“The high winds blew roofs off cages at the zoo, one person said, and a baboon or gibbon was spotted Monday sitting on top of a giant plastic ruby in the middle of a traffic circle near Shwedagon Pagoda. ‘He refused to get down,’ the resident said, speaking anonymously because of a government ban on news that is not authorized by the state.”

— New York Times, May 7, 2008

On May 2, 2008 a cyclone hit Burma. They usually don’t, or not very hard, but this one, called Nargis (“Daffodil”) smashed onshore with an unprecedented fury. A cyclone is a hurricane is a typhoon. All are names for a violent spiraling storm. It is called a cyclone in the Indian Ocean — usually the Bay of Bengal (India, Bangladesh, parts of Burma) and it is called a hurricane when it happens in the Atlantic’s waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean, or even the shore of New Jersey, where I grew up. When I was little, my father built a backyard plywood airplane big enough for my brother and I to sit in and pretend to fly. When we woke up after one hurricane night, we were amazed to see that our plywood airplane really had flown — the winds had picked it up and crash-landed it in the front yard across the street. So I’ve always been impressed by these storms. In the Pacific Ocean they are called typhoons. I’ve been in Hong Kong when typhoon warnings went out, and they are taken very seriously there.

Hurricane Katrina’s affect on New Orleans and the coast of Mississippi was a classic example of the worst case scenario for this kind of storm. Winds and rain are destructive, but the worst is a tidal surge bringing high waves and severe flooding. Then there’s ineptitude, neglect and the willful sacrifice of the poorest layer of human society to the effects of wind and water. The sudden lethargy of the powerful when they are needed to help the powerless. The characterization of the storm’s victims as “refugees” and even as “beggars.” The chalked messages: “help us,” “dead body here,” “toxic site.”

A cyclone took 139,000 lives in Bangladesh in 1991. That night I was in the beach town where the storm first hit land and in the days afterwards I witnessed how extremely important a concerted, well-organized, and well-funded ongoing relief effort is for survival and recovery in such an enormous disaster emergency. At that time, it took days for outside aid to arrive in the affected areas, but when it did — largely through the US Navy’s well-regarded Operation Sea Angel — it saved many lives and prevented a second wave of disease. Ever since, Bangladesh has used a system of storm shelters and village warning committees to prevent mass casualties when cyclones strike.


Now Burma. Which was already an astounding disaster before this happened. With one of the worst healthcare systems in the world and one of the highest percentages of military spending. With the vast majority of the population living on the proverbial less than a dollar a day and the military regime raking in around $150 million a month from petroleum exports. With an array of environmental devastation, just about every human rights violation known to inhumanity, epidemics and hunger belts from the western to eastern frontiers. And a monk-slaughtering regime with $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves and willing foreign partners and enablers from Chevron to China.

Cyclone Nargis blasted in, the perfect storm on top of a perfect disaster.

Veering inland off the Bay of Bengal on May 2, Cyclone Nargis inundated the densely populated rice-growing Irrawaddy River Delta of Burma, devastating towns and destroying entire villages with ten feet of saltwater. The storm also churned its way over Burma’s largest city, Rangoon and its sprawling “satellite towns” where poor/rebellious people had been forced to settle following 1988’s suppressed democracy uprising. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the storm and over two million survivors were left homeless.

The world then watched as Burma’s military regime swung into action — moving swiftly to reject disaster relief teams, not only from the United States but from Qatar and Indonesia. Experts from the United Nations and international relief organizations were made to wait for permission to enter a country whose people desperately needed their help. A few aid groups, including the Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, which were already permitted to operate in the Irrawaddy Delta, spearheaded immediate relief efforts, but they needed more supplies (food, water, shelters, everything) and staff with disaster expertise.

In Burma, the aid obstruction was due to the nature of the military dictatorship which has maintained absolute power ever since 1962, when it overthrew a democratic government. This is the junta which brutally suppressed the protests of Buddhist monks last fall and keeps Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under incommunicado arrest in a house with a roof damaged by the cyclone.

Burma’s regime is not as isolated as many assume. The junta has extremely lucrative joint-ventures with half a dozen petroleum multinationals, including France’s Total in partnership with Chevron of the United States. The Generals use Singapore for banking and medical treatment and go on lavish state visits around Asia. The regime actively seeks upscale tourism like Abercrombie & Kent’s luxury steamer cruises on the Irrawaddy River.

