Edith Mirante


Enacting their usual charade from smaller catastrophes (Burma is occasionally struck by earthquakes or flooding), the Generals handed out blankets and boxes of ramen (sent by Thailand, relabeled with the Generals’ names) to a few recipients photographed groveling, just the way they like them. General Than Shwe stonewalled UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, not picking up the phone, but eventually hosted his visit, showing him a clean tent camp with fresh supplies and promising him visas for the foreign friends. As usual, the junta toyed with the UN, and played with ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Burma is a full if disreputable member.) ASEAN held its emergency relief meeting two weeks after the storm and continued to schedule meetings as if this was a Global Warming crisis coming some time in the future rather than a matter of people running out of drinking water and food right in the present. Rising to the occasion at a snail’s pace, ASEAN’s Emergency Rapid Assessment Team gave itself three weeks to prepare its first report on what would need to be done, and another month after that for its complete assessment.

The aid the regime did not refuse was often delivered in “dump and leave” fashion, unloaded and warehoused by the Burmese army — after all, its nearly half million soldiers need biscuits and blankets too. Some of the relief goods were outright stolen and sold in the markets. An unknown amount made it to the Delta, much of it only to be delivered into the hands of the junta’s local government flunkies.

Everyone acted properly scared of the junta, the sovereign rulers of their sovereign land. The UN was very respectful indeed, and the US didn’t invade with relief zodiacs. No “Sea Angels” this time, though the US kept offering in a good cop, bad cop alternately polite and rude way. Four US Navy ships that had been in the region for a humanitarian relief training mission, fully supplied, waited for an invitation that never came. France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (a mass of contradictions who co-founded Medecins Sans Frontieres in 1971, but in 2003 wrote what many human rights groups considered a whitewash report for the French petroleum multinational Total, the regime’s top foreign investor, about its Burma pipeline project) proposed humanitarian intervention. Kouchner invoked the United Nations’ mandated “responsibility to protect” the citizens of any country who are being exterminated or neglected post-disaster to the point of extermination. Still, France didn’t invade. Neighboring Thailand didn’t invade. A few relief cargo planes managed to land at the Rangoon airport each day, dumping and running.

Suddenly Burma was the subject of the big time aid paradigm, what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” The regime did its part by demanding $11 billion for “reconstruction” with the assertion that the relief phase was over, and put forth some vague talk of elevated highways for the Delta, the kind of big infrastructure project they usually accomplish with forced labor. Perhaps they are also having visions of food production without farmers, the agribusiness ideal.

Some people gave Burma kudos for standing up to the UN and US, portraying the junta as plucky anti-colonialists who would “rather die” than take aid from a bunch of first-world calamity vultures who would come in and boss everybody around and even bring their own soldiers with them. One instant Burma expert in the Philippines opined that the powerful nations were trying to bring aid into Burma as a pretext to invade and get Burma’s petroleum. What he had missed out on was the fact that those nations were right in there pumping out the natural gas already, in direct partnership with the Generals. No need to invade there, pretext or not. That seems to be a rule in this “Syriana” era: You don’t send your military in if you already have the petroleum.

Regime partner Total lent one boat and one helicopter (the essential accouterments of an offshore gas business whose rigs weathered the cyclone unscathed) for relief efforts. But even they, who had done so much for the Generals, apparently couldn’t manage to reach far into the watery deep Delta zone for the estimated million cyclone survivors yet to get one bit of help more than a month after the storm. A few UN helicopters eventually were allowed the fly missions in Burma, but the UN’s World Food Program issued statements in June warning that they were running out of funds to keep the choppers flying and were in need of donations of petroleum to operate rice planting machines imported to replace the Irrawaddy Delta’s storm-drowned water buffalos. The United Nations eventually admitted it had been outright ripped off of millions of donated dollars by the junta’s foreign currency exchange rate scams.


That concept raised by Total pal Bernard Kouchner, humanitarian intervention based on the UN’s “responsibility to protect,” went nowhere, with China and Russia, ever the champions of Burma’s right to do whatever to whomever within its borders, cutting off even a discussion of Burma in the Security Council. Such talk of international responsibility and intervention (or where’s Charlie Wilson when you need him?) has led mainly to Burma’s people wistfully scanning the skies for helicopters and waiting by the docks of the Bay of Bengal for ships that never come in. Zargana, Burma’s favorite ex-political prisoner comedian and ad hoc relief organizer (who ended up arrested again for his efforts) told the exile-run Irrawaddy magazine, “We provided some survivors with radios and asked them to listen to the news, to keep in contact with the world. They were happy with that news, but now they feel sad and desperate because the ships aren’t allowed to come. They feel alone and abandoned.”

Rescue fantasy has long been part of the psychology of Burma. I remember the hopeful rumors that swirled through the Burma underground when Operation Sea Angel was helping Bangladesh cyclone victims, rumors that the US fleet would next stop over in Burma to oust the junta. It was all as unrealistic as the mythic warrior status of Rambo that I had encountered in remote parts of Burma even before Sylvester Stallone set his latest sequel in the frontier war zone. Burma has given rise to various millenarian movements in its history, doomed Ghost Dance phenomena with magic shirts, amulets, protective tattoos, fighting monks, and twin boys leading rebel troops. In a land where the Generals rule with lucky numbers, August 8, 1988 was the high point of resistance, and the people dream fervently of deliverance from outside, from Rambo, from the white ships. So how utterly sad it was when the French Navy ship Le Mistral, with 1,000 tons of relief supplies (and perhaps some of those French Marines who intervene in Africa at the drop of a kepi) turned around. Le Mistral took its aid cargo to Thailand, to be loaded onto the dump and run flights. No direct access to the flooded flat mud islands of the Delta. Next the US fleet sailed away.


