Burma’s Generals and Cyclone Nargis: Incompetence, Callous Indifference or Both?

by Mark Woodward*

On May 3, 2008 Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta in Southern Burma with devastating force. Nargis was a killer. The Burma government did not warn people in the region that the storm was coming or how severe it would be, though they clearly knew. According to some reports wind speeds of forty to fifty miles per hour were predicted. This was the first of many lies the Generals told. On May 12 the Burmese press suggested that the storm was the consequence of global warming. This was carried on the second page of the state run New Light of Myanmar:

Storms, floods, droughts and heat wave often occur due to the weather changes in the world. Some 13 million of people die every year as there are fewer environments than can protect from such natural disasters. Moreover, over three million people die of diarrhea, malaria and protein deficiency annually. ……

The Myanmar government is carrying out the task of carrying out the tasks for raising socio-economic life of the people and upgrading public health care services. Local authorities and organizations, health staff, social organizations and the entire people need to prevent diseases and fight against then and undertake relief and resettlement tasks in concert in the case of natural disasters.

In light of what has happened and what little has been done to “prevent and fight disease,” these are shocking statements. They suggest two things. First that Nargis was part of global pattern of disasters precipitated by the action of (non-Burmese) human beings. Second, that the Generals together with the Burmese people as a whole are victims who are making valiant efforts to improve their lot. I doubt that George Orwell could have imagined a better example of what he called “New Speak” in his classic novel 1984. It is completely typical of the ways in which the Generals spin news they do not like.

Nargis packed a punch of approximately 135 miles per hour. The General’s initial response to the impending disaster was to order beach resorts not to accept additional guests. Given the power of the storm and the remote areas it devastated we will never know how many people died. Three weeks later there are still human bodies and animal carcasses floating in the water. There are reports that in some places the military has refused to allow people to recover and burry the dead. This is state terrorism; it prevents people from grieving in culturally appropriate ways and from a Buddhist perspective, does not allow the living to make merit (good karma) for the dead. On May 5 the Burmese government claimed that fewer than 4,000 people had died. Another lie. As of May 11 the Burmese government put the number at approximately 22,000. Yet another lie. Others, including the BBC, CNN and the US government and the United Nations put the number at a minimum of 130,000. More are dieing every day.

At least 2 million are in danger of dieing from disease, dehydration and starvation. There are numerous reports of outbreaks of dysentery and respiratory illness, especially among children. Unless action is taken immediately there will be outbreaks of Cholera. Few in the developed world know much about this disease. Fewer still have seen someone die from it. I have, and I cannot imagine a more horrible death. It is a particularly virulent form of diarrhea usually spread by inadequate sanitation and polluted water. It produces drastic dehydration, convulsions and delirium. Untreated it can lead to death within hours. It spreads rapidly. It can be easily treated. There are effective vaccines. Cholera epidemics can be extinguished almost instantly by effective sanitation and water treatment measures. In Burma none of these measures have been put in place because the Generals do not care enough to make it happen – if they care at all. Burmese officials promised Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej that there had been no outbreaks of disease. They lied.

On May 15th The Irrawaddy reported that in addition to physical ailments large numbers of people, especially children and the elderly have been afflicted with acute psychological trauma. One Burmese relief worker is quoted as follows:

People there look depressed and traumatized. They do not know what to say when people ask them questions. Young children seem afraid of water and the things around them. They are suffering from mentally illness. Everywhere around them are dead bodies, injured people. It’s a miserable environment.

An elderly man who lost seven grandchildren and many other relatives said:

I am so afraid to see the sky turn grey as I worry that it is going to rain and the strong waves from the ocean will hit the land again. I cry every time I think about what happened, and I can not sleep. I tried to hold my grandchildren’s hands tight when the water first hit us, but the waves were strong and big, and we could not hold on to each other—all my grandchildren disappeared in the waves. I had never expected that I would face a horrible situation like this. I really feel pain because I could not help my grandchildren and other family members. I could not do anything.

