'Like the Apocalypse' A Burmese Tragedy

The worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami has hit Burma, home to a despotic military regime. Despite a storm that locals claimed was "like the apocalypse," the junta sought to complicate the arrival of any foreign aid out of mistrust of the West.
Von Jürgen Kremb und Thilo Thielke
Cyclone damage in the Irrawaddy Delta

Cyclone damage in the Irrawaddy Delta

Foto: AFP

The disaster was unstoppable, and it was a more powerful natural disaster than crisis-shaken Burma had ever experienced.

From last Saturday until the middle of this week, the number of victims grew relentlessly, hour after hour, day after day. At first there was talk of a few hundred dead, then of the fear that the initial death toll could possibly double.

But at the beginning of the week, the generals who have oppressed the country for the past 46 years announced that there were likely thousands of dead. On Tuesday, when the official death toll had already reached and exceeded 20,000, the macabre tallying game was finally suspended.

After that, the ruling junta began counting additional victims as missing. On Wednesday, the disaster appeared to have reached the scope of the Christmas 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands along coastlines bordering the Indian Ocean. Both U Maung Maung, a Burmese opposition leader in exile in Bangkok, and Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affairs of the United States Embassy in Rangoon, assume that the country can expect more than 100,000 dead. The United Nations also reached a horrifying conclusion. If we add to the number of people killed those whose houses or fields were damaged or destroyed, as well as those who have had to abandon their damaged or destroyed villages, as many as 24 million Burmese -- close to half of the country's entire population -- could be affected by the disaster.

It was a disaster that the country's rulers did their utmost to ignore. In the days leading up to the storm, they devoted all of their energy to preparing for a dubious referendum to white wash their so-called "road-map to democracy" designed to guaranty 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the armed forces, even after a democratic election they promised vaguely for 2010. The government propaganda had been shifted into high gear, with the government-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, insisting: "All the people of the country are joyfully anticipating this vote."

With their momentous event only a week away, the generals weren't about to allow a simple storm to trip them up.

But it wasn't a simple storm.

Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma last weekend, developed in the last week of April from a tropic low-pressure area about 1,150 kilometers (714 miles) southeast of the India city of Chennai. On April 27, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, classified the storm brewing over the Bay of Bengal as Tropical Cyclone 01B, keeping an eye on the cyclone as it moved slowly to the northwest. In the early morning hours of April 28, it was only 550 kilometers (342 miles) east of Chennai (formerly known as Madras). At that point, the Indian meteorological service named the storm "Nargis." A short time later, the storm gained strength, and later that same day the Indians upgraded it to a severe cyclone, its destructive force fueled even further by the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. On the morning of April 29, the JTWC in Pearl Harbor announced that Nargis's wind speed had already increased to 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph). On May 1, the monster storm turned abruptly to the east, increased its wind speed even further, and bore down on the Burmese coast. When Nargis descended on Burma the next morning, it had reached top speeds of up to 230 kilometers per hour (143 mph).

In Rangoon, a city of 6 million, German doctor Heinrich Schoeneich experienced something he had never seen before: tree trunks flying through the air. Light poles were snapping in two throughout the city. In the endless rows of brick buildings from the British colonial era, in which most of the city's residents live, windows were smashed on every floor. "It's an inferno that seems unimaginable, if you haven't experienced it before," says Schoeneich.

In the Burmese beach resort of Napali, on the Bay of Bengal, Annelie Moog, 46, based in the western German city of Limburg and the co-owner of a large travel business, was caught off-guard by the storm. Nargis left the handful of tourist hotels in Napali, Burma's best-known beach resort for foreign tourists, largely unscathed. But as she traveled back to Rangoon, Moog passed apocalyptic scenes. "Trees that were hundreds of years old had been snapped like matchsticks, burying cars and huts beneath them."

According to Moog, Rangoon was almost unrecognizable. "It looks like the apocalypse. The old Rangoon no longer exists," she said. Disoriented people in tattered clothes wandered through the ruins, desperately searching for something to eat, drinking water or diesel fuel for the few generators still working. Other residents of Rangoon, Burma's largest city and former capital, simply cowered on the side of the road, staring apathetically into space. Residents complained that the military would never have permitted the construction of protective storm bunkers, fearing that people might band together.

