and sanitation.

Major concerns also include respiratory illnesses among children forced to sleep outside and injuries suffered during the storm, Gupta-Smith said.

WHO was waiting for Burma's military leaders to request aid from a regional emergency fund the U.N. agency set up last year to fill the time gap between international donors' pledges and the actual arrival of aid. About $175,000 would be available right away, she said.

Cut off from the rest of the world for decades, the residents of Rangoon were surely not expecting cavalcades of foreign aid workers to descend in the wake of the cyclone. But what must seem particularly galling is the absence of Burmese military troops participating in the clean-up effort. In September, when thousands of monks led country-wide protests against rising commodity prices, soldiers from the 450,000-strong army responded with chilling brutality, sending rounds of live ammunition into the burgundy-robed demonstrators. The official government death toll was 31, although international observers believe the actual figure was far higher. For months after the massacre, soldiers patrolled the streets, flushing out suspected dissidents and crushing small protests against the upcoming constitutional referendum. But in the immediate aftermath of last weekend's storm, troops were almost nowhere to be seen. One foreign NGO worker who was in Rangoon recalls that he saw just one military truck on the streets in the hours after the cyclone abated. The truck drove up to a downed tree blocking the road, paused and then left. The following day, the NGO worker saw a group of about 20 soldiers tackle a downed tree armed with nothing but a machete and a single handsaw.

Left to fend for themselves, residents of Rangoon rushed to the markets to stock up on plastic sheeting, food and water. In just two days, prices of some basic commodities had already quadrupled. Even before the cyclone hit, Rangoon was reeling from the price hikes that had sparked last year's civil protests; additional increases could push tens of thousands of shantytown dwellers from chronic malnutrition to starvation. Outside Rangoon, the fate of millions remains largely unknown, since roads are blocked and telephone lines are down in a region that serves as Burma's rice bowl. In a frightening glimpse of the storm's destructive power, the country's state media reported that in the delta town of Bogalay alone, 10,000 people had been killed. Infrastructure has been heavily damaged, with some aid workers reporting it could be months before the electrical grid in affected areas is restored.

A Burmese government radio station announced that the constitutional referendum would not be held until May 24 in the hardest-hit townships, reversing an earlier edict that voting would take place on schedule. Initially a state-run newspaper said there would be no delay "because the people of Burma are eagerly looking forward to the chance to vote," says Aung Zaw, a Burmese in exile who edits the Thailand-based newsmagazine, The Irrawaddy. "But what the people in Burma are eagerly looking forward to is the military government bringing them food and water and shelter."

One place that the cyclone spared was Burma's new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, which was carved out of the jungle by the ruling junta in 2005. Even Burmese civil servants who had to move north to the new capital were given no explanation for the shift. But some local journalists in Rangoon speculated that junta leader Than Shwe had been swayed by soothsayers who predicted that civil unrest and a natural disaster would soon strike the city of 5 million. In September, the monk-led protests made the first part of the prophecy come true; the cyclone fulfilled the second half. Holed up in their jungle capital, the generals escaped the wrath of the cyclone. "People I've spoken to back in Burma say they're angry at two things," says Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy editor. "First, they're angry at the military for reacting so slowly. And second, they're angry at the cyclone for missing Naypyidaw and keeping the generals safe."