These are among the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): reliving the trauma, feelings of powerlessness, the inability to sleep and survivor’s guilt – questioning why you lived while so many others died. This is a serious psychiatric disorder. There are certainly tens of thousands of similar cases The sight of bodies floating in ponds and littering what remains of villages will re-traumatize people rendering their problems even more severe.

he Generals can not be blamed for psychological trauma. It is a natural human response to unthinkable horror. It can be caused by war, natural disaster, rape, domestic abuse and other violent events. It is not curable but it is treatable with medication and therapy. Left untreated many will suffer for the remainder of their lives. They will relive the trauma whenever they encounter people, places and other phenomena they associate with it. Many will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or engage in high risk behavior to escape from debilitating psychic pain.

n her classic study Trauma and Recovery Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman argues that “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness.” She shows that this strategy does not work and that remembering and telling the truth is essential for the restoration of social order and psychological healing. She also shows that treatment and recovery are not possible until victims are safe. Here the Generals can be held responsible. They have deliberately taken steps that keep people from being, much less feeling safe. They could have done more to ameliorate suffering. Almost as pernicious is the fact that by denying qualified relief works access to the victims they are fostering a sense of absolute dependence on the military. This is an insidious abusive psychological strategy. It fosters what is called “trauma bonding” in which victims of abuse bond with their abusers because they feel that it is the only way to survive. This explains why so many battered women and men return to their abusers only to be battered again. The Generals assume an almost parental role with respect to the Burmese people. If Burma is understood as a “family” it is a dysfunctional family. The Generals are guilty of the sociological equivalent of child abuse. This is worse than lies

Nargis was more than wind and rain. In its wake a storm surge of approximately twelve feet swept across the Irrawaddy delta, wreaking havoc on the regions already decrepit infrastructure. The Achehnese tsunami of 2005 demonstrated that the international community has the capacity to respond quickly and effectively to such disasters. In Indonesia numerous relief and governmental agencies including the United States Navy were delivering aid and aid workers within twenty-four hours. This did not happen in Burma because the Generals did not want it to happen. Three weeks after the storm only a trickle of aid has reached the victims. It is clear that the Burmese government does not have the capacity to handle even what little aid has arrived. Footage broadcast on state run Burmese television show soldiers manually unloading planes. There is not a forklift in sight. Burmese blogs state that only the families of soldiers and government officials are actually receiving aid. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported on May 13 that officials were hoarding donated supplies and selling them in markets in Rangoon and throughout the delta. They have confiscated supplies and medical equipment from NGOs. They have substituted locally made cookies for the high energy biscuits supplied by relief agencies and in some cases distributed rotten food. They have insisted that aid be distributed only by the military. Hospitals demand that victims pay for treatment. On May 15th Irrawady reported that aid was being distributed only to Buddhists and that Christians and Muslims were being ignored. Supplies a “rebranded” with labels stating that the are gifts from the Generals. On May 14th I spoke with a Singaporean whose cousin is a Roman Catholic Nun working in a Rangoon orphanage. He told me that as of today, there was no running water, no electricity and very little food. The nuns and their charges have received no assistance from the government. She described the coming of the rainy season as a mixed blessing. With out adequate shelter the rains make people cold and miserable. At the same time they provide the only source of potable water.

The answer to the question “incompetence or callous neglect?” is a resounding “guilty on both counts.” To which it necessary add: coupled with a systematic campaign of lies and deceptions. The question that we must ask now is ‘Why?”

Burma: Political Economy and Military Rule

Burma has been governed by a brutal, xenophobic military junta since 1962. The regime is obsessed with control of almost ever aspect of life. The country has a long and nearly continuous history of ethnic rebellions. The armed forces are notorious for massive human rights violations. When elections actually were held in 1990 the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a wide margin. The Generals refused to accept the results and remained in power. They have since built themselves a new capital with every thing Rangoon and other Burmese cities lack: well paved streets, dependable utilities, clean water and no threat of flooding. Military leader General Than Shwe is said to have ordered the construction of the new city because he was warned by an astrologer that his government would fall if he did not. Government workers were forced to move there before construction was complete. Many died from malaria and other diseases. The city is called Naypyidaw which means “city of kings.” The generals live like kings. Their wives make frequent trips to upscale malls on Singapore’s Orchard Road and spend thousands of dollars weekly on the Singapore lottery.

Most Burmese live in abject poverty. Per capita income is less than one dollar per day. Burma should be, and once was, one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. It has relatively low population density, vast stretches of fertile land, forest and mineral resources, including substantial reserves of natural gas. In the 1950s diplomats came to Rangoon from Thailand to go shopping. Today the very thought of this is absurd. Between 1962 and 1988 the military controlled the economy through what it termed “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” It policy’s promoted self sufficiency, import substitution and extremely strict foreign currency controls. The Burmese Road to Socialism was a one way street to economic oblivion. By 1979 the situation was so grim, that I paid for a weeks stay in Burma, the maximum allowed at the time, with the proceeds of selling a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a carton of 555 cigarettes.