The power supply quickly collapsed throughout Burma. Especially hard-hit were the slums on the outskirts of Rangoon, where the cyclone simply swept away crude huts made of plastic tarps, cardboard and corrugated metal.

A few of the larger hotels in the country's economic hub managed to stay open for some time, but even in the luxury hotels tourists were knee-deep in water. Entire sheets of marble were ripped from the exterior of the Traders Hotel, while pieces of metal roofing became projectiles. Even the luxury Inya Lake Resort and its attached wonderful garden, the pride of former dictator Ne Win and the architectural jewel of his "Burmese Way to Socialism," was quickly reduced to ruins.

"The people are wandering aimlessly through the streets, where all they can see are the dead," Tin Htar Swe, the director of the BBC program in Burma, told her listeners.

The storm was far more devastating in coastal regions than in the country's interior. The tidal wave brought on by Nargis turned a disastrous storm into a murderous flood, increasing the death count exponentially.

Vast mangrove forests that once would have slowed the path of the massive wave of water have given way to completely unprotected rice fields. An especially fatal element in the disaster is the fact that the fertile Irrawaddy delta region, which comprises only about five percent of Burma's landmass, is extremely densely populated. Almost half of all Burmese live in the region, which stretches form the Golf of Bengal to the Rangoon River

But as of last Saturday, many of those people are no longer alive. Andrew Kirkwood of the British aid organization Save the Children reports that there are countless bodies in remote delta villages, and that even cities of 150,000 people are completely cut off from the outside world. "The dying there are left to their own devices," says Kirkwood.

The city of Bogale, once home to 180,000 people, disappeared completely under a tidal wave up to three-and-a-half meters (11.5 feet) high. The nearby city of Labutta, with a population of 200,000 and on slightly higher ground, became the destination for countless refugees who managed to escape on boats or rafts. On Thursday, the government admitted that 80,000 people had likely drowned in this region alone.

According to the aid organization ActionAid, more than 60 Burmese cities and towns were completely obliterated by the massive volume of water Nargis churned up. To make matters worse, almost half of the missing are believed to be children. In addition, no one has even the faintest idea how many of the large numbers of fishermen working off the Burmese coast were lost when their boats sank.

In a cruel irony, farmers in the fertile Irrawaddy delta were shortly before the harvest. Now the salt water has ruined their rice, almost all wells have been destroyed and, in the fields, the bodies of drowned livestock are decomposing and contaminating the soil. By the second half of the week, 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) of the delta were still under water.

It seems only a matter of time before infectious diseases like typhus and cholera will begin to spread. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs there is an "urgent need for plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, cooking equipment, mosquito nets, health kits and food."

Prices of food and fuel are climbing rapidly in the cities. Rice, sugar and diesel suddenly cost three times as much as they did before the storm, and only regime officials and their business cronies can afford such prices.

But even as the alarming reports coming from the isolated military dictatorship became increasingly shrill, urgently needed international assistance was slow to get off its feet. The uninhibited fury of nature struck Burma with apocalyptic force, as if a heavenly power were punishing the country for its rotting, junta-led regime. And yet the people most affected by the disaster are those forced to suffer through a life filled with privations under precisely that regime. To add insult to injury, emergency international aid was initially surprisingly meager when compared to similar disasters elsewhere.

At first, the United States said it would send only the equivalent of €3 million ($4.6 million) in humanitarian aid, while Germany committed €500,000 and the European Union pledged €2 million. France promised only €200,000 -- the price of four mid-range cars in Paris -- to the economically battered military regime.

Apparently the politicians of the West still had serious reservations about sending their money to the poorhouse on the Irrawaddy, even in its time of greatest need. Their aversion to the country's stubborn, pro-Chinese generals is simply too deeply ingrained.

