Cyclone disaster isolates Myanmar’s junta

I have written three weblog posts on the cyclone disaster in Myanmar: The perfect storm, Unprecedented cyclone disaster, and Slow relief work. Reuters and the New York Times uploaded the articles in their websites. Oh by the way, join the discussion in the Yehey! Message Boards.

Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar last weekend. The cyclone devastated several regions which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people. The number of missing people is even higher. Hundreds of thousands of homes and vital public infrastructures were damaged.

The situation on the ground is heartbreaking. Monasteries are overflowing with refugees. Food prices have already doubled. Water is inaccessible. Sick children are not receiving proper medical attention.

The cyclone could also worsen the global food crisis. Myanmar’s rice producing regions were among the badly hit areas. This will affect the capability of Myanmar to feed its own people. Myanmar might be forced to import rice which will make rice prices more expensive.

Reactions of the people around the world were almost unanimous when news broke out that a strong cyclone had hit Myanmar last weekend. Not only do Myanmar residents have to live under military dictatorship, they also have to struggle hard to survive when deadly natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis hit their land.

Indeed, the cyclone disaster was a terrible tragedy. It worsened the sufferings endured by Myanmar’s people. It will take some time before the devastated communities of Myanmar can bounce back. But the tragedy could also fuel more hatred against the ruling junta.

More people are expressing anger over the ineptitude of the junta to minimize the damage caused by Cyclone Nargis. People are blaming the junta’s lack of decisive leadership as to why the cyclone death toll has reached an alarming level. The cyclone has further isolated the junta from ordinary people.

Rezwan, a blogger from Bangladesh, notes that a stronger cyclone hit Bangladesh last November but the number of casualties was lower. He wrote that Bangladesh did prepare a lot for Cyclone Sidr. He added that "a total of 2 million people in Bangladesh were evacuated to emergency shelters. Otherwise the death toll would be catastrophic. Most of those who were dead defied the warnings and stayed home. The after cyclone relief and rescue operations were also swift. Over 40,000 Red Cross volunteers were deployed to order residents in the 15 affected provinces into special cyclone and flood shelters. In contrast to the Burmese situation, the Bangladeshi military forces played a significant role in providing helicopters and boats to reach the remote locations and of course helping in relief and rescue."

Sophie Lwin of the Burma Global Action Network said that NASA already warned the junta that Cyclone Nargis would hit Myanmar several days before the disaster yet the regime did nothing. The death toll could have been minimized if the junta heeded the warning and instituted emergency measures to prepare for the coming disaster.

The response of the junta after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar was also slow and deplorable. Blogger Agam’s Gecko observed that "very few soldiers have been spotted lately doing any of the recovery work, although state television did show a couple of uniforms pulling branches around. Monks and other citizens have organized themselves, and seem to be doing most of it."

Another ill-advised decision of the junta was to declare that the controversial constitutional referendum, which is scheduled to take place this month, will still push through. This reflects the apathy of the junta to the sufferings of its people. This smacks of insensitivity to the collective grief of the Burmese nation. The junta insists the referendum is part of the democratization process. Well, the junta’s version of democracy can wait. Meanwhile, what the people of Myanmar need today are basic necessities of life like food, water, clothing and shelter.

It is also unfortunate that the junta initially restricted the movements of foreign aid volunteers who were assessing the situation in the affected regions. This angered many residents who were in desperate need of immediate relief. Later, the junta allowed international relief organizations to enter the country. Somehow, this reversal of decision on the part of the junta shows the extent of destruction that Cyclone Nargis left on Myanmar.

The entry of foreigners inside Myanmar’s poorest provinces is a welcome political development in the struggle against the junta. Foreign volunteers can report the real political and economic situation of Myanmar. They can highlight the cruelties of the junta against Myanmar’s poor. They can write about the activities of the resistance movement inside Myanmar. The junta should prepare for stronger international political pressure.

The cyclone tragedy in Myanmar points to the link between good governance and disaster management. A credible leadership is needed to mobilize the people in times of crisis. The junta insists it warned the public about Cyclone Nargis. But people will only trust leaders who are legitimate and trustworthy.

After hearing about the cyclone disaster, hundreds of individuals, groups and governments pledged to deliver aid to Myanmar. However, many individuals are worried that their contributions could end up in the pockets of Myanmar’s leaders. Again, this reflects the low reputation of the junta. It emphasizes the role of credibility to sustain effective leadership.

Myanmar is suffering today. Disasters, both man-made and natural, are causing tremendous social and economic dislocation. But there is a chance to turn the recent cyclone tragedy into an opportunity to inspire the resistance against the oppressive junta.

The people are aware that the junta neglected its duty to protect the public. The junta failed to implement decisive actions which could have minimized the cyclone casualties. The people of Myanmar will not forget the incompetence and insensitivity of the junta. In the next few months, further social unrest, bigger than last year’s Saffron Revolution, is expected to develop in Myanmar.

Related entries:

Myanmar and Philippines
Human rights and Asean
Rice and Southeast Asia
Refugee nation

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