The generals opened up the economy after the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 that left at least three thousand people dead. They legalized private enterprise and allowed foreign, mostly Chinese, investment. While the Generals have grown fabulously rich, the lot of the average Burmese has not changed. Burma should be a major rice exporter. Instead there are chronic food shortages. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that one in five children suffers from chronic malnutrition and that more than ten per cent do not live to reach adulthood. The Irrawaddy delta was Burma’s rice bowl. The flooding will no doubt make things even worse. Given the fact that the rice fields are flooded with salt water it will take considerable time, money and effort to restore productivity. As of May 13th, the price of rice had doubled in Rangoon.

The lavish wedding of General Than Shwe’s daughter Thandra in July 2007 is a window into both the excesses of the regime and the resentment the Burmese people have of it. Thandra received at least fifty million dollars worth of wedding gifts, three times the annual budget of the ministry of health. This does not include the strings of diamonds that adorned her gown. There is little chance that she and her new husband will share in the suffering of the victims of Nargis and other Burmese. There are never rice shortages at the cafes on Orchard Road.

A video clip of the wedding is available on Youtube. A Burmese blogger commented: “Just one of those stones can feed a thousand people in Burma! Her soul is as black as asphalt.” Another: “Than Shwe probably seized the UN aid goods in order to finance his obscenely lavish lifestyle. Enough is enough!” And yet another: “A woman’s worth is not measured by gold and glitters but by grace, no woman in Burma is more graceful then Aung San Suu Kyi”

The Generals are obsessed with the control of information and paranoid about foreign interference in their “internal affairs.” A large banner posted across the street from the US embassy reads: “Smash the imperialist forces attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of the state!” (English in the original). They portray themselves in as the protectors of the common people and are unwilling to admit that they are incapable of managing a natural disaster.

Irrawaddy posted this cartoon. Many Burmese inside the country express similar opinions, but only when they are certain that there are no spies or informers to overhear them.

The US Navy has amphibious and helicopter equipped ships loaded with supplies positioned off the Burmese coast. The British and French have also deployed warships. On May 21st the New Light of Myanmar stated that: “The strings attached to the relief supplies carried by warships and military helicopters are not acceptable to the Myanmar people.” The paper hinted that the proposed aid mission was a ruse to cover plans to invade the country and seize its oil and gas assets. It is likely that they fear either that military units would be infiltrated by “external destructive forces” and/or the people would come to realize how incompetent the regime is. The General have described the US and UK as dangerous enemies. They may fear that the people will decide that this is not true.

The Generals are obsessed with the idea that the US and/or UK are planning an invasion. Many Burmese wish that their paranoia was justified. In August of 2007 one Mandalay taxi driver told me that if George Bush wanted to invade a country he could have at least chosen Burma. A Burmese friend in Singapore, who happened to be Muslim, told me that: “These people [the Generals] aren’t even human. They are animals.” He paused for a moment and then said: “No they aren’t animals. To say that would be unfair to animals. They are shaytan (evil spirits).”

The generals have been working a new constitution and “pathway to democracy” for more than a decade. They produced a document that will keep them in power for at least a generation and called it democratic reform. An editorial in the May 8th New Light of Myanmar explained that the path towards democracy would take “several generations.” The Generals had scheduled a referendum for May 10 and predicted a massive turnout. To make certain that the electoral defeat of 1990 would not be repeated they pre-marked many of the ballots. Independent reports from Mandalay indicate that turnouts were actually low. More lies. On May 13, 2007 the New Light of Myamar carried extensive reports of foreign diplomats visiting polling stations. This would appear to claim that these countries including the United States and Japan as well as others with less credible democratic credentials including China, Russia and Vietnam were endorsing the referendum and the constitution. On May 16th the Generals announced that the constitution had been approved by 92.4 of the voters. This approaches the margin by Sadam Hussein was elected president of Iraq. It would seem that when it comes to elections totalitarian regimes think alike.

The Generals have attempted to link Nargis with the “internal and external destructive forces.” These are the international community, especially the US and UK and the National League for Democracy. A cartoon published in the May 11th edition of the New Light of Myanmar is an excellent example. The title is “From Polling Station to Peaceful Modern and Developed Nation.” It depicts a group of smiling Burmese running toward a ballot box having the following conversation:

When we are confronted with natural disasters we all cooperate!

When internal and external saboteurs disturb us we defend ourselves together!

It is because the army and the people are on the march hands joined!