Burma’s Generals are not so much xenophobic as they are monomaniacal, stark raving power mad, which has certainly helped them to stay in control. A junta whose chain of command stretches back to a corps of Burmese trained by the Japanese Secret Police during World War II, this committee of elderly career military men is the collective successor of General Ne Win, who seized power from Burma’s parliamentary democracy in 1962. Ne Win’s chosen officers put the junta (initially called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC, now the State Peace and Development Council) in complete authority over the country in 1988, as a nationwide pro-democracy uprising was brutally suppressed. It changed the nation’s official name from Burma to Myanmar (remember when the Khmer Rouge got everybody to call Cambodia “Kampuchea”?)

The junta has had a few shifts of supremo, a few ousters, but overall the committee has stayed remarkably unified, with enough spoils from a resource-rich land to divide up happily. They have never loosened their grip and they have always manipulated the international community and attracted plenty of foreign investment. The US has imposed Burma business sanctions, but not for Chevron, and all the other countries have been happy to feed at the trough. Especially China. The army the junta commands is enormous, underaged, ill-trained and ill-fed, being equipped mainly by China, and notorious for the use of rape as a weapon and forced labor as an engine of conquest in the “ethnic” frontier areas.

The Generals were so unswervingly fixated on the date of their constitutional referendum, an elaborate charade intended to eternally legitimize their grip on power, that many Burmese are sure it was set by astrology as an auspicious date for the junta. The junta announced risible referendum results, 92.93 percent in the storm regions and 92.48 percent in the rest of the country “voting” in favor of the military’s constitutional concoction (such coincidental 92s, those percentages which both add up to 12.) The military rulers are known to be advised by soothsayers and numerologists, and the word on the streets of Burma is that the Generals were somehow warned years in advance of Cyclone Nargis and therefore moved their capitol 200 miles north from Rangoon to the inland stronghold of Naypyidaw, an Alphaville bunker-land built to their specifications, broad tank-friendly avenues and crab-shaped pasteboard Brutalist office complexes topped by kitsch “Oriental” roofs.

No ideologues, the Generals tell the country that “the army is your mother and father,” as their billboards read. They are government as Jonestown, a cult of themselves, with the perks of offshore banking and a Gem Emporium for the sale of Burma’s yearly bounty of jade, rubies, sapphires and pearls. Such precious stones have long been used to decorate pagodas revered by Burma’s Buddhist majority. The New York Times reported that “cyclone winds tore hundreds of gold-leaf panels” from Rangoon’s massive Shwedagon Pagoda, and “more than 1,000 precious stones — jade, rubies, emeralds and sapphires — also fell off, although the 76-carat diamond atop the pagoda’s spire had stayed in place.” Sparkling gems also adorn the wives and daughters of the military elite, most notably paramount paranoid General Than Shwe’s diamond-loving daughter for her obscenely glittering 2006 wedding. Burma is a very rich country. Cursed with minerals, petroleum, timber, and the foreign partners always eager to buy and extract it all.


Burma’s foreign trade had a direct relation to the cyclone disaster. The regime sold off vast forests of teak and other trees to foreign timber companies, leading to river siltation which increased the effects of the flooding. Much of the essential protective barrier of coastal mangroves was lost to shrimp farming for export. The junta decreed that farmers all over Burma must plant jatropha, an introduced source of biofuel, which has taken away valuable food-producing land. The irony was that they had no way to refine the jatropha oil into usable fuel. This dictatorial folly will compound this year’s loss of much of the nation’s Irrawaddy Delta “rice bowl” due to the cyclone’s saltwater tidal surge.

Back in 1986, Ian Buruma wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books about the military dictatorship of Burma and its choking off of intellectual life, the life of “the City” as he termed it, so distrusted by the poorly educated army officers. The New York Review published three letters in response, including one by me which included this line: “The government of Burma, in its Albanian xenophobia, does not allow even such international relief groups as the Red Cross or UNICEF to operate in the war zone.” That was back before they opened up to outside investment, becoming much less “Albanian” but not less obstructive of international relief aid. The other two letters were from academic Burma experts of the time who took Ian Buruma to task for criticizing the dictatorship, which some back then saw as benevolently ruling a utopian agrarian peasant paradise.