Week after week, the flooded regions of the Irrawaddy Delta have stewed in their own juice. Whoever was going to die simply died. Whoever was strong enough to keep living on nothing, on rainwater and nothing, stayed alive day to day. Or they made it to a town or a roadside for handouts, only to be beaten back to the mud they crawled out of. The regime’s newspapers have told them there are plenty of frogs to eat there. If frogs thrive on saltwater and corpses, that should be true. If you could eat the regime’s newspapers or live underneath them in the monsoon, that would be more useful.

Because of Burma’s restrictions on journalists, tightened to protect the referendum from witnesses, victim photographs, so essential for arousing international sympathy and donations, were slow to emerge from the storm zone. At first the media had to make do with cellphone pictures of downed trees in Rangoon accompanied by shocking mortality estimates. Eventually pictures appeared, a surfeit of images of the waterlogged dead. After the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, I had written, the newspapers were “full of terrible pictures of dead people. The half-naked corpses of children lined up in rows. The bodies of men, women, babies, washed ashore, caught in trees, stacked up or sprawling.” This time, I didn’t need to look, and I would quickly fold up the newspaper clippings with their color photos of Burmese bodies and file them away. One Burma picture will always stick in my mind, though, the drowned family, four little girls, a boy, their mother, side by side in the mud. The girls’ old-fashioned dresses and shiny pretty faces make them look peculiarly like a set of department store mannequins from the mid-20th Century. Unlike most storm victims, they have stayed beautiful. One wonders about the father. Perhaps one hopes he was not strong enough to live through the storm. A month after the storm, the images were of exhaustion, mothers and babies curled up half-asleep in tent camps, roadside queues of the unfed, some kind old monks giving some comfort below the busted pagodas. Two months after the storm, the images begin to fade away entirely, another nightmare of history, replaced by the incomprehensible casualty statistics for the record books.

A doctor friend of mine who grew up in the remote Himalayan foothills of northern Burma, the son of renegade missionaries, ended up working in a New Orleans hospital and he was there when Katrina roared in. I had seen him on the TV news during the aftermath of the hurricane, appealing for help from his flooded hospital which was full of desperate hungry sick poor people. As that tragedy was mirrored in Burma, the doctor emailed an account of trying to get aid down to what he called “the bayou” region — the Irrawaddy Delta. Indeed, it was all the same, Louisiana, Burma, the Mississippi, the Irrawaddy, complex networks of waterways only navigable by small boats.

A band of exiles from Burma was warming up on their electric guitars before a cyclone relief benefit. “The Irrawaddy Delta blues,” I remarked. So similar, the poor farming people with their world of mud and sky. Burma’s Delta is home to many Karens, an indigenous ethnic group forever loathed by the regime. Even as the regime’s soldiers were unloading the cyclone relief planes, other units were busy attacking Karen villages in the hills along the Thai border, in the decades-old effort to eradicate Karen insurgency by ethnic-cleansing Karen civilians. While Thailand and the UN flew cyclone relief food into Rangoon, rice rations were being cut for the Karen refugees in Thailand’s squalid border camps.

This situation — storm, regime, looming famine with the rice crop ruined — has been the worst thing I’ve observed in 25 years of Burma involvement, and I have seen a lot of very bad things. But as always with Burma, for all the horror there is still goodness and we have heroes. In a country where grassroots organizing is discouraged to say the least, local cyclone relief efforts have nonetheless sprouted up relentlessly, even forming a kind of shadow civil society. Supported by the few foreign aid groups previously able to operate in and around the Delta region, these local staff members, Buddhist monks, church workers, teachers and health workers have tirelessly brought whatever help they could to the people of the Delta: makeshift clinics, emergency food distribution, crucial water purification and rainwater collection materials, shelter plastic. Sometimes their cargo is ransacked or hijacked by soldiers and corrupt officials, sometimes they are threatened, detained, harassed. Burma is a country where relief money and water purification tablets are smuggled in, where sacks of rice for starving people must pass through checkpoints of hostile men with guns, where the compassionate impulse of fellow humans is viewed by the dictators as somehow criminal. But the grassroots aid workers usually managed to make it through. One of them, going on repeated trips to the Delta to help children orphaned by the storm, wrote, “As you all know, I have migraine and I have to take more medicine working during this period but I am happy to do so.”

And the people of the storm-swept region, we must remember, are not just numbers — the awful abstraction of the body count — they are not just victims. They are monks, they are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, they are farmers, they are merchants, they are dancers. They are survivors. They are heroes too.

DONATIONS for Burma Cyclone Nargis disaster relief can be made via Global Health Access Program, funding indigenous emergency teams currently providing aid: http://www.ghap.org/how_to_help/cyclone/

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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