In one corner there are three dark, shadowy and clearly frightened figures labeled: “Nargis, Internal and External Saboteurs.” The message is very clear. Traitors, foreigners and the weather have combined to impede the progress of the Burmese state, but that the Generals will lead the people to the Promised Land. MORE LIES!

Video enabled mobile phones and limited coverage by BBS, CNN and Channel News Asia have thwarted the Generals efforts to control the information flow about the disaster. Video phones and the internet also enabled the world to learn of the massacres of August 2007. The fact that the cable news networks rebroadcast the same images hour after hour and day after day indicates that there is much news, probably all of it bad that is not yet known. The Burmese print and broadcast media run alternate versions to the same story. The show General Than Shwe and other leaders distrusting small aid parcels to bowing grateful recipients and rows of neat blue tents in “resettlement areas.” On May 18th Channel News Asia broadcast footage of a military figure presenting a child with a large teddy bear. It might have come from Orchard Road. The child would have been much better served with one of the boxes of high energy biscuits the Generals have pilfered. None of the recipients are injured. All are clean and neatly dressed and in general show no signs of distress. There are numerous photographs of aid being delivered by helicopter of which Burma has only five. AND YET MORE LIES! Strangely some of these images reveal the Generals’ ineptitude. One shows a group of men pushing a large truck filled with supplies to start it. Another shows a row of tents occupied only by stray goats.

Conclusions

The Generals could easily have borrowed their media strategy from the Nazi propaganda meister Goebbels who worked on the assumption that if you told a big enough lies often enough, people would believe them. Some of the lies that Burmese officials have told are so outrageous as to defy the imagination. On July 15th the Democratic Voice of Burma reported that:

After a meeting with navy Commander-in-Chief Soe Thein, [Admiral] Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command reported, “[He] characterized activity there as returning back to normal — his words,” Keating said. “[He said] people are coming back to their villages, they’re planting their crops for the summer season, the monsoon will come and wash all the saltwater out of the ponds. His manner, his demeanor, his attitude indicated something less than very serious concern.”

The Burmese people are not so stupid as to believe such nonsense.

It is not clear what the future holds for the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The experience of the Achehnese tsunami has shown the recovery from a disaster of this magnitude is a long term process even when local authorities and NGOs and the international community work in concert.

The Associate Press reported on May 26th that, after a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of donor nations The Generals announced that were prepared to accept aid “with no strings attached.” The Generals attached numerous strings. All aid most be filtered through Rangoon. None can be delivered directly to the delta. Aid will be coordinated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which does not have the capacity to manage a relief effort on the massive scale required. Civilian aid workers will be accepted but must comply with the General’s directives. Ever the diplomat, Ban Ki-moon was “cautiously optimistic.” The ASEAN Emergency “Rapid” Assessment Force already reports that it has been denied access to the most severely afflicted areas. This does not bode well for the Burmese people. It would appear that once again that when confronted with the choice between the lesser of two evils the International Community has chosen to do much to little and much too late than to do nothing at all. The Generals must be smiling in their palaces in the Abode of Kings. Their wives can rest assured that their Orchard Road junkets will continue. The Generals have also asked the International Community for 11 billion dollars to spend as they please. Donors are skeptical. It would be hard to spend that much on Orchard Road but not when shopping in the Chinese arms bazaar.

More Burmese are going to die. Eight months ago I described the ways in which Burmese of all religious faiths: Buddhist, Muslims, Christians came together in prayer when it became clear that the Generals were willing to use any means necessary, no matter how brutal, to silence dissent. Their actions today are equally brutal. In this case not to act forcefully is an act of brutality. At that time I wrote that: “It may well be that prayer is the last best hope for yet another generation of Burmese Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.” I have not been able to travel to Burma since Nargis struck but I can say that here in Singapore the reaction has been the same as it was in Mandalay and Rangoon in August and September of 2007. I can find no other way to end this paper except to provide a Buddhist gloss on the human tragedy that is Burma. The perpetrators and the most of the victims of these crimes against humanity are Theravada Buddhists. One of the central tenets of Theravada Buddhism is that existence is suffering and that suffering is caused by craving for and clinging onto wealth, status, power and worldly goods. In Burma today the cause of suffering is that the Generals cling to what they have and crave for even more. They show no signs of embracing the central Theravada ethical teaching of treating others with metta – or loving kindness.

* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and is currently a Fullbright Scholar and Visiting Professor of International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He was last in Burma in May of 2007.