The feeling of mistrust is mutual, and led Burma's military leadership, in a display of deep cynicism, to raise as many obstacles as possible to foreign organizations willing to help.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the junta's uncooperativeness "a catastrophe within the catastrophe." In the days following the disaster, relief supplies that could not be distributed began piling up at airports in neighboring Thailand. The Burmese military government even demanded the payment of duties for importing the supplies.

The leadership of the boycott-weakened country apparently responded to the emergency with a counter-boycott of its own. Was it the result of false pride? Or fear that the numbness of shock within the population could turn into naked fury -- in front of unwanted witnesses, no less -- and then into a rebellion that could sweep away the regime like a second cyclone?

There was no evidence whatsoever of crisis management. The generals accepted the dying of their people with cruel stoicism. "Eat fresh fruit, use clean toilets and dispose of your rubbish," the government suggested in a radio broadcast last Tuesday in the hard-hit regions. Five days after the cyclone, the military leaders were still refusing to issue visas in neighboring countries for international aid workers. And those who were already in the country were harassed at every turn. Volunteers with the aid organization Malteser International, for example, who already had valid visas for Burma, were denied access to "the most heavily affected areas in the region, namely the Irrawaddy River delta," Roland Hansen, the director of the group's Asia team, complained. The suffering population is being left to fend for itself, while the military junta, led by the aging General Than Shwe, holds out in its jungle stronghold, the new capital Naypyidaw, to which the government was moved in November 2005. Prime Minister Thein Sein, wearing a freshly ironed uniform, made a very brief appearance before the cameras of the state-owned television network, directing a few words of encouragement to Burma's tormented people before disappearing again.

"Where are all the soldiers who were so quick to mow down monks and civilians last September ?" the Thailand-based Burmese dissident publication The Irrawaddy asked. The only evidence of government involvement was a handful of fire department vehicles spotted in Rangoon. The firemen even tried to turn a profit as they distributed drinking water for cash.

Only on Wednesday evening, with the official death toll persistently hovering at 22,000, was the longed-for landing permit granted for a first United Nations relief flight. One day later, the junta allowed four UN aircraft to deliver urgently needed food. But for many the aid came too late. "They did not accept our direct aid, nor did they accept the relief personnel that we offered them," said French Foreign Minister Kouchner, one of the co-founders of the aid organization Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

It is becoming increasingly clear that many people would probably still be alive if the Burmese government had warned its people of the coming storm. But there were no reports on the radio or on television in the days leading up to the disaster. And not a word about the cyclone, which was already taking shape five days earlier, was mentioned in the state-controlled newspapers.

"The only thing that the radios were blaring on the day of the disaster," says Irrawaddy editor-in-chief Aung Zaw, "was the government's propaganda on the bogus referendum."

It is quite possible, however, that public outrage over the regime's inaction will turn into new protests. On Wednesday, the day when General Tha Aye, the army's commander-in-chief for the city of Rangoon, announced that the country was "returning to normal" and the first shops reopened, they were promptly looted by hungry survivors. At the Rangoon airport, stunned Burmese looked on as government troops appeared to repackage relief supplies from Thailand -- trying to create the impression that the government itself was doing something to relieve the country's distress.

While the majority of the military has remained in its barracks in the hour of Burma's greatest need, the monks that led protests against the government last fall are everywhere. They are clearing fallen trees with axes and ordinary saws, removing rubble and helping distribute food and supplies.

"Monks and residents, using bicycles and ropes, are trying to get trees out of the way," says German businesswoman Moog. A woman in Rangoon, who, fearing the police, chooses to remain anonymous, says: "Of course, we had hoped for help from the authorities, but there has been no sign of them so far."

"The people in Burma are growing more and more desperate and angry," says Burmese opposition politician Teddy Buri, an elected member of parliament living in exile in Thailand, "because the government does nothing to help the suffering people." The longer the military, with its 400,000 soldiers, ignores the situation, the greater the fury of the people will grow. Sooner or later, Buri believes, popular frustration is bound to turn into "new political unrest," a rebellion that will be "more violent and energetic than the protests in the past."

"At the moment, people are preoccupied with their survival," says Australian Asia expert Sean Turnell, "but once this phase comes to an end, their fury could boil over."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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