Burma: the cyclone and the referendum

Aung Zaw
6 May 2008

The response by the Burmese regime to the cyclone disaster on 3 May 2008 shows that the junta is incapable of running the country, let alone helping the victims.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand

Also by Aung Zaw in openDemocracy:

"Burma's question" (26 September 2007)Cyclone Nargis ripped through Rangoon, the Irrawaddy delta and southern Burma, destroying homes, sinking boats, knocking down power-lines, uprooting trees and shutting down Rangoon airport. The official death-toll was announced the day after the cyclone as around 350, then estimated by foreign minister Nyan Win as more than 10,000; but this figure too was quickly overtaken - on 6 May, the government admitted that as many as 15,000 may have died, including 10,000 in the destroyed town of Bogalan in the Irrawaddy river delta alone.

Some aid-agency representatives offer an even bleaker assessment; Andrew Kirkwood of the British charity Save The Children characterises the disaster as "unprecedented in the history of Myanmar [the country's official designation] and on an order of magnitude with the effect of the (26 December 2004) tsunami on individual countries. It might well be more dead than the (31,000) the tsunami caused in Sri Lanka."

The scale of the devastation is enormous. Around 3 million people may be suffering and in need of assistance. United Nations officials say that the water supply is unfit to drink in the aftermath of the destruction, raising fears of water-borne diseases.

On Sunday 4 May, the junta declared five areas to be disaster-zones: Rangoon, Irrawaddy and Pegu divisions, as well as the Karen and Mon states.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role" (8 August 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (15 December 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "A reality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

Karen Connolly, "The Lizard Cage" (22 February 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on the Burma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

Joakim Kreutz, "Burma: protest, crackdown - and now?" (12 October 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)But even as the country reeled under the force of the cyclone, Than Shwe's regime issued a statement saying that its pet project - the referendum on the draft constitution approved by the junta, scheduled for 10 May - would be held as planned (except in forty-seven towns worst hit by the cyclone). The message was reinforced when the 5 May issue of the official government newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, published this statement - together with an attack on the call by the UN Security Council on 2 May that the referendum be free and fair.

The newspaper said that the government was "much surprised" by the UN statement. In reaffirming the date of the referendum poll, it also claimed that "the entire people of the country are eagerly looking forward" to the event.

The idea that the Burmese people were at any stage "eagerly looking forward" to the opportunity to participate in a sham election was always fantasy; in the wake of the cyclone, it is positively surreal. Right now, the Burmese people are eagerly looking forward only to emergency aid - clean water, food, medicines and other supplies. They are also painfully aware that they can expect little help from a military regime whose response to the latest tragedy to befall them is both uncaring and ineffective.

A window to the world

The government is attempting to portray the opposite image, that of a compassionate and efficient state machine. The state-run television channel, for example, shows footage of troops working to clear streets blocked by fallen trees. Yet foreign media (in a country where natural disasters as well as political tensions are invariably underplayed or covered up by the regime's tame information outlets) is also being kept out of the affected zones, making it even harder to obtain a clear picture of the disaster's true extent.

The testimony of residents of Rangoon who are able to make their views known to independent reporters is that official assistance is minimal. In extremely difficult conditions, there are indications too that the country's damaged areas are experiencing looting and even rioting, as prices of food and other essentials soar. It is little wonder that amid desperate pleas for help, the prevailing mood of many Burmese people is a mixture of shock and anger (see "Burma: No place for profiteering, referendum amid devastation", Asia Human Rights Commission, 6 May 2008).

The junta has formed a national central committee for natural disasters to coordinate relief and aid efforts, headed by prime minister Thein Sein. The character of the military regime means that in itself this inspires little confidence. But the government's indication on 5 May that the offer of immediate assistance from United Nations humanitarian agencies and other international bodies would be accepted is a faint glimmer of light. "We will welcome help. Our people are in difficulty", said Nyan Win. The UN children's fund (Unicef), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Irish NGO Trócaire are among the groups mobilising their resources - though visa delays are hampering their ability to gain access to the country, let alone the cyclone-affected regions. A regime that is routinely (even pathologically) suspicious of international non-governmental organisations will not easily change its endemic attitudes.

It is indeed vitally important that the regime allows international aid agencies to operate in the areas affected by the cyclone, as well as free access to the international media. These steps would both benefit tens of thousands of people at their hour of need, and offer a lifeline of communication in a land of whispers long ruled by secrecy and fear.

The political repercussions of any large-scale entry of foreign aid and media agencies into Burma would be highly significant, if hard to calculate in precise terms. But the cyclone may have a more immediate impact on Burma's frozen political landscape, in that the government's inadequate response might encourage even more people to vote against the draft constitution in the 10 May referendum - despite the climate of fear and intimidation created by the junta's "vote yes" campaign.

A large "no" vote from the people of a battered country would be the regime's just deserts. But even this would be small consolation to Burma's people. The referendum should be postponed and the government must devote all its efforts to helping the cyclone victims. If they are unable to make this decision, Than Shwe and the other junta leaders should step down - the Burmese people are waiting "eagerly" for that to happen.

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