Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar on the second of May, killed at least 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing (according to official Burmese reports). The United Nations estimates that between 1.5 and 2 million inhabitants of the Irrawaddy delta were affected by the cyclone and are presently homeless and without basic resources. In reality, it is practically impossible to get an accurate account of the extent of the disaster, in part because the government does not allow reporting by any outside source and in part because information on the region was very incomplete even before the cyclone. In particular there have been no recent censuses in the region, a very fertile delta where many people settled in the last decades.
The Burmese government was extremely slow allowing any external aid into Myanmar. Even after officially authorising shipment of materials, it continued to seize the cargo of planes and ships. And despite the enormous logistical difficulties in transporting aid to the most affected region (a dense network of rivers, with most of the roads destroyed by the floods), the junta refused to grant visas to any humanitarian workers for a while. Only recently, after the situation had already become much worst than it initially was, did they allow aid workers from Asia. They are also gradually opening to the UN. The World Food Program will apparently be able to send somehelicopters and Ban Ki Moon visited last Thursday. The military appeared to be even more frightened of the consequences from opening the country to the outside world than it is of the ramifications from not acting quickly to help the people most affected by the storm.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about the irresponsible attitude of the Burmese regime. According to the U.N., a cyclone struck Myanmar four years ago, killing 140 people and leaving 18,000 homeless – none of which was given a mention in the official Burmese press. When the tsunami struck, Indonesia had put an airlift in place in Aceh within 48 hours despite the civil war raging there, while Myanmar waited more than two weeks before even authorising an international team to take account of the damage.
In their book Hunger and Public Action, Amartya Sen and Jean DrËze show that famines don’t result from natural events but are human failures with largely political causes. They observe that India hasn’t suffered famine since independence, and that the 1959-1960 Chinese famine, during which 30 million people died, was mainly caused by catastrophic mismanagement. In Bangladesh, the big 1974 famine actually coincided with better-than-average harvests. Managing a bad harvest or a natural disaster is possible, but it requires that the state and civil society have the capacity to organise. The same can be said for meteorological disasters like cyclones and tsunamis, despite their extraordinary violence. Cyclones are common in Mauritius, where there’s a well-functioning rapid-response system to dangerous weather forecasts. Cyclone GamËde, which hit Mauritius in 2007, killed only two people, despite its unprecedented scale. Cyclone Nargis didn’t show up by surprise: it was forecast by Indian meteorologists as early as April 28th. Apparently, nothing was done to warn the Burmese people, and no efforts were made to help them find refuge on high land to escape flooding.
In the case of India, a study by Robin Burgess and Tim Besley1 shows that government responses are quicker when newspapers circulate more freely and when there are freer elections. In Myanmar, television and radio are totally controlled by the government, as are all the major newspapers. Censure is so universal that there aren’t even daily newspapers. Paradoxically, the country was voting a few days after the cyclone, amidst the rubble, for a new constitution that will only strengthen the military. The last time the country voted, in May of 1990, the elections were immediately overturned when the opposition party won. With the attitude of the Burmese government being the way it is, we can foresee disaster on a scale far worse than what we have seen so far. The combination of decomposing bodies with the destruction of potable water infrastructures is a recipe for a cholera epidemic – one that could have far more victims than the initial impact of the cyclone.
In part because the country is closed to outsiders and it is so difficult to negotiate with the junta, this tragedy is getting significantly less international attention and less help than the tsunami. The situation was not helped by the fact that there was a catastrophic earthquake in China a few days after the cyclone and that the US media is focused on its primary elections. A study by David Stromberg and Thomas Eisensee shows that disasters that get less public attention are also less likely to get public money from foreign countries.2 Moreover, they also show that this also holds when the event does not receive coverage because it is competing with other pieces of news: for example, it takes many more deaths for a disaster to be noticed by the media if it happens to take place during the Olympics. People in Myanmar face a triple tragedy: a terrible government, a terrible cyclone, and bad timing.
There is clearly a risk that official aid from the international community won’t reach the people who need it most. It is tempting to become discouraged – to give in to the idea that any aid will end up in the generals’ pockets anyway – and so be resigned not to give anything at all. But when people are neglected by their governments, we must resist this resignation all the more. Otherwise, by not helping the citizens of a country who are already in such a terrible situation, we would be adding a fourth tragedy to Myanmar: international collective punishment for leaders they did not chose. This is a time where private organisations may be in a position to make a real difference, by focusing on individuals. Doctors of the World (MÈdecins du monde) and Doctors Without Borders (MÈdecins sans frontiËres) have both been able to send planes to Myanmar, and they do seem to have a degree of control of what is happening. Doctors Without Borders has teams on the ground already, including 1,200 Burmese, who can supervise operations even if they don’t get visas for foreign teams. 250 of them are working in the affected regions. Doctors of the World also control the distribution of their aid. There is a strong case to help them now to do their best in Myanmar.
Editor’s note: This column was originally published as “Il faut donner pour les Birmans” on 13 May 2008 in Liberation.
1 Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess “The Political Economy of Government Responsiveness: Theory and Evidence from India”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 117(4), 2002
2 David Stromberd and Thomas Eisensee News Floods, News Droughts, and U.S. Disaster Relief, Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(2), 2007.