May 19, 2008
The cyclone which ravaged the south of Myanmar on May 3rd has claimed at least 78,000 lives, with another 56,000 missing victims. The part of Myanmar affected by the passage of the typhoon contains nearly half of the country’s 53 million inhabitants.
The enormous whirlwind spent 12 hours over the Irrawady delta, the deadliest area because the population is very dense there. Hundreds of thousands of fisherman and their families live along its coast lines, in their little dinghies or in bamboo huts built on pilings. Even a little ways inland, the frail huts of poor peasants couldn’t stand up to the winds blowing at more than a hundred miles per hour nor to waves as high as 20 feet. Nor could those on lower lands or by rice paddies survive the rains that fell in such a short period or the inundation of the waves. A tidal wave of 12 feet engulfed many inhabitants. In one village, Bogalay, 95% of the housing was destroyed by the enormous waves.
In the former capital, Rangoon, a city of more than five million, there was damage, especially in the slums. There were reports of military squads in Rangoon pulling broken trees and limbs out of intersections. But it was really the population itself, equipped only with whatever it could find, that cleared the roads, in order to ensure that food and water could be obtained.
The previous September, when there were protesters in the streets against the military regime and low wages, thousands of soldiers were sent to savagely attack the demonstrators, especially the Buddhist monks. So where were all of these thousands of soldiers in the cyclone crisis?
The public authorities gave advice on sanitation on the radio, advice difficult to follow in the chaos touching the whole southwest part of the country. There was nothing to drink except bottled water. How could people in such conditions find fresh fruit, use proper toilets, throw away waste correctly or protect themselves from mosquitos. How were hundreds of thousands of refugees supposed to follow such advice when they were totally deprived, sometimes caught in villages isolated by high water? Even in Ragoon the rubbish was piling up.
While the cost of rice, a staple of the Burmese diet, tripled, the military government was busy organizing a referendum for the weekend following the cyclone. They wanted voters to ratify a constitution that would make the military power legitimate, although it had already been in power for more than 40 years. In fact, it was this referendum that monopolized the news media and journalists even as the cyclone was approaching. The population certainly didn’t get warnings soon enough, even though the weather surveillance center in India had announced the cyclone’s arrival, its likely path and its probably size.
Although it is normal in this area to face destructive cyclones, only city centers and Buddhist temples were built to survive such storms. In this poorer part of Asia, other countries faced something similar: last November’s destructive cyclone in Bangladesh and Indonesia’s tsunami in 2004. The families of fishermen all along these coasts have nothing to help them survive giant waves or possible landslides.
The population may be poor but the country of Myanmar is not. It produces oil, copper, gold, and 13 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually going to the multinationals – and returning at least two billion dollars annually to the military junta. Half the country’s annual revenues go to maintain the military. It’s a regime that welcomes international capital, which supports what this regime does to its population. The riches of the country don’t go to improve the lives of the population, nor to prevent the terrible risks it faces.