On May 2, 2008, Typhoon Nargis tore across the Bay of Bengal and slammed into Myanmar, killing at least 138,000 people and causing US$10 billion in damage.
It was the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the country, compounded by an incompetent and insensitive junta that initially refused large-scale international aid over suspicions that aid could be a pretext for a western invasion. It is believed that authorities stopped counting the dead at 138,000 to avoid embarrassment
The storm surge blew a wall of water 40 kilometers into the Irrawaddy River Delta, destroying 95 percent of the buildings and ruining the rice crop. Salt water, with no natural barriers after mangrove swamps had been ripped out, contaminated a huge swath of the country’s rice-growing areas, forcing the cancellation of 1.6 million tonnes of shipments to India.
Once Asia’s breadbasket, exporting 3 million tonnes of milled rice annually in the 1930s, Myanmar has continued to suffer for decades from disastrous agricultural policies stemming from its since-ended drive to implement the so-called “Burmese Way to Socialism,” more widely known as the Burmese Road to Disaster, an effort to create a self-sufficient state. Within a decade after the dictator Ne Win implemented it in 1963, the economy had collapsed. Exports fell to 175 million tonnes.
Rice exports, in comparison with those from Vietnam and Thailand, two remarkably similar producers, are the most telling indication of how disastrous policies can ruin an entire economy. A military-dominated democratic government of sorts has set out to reverse some of them.
President Thein Sein visited the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 2013 to look for solutions. This week, the IRRI released a statement saying the country “is poised to not only transform its rice sector but to also recapture its prominence in the international rice market” via a rice sector development strategy.
A long list of governmental and other organizations are standing by to help. An IRRI forum aimed at providing assistance included the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, The World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, Welthungerhilfe, the Mercy Corps, the Food Security Working Group, Action Aid, International Fertilizer Development Center, Proximity, the Korean International Cooperation Agency, and the Rural Development Administration.
Nonetheless, reversing decades of disastrous policies is not going to be easy. The Nargis episode was when Myanmar pretty much hit bottom. Despite an accelerating economy in 2013 and 2014 in which foreign direct investment grew from US$1.9 billion in FY 2011 to US$2.7 billion in FY 2012 and has continued to grow, GDP per capita by purchasing power parity ranks the country 170th of 267 entities in the world.
Despite slow improvement, according to the CIA World Factbook, “living standards have not improved for the majority of the people residing in rural areas. [Myanmar] remains one of the poorest countries in Asia – nearly one-third of the country’s 60 million people live in poverty. The previous government’s isolationist policies and economic mismanagement have left [Myanmar] with poor infrastructure, endemic corruption, underdeveloped human resources, and inadequate access to capital, which will require a major commitment to reverse.”