Junta compound the horror of the cyclone

May 8, 2008
Edward Loxton

Burma’s military leadership knew the disaster would strike their country, reports Edward Loxton

Pressed to defend their autocratic system of government against persistent criticism by the West, the generals who have ruled Burma for more than 45 years were always able to advance the specious argument that they had at their command an effective and disciplined army to tackle any crisis. Cyclone Nargis, however, has blown away even that figleaf of legitimacy.

In perhaps the greatest crisis to befall the country since World War II, Burma's army of 500,000 men in uniform has failed the nation miserably. One Rangoon resident spoke for many when he declared: "When peaceful demonstrators appeared on the streets last year, soldiers were everywhere. But where are they now?"

As he spoke, local government loudspeaker vans toured city suburbs telling residents it was their responsibility to clear their streets of trees, power masts and advertisement hoardings toppled by the cyclone's 120mph winds. Isolated groups of soldiers helped out, but mostly in Rangoon's business and local government districts and, of course, the leafy suburbs where members of the military administration live. Monks far outnumbered soldiers in Rangoon's work gangs.

From Karen State in eastern Burma came reports that Burmese army units were still carrying out punitive raids on ethnic villages in the days following the cyclone. Other military units were helping government officials canvas votes ahead of the national referendum on a new constitution scheduled for this coming Saturday - a constitution designed to entrench military power indefinitely.

As the death toll climbed to staggering heights this week, and the full scale of the devastation became known, the generals of the ruling junta stayed put in the security of their artificial citadel of a capital, Naypyidaw. Not one senior government member ventured into the region that had suffered most, the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, where perhaps more than 100,000 people have died and one million homeless are living rough, without food or clean water.

Government media initially announced that 350 people had died in the cyclone, evidently hoping to repeat the deception concocted following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, when an official death toll of just 13 was announced - although Thailand reported more than 2,000 victims of its own further down the Andaman coast.

When it became clear that it couldn't hide the true scale of the current disaster, the regime casually announced a death toll of 22,500 - and then returned to more pressing matters, such as the return home of the PM (left of picture) from a visit to Thailand. His visit commanded more space than the cyclone crisis.

The wider repercussions of the crisis appear to be completely ignored by the regime.

The Irrawaddy delta is Burma's rice bowl, supplying most of the country's needs and some exports. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 65 per cent of Burma's rice production potential was destroyed as Cyclone Nargis ripped through the region's low-lying paddy fields. Fifty per cent of its poultry farms and 40 per cent of the pig rearing centres were destroyed - a nightmare scenario in a country that already has difficulty feeding its people.

The steep price rises that followed in the wake of the cyclone will remain for the foreseeable future, leading to further misery. Reports of social unrest are filtering through from remote areas where civil administration and public services have completely broken down. Anger and despair mingle as victims desperately await the arrival of international relief, held up by visa formalities applied by Burmese authorities suspicious of admitting even United Nations personnel.

The anger is further fuelled by assurances from Thailand that its Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, established after the 2004 tsunami, gave Burma a week's warning of the cyclone.

The Burmese regime claims it passed the warning on to the public, but survivors in the Irrawaddy delta dispute that. One third of the 300,000 residents of one delta city, Laputta, are reliably reported to have died, caught completely unawares by the tidal wave unleashed by the cyclone before dawn on Saturday. "If we had known the cyclone was approaching it would have been madness not to seek higher ground," said one resident. "The city was taken unawares."

The bitterness caused by a combination of regime duplicity, indifference and neglect boils over into hot rage in the ruined cities, towns and villages where one quarter of Burma's population live - or used to live. "The factors that triggered last year's demonstrations have returned a hundred-fold," said commentator Moe New Win. "All the pieces are in place for another explosion. This could spell the final meltdown for the generals. But don't count on it."

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