As it turned out, the Generals didn’t trust the peasants, either. The junta’s contempt for the countryside is now exposed in a calamity scenario horribly reminiscent of the Irish Potato Famine, with its land-grabbing, ongoing food exports and rejection of foreign aid. The English had made foreign shipments of relief grain for Ireland come first to English ports to be transferred to English ships. During the Irish Famine, Jane Francesca Elgee (Oscar Wilde’s mother) wrote of a “gaunt crowd on the highway” so like those which today haunt the roads into the Irrawaddy Delta:

“What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.

Fainting forms, Hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?

Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.

There’s a proud array of soldiers — what do they round your door?

They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.”

Long ago, pre-World War II, Burma was the biggest rice exporter in Asia. But years of agricide (crop confiscation, crop burning in conflict areas, forced labor away from the farms or in the fields of the army) and large scale forced relocation campaigns have produced hunger belts stretching from the western to the eastern frontiers. Notably underreported are this year’s outbreaks of food shortages in the Chin State, on Burma’s border with India, as a 48 year cyclical flowering of indigenous bamboo causes a population explosion of rats (first they devour the bamboo fruit, then everything else, including stored rice.) All over Burma, watered-down rice gruel or soup has become the normal meal, eaten twice a day with some vegetables and fish paste if you’re lucky. Nonetheless, with its lust for hard currency foreign exchange, the regime has reinvented itself as a rice exporter, managing to sell about 500,000 tons of rice to Bangladesh and other countries. Now with world rice demand high, supplies low, and prices skyrocketing, Burma’s regime, always eager to honor a business commitment, has even gone through with its post-cyclone shipment of 7,000 tons of rice to Sri Lanka, the first installment of a contract for 50,000 tons. Meanwhile, the UN’s World Food Program was attempting to get permission to import 15,000 tons of charity rice to Burma. While sacks of biscuits and cartons of noodles are unloaded from international relief cargo planes, off go the rice export ships. There’s globalization for you.

Last fall, as the monk-led passive resistance marches known as the Saffron Revolution were taking place, a reporter quoted his Rangoon taxi driver’s comment: “a hungry man is an angry man” (Bob Marley is known and loved everywhere.) The “Saffron” protests had grown from a reaction to a drastic increase in petrol prices to a mass expression of the dissatisfaction that had been simmering since 1988, the last time marchers took to the streets of Burma’s towns and cities. As in 1988, peaceful protest in 2007 was quelled with bullets and bayonets. The price of petrol has not gone down. In fact it has doubled again since the cyclone. Now the prices of food and building materials have joined exorbitant cooking fuel and petrol costs, out of reach for many. As necessities are priced like luxuries, daily life is increasingly untenable even for Burma’s small middle class.

Still, hunger has not yet transformed into overt demonstrations of anger. In other countries, Haiti, Somalia, Egypt, people are rioting over food prices. Not in Burma so far. At a recent Burma cyclone relief benefit, a Ukrainian woman came up to me and asked, “Why they don’t have revolution?” Some Burma observers think this seeming obedience to the regime is because the Burmese Buddhists can meditate themselves into a state of detachment from reality. Some think the regime’s 400,000 troops (the 12th largest armed force in the world) backed by first class numerology would be enough to cow anybody. Many old Burma hands simply point to the climate of fear, a fear ingrained for generations.

Aung San Suu Kyi made it her job, in her interludes out of captivity, to inspire the people of Burma to overcome their fears. In her famous “Freedom from Fear” essay she used an unforgettable metaphor, writing, “Glass splinters, the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush, could be seen as a vivid symbol of the spark of courage that is an essential attribute of those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s nonviolent army — those monks and 1988 student leaders and hip-hop kids who organized last September’s “Saffron” movement and survived its massacres — stay busy gathering up aid for the Delta, or doing prison time.


Edith Mirante is director of Project Maje www.projectmaje.org an independent information project on Burma’s human rights and environmental issues, which she founded in 1986. She is the author of “Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure” (Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992) and “Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontiers” (Orchid Press, 2004.)

Copyright 2008 Edith Mirante

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