Burma and Cairns: Nargis and Yasi

If the downtrodden people of Burma were to catch the contagion of events thousands of miles away, they probably needn't be contaminated by what is taking place in Cairo or Tunis, where citizens, finally having had enough of odious governments rose up to seek to throw them out.

Instead, they should look to Cairns, Australia, 6,500 kilometers to the southeast, where Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a superstorm with winds of almost 300 km. per hour, came ashore on Feb. 2. The storm was still categorized as a cyclone 600 kilometers inland. Property damage was stunning. Town after town after town was shown on television as being completely flattened. In one town, a massive shipping container was hurled three blocks. Dozens of boats were piled on each other, some picked up and driven through houses.

At latest count, despite the damage, only one man is known dead and three people are missing. The village of Mission Beach, the epicenter of the storm, was hit by a wall of water four meters high. That is because authorities had issued warnings to the residents of the Queensland region to move inland as far as they could get to ride out the storm. By the next day, hundreds of emergency service workers were clearing debris from the streets of the beleaguered Queensland area and restoring power.

Contrast that to what happened when Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008. Nargis was listed as a category three storm. It hit without warning because the Burmese authorities never put the word out. The only news on Burma's national radio was propaganda concerning a bogus referendum to be held the Saturday after the cyclone hit. As a result, the population was completely unprepared for a three-meter wall of water that washed 24 km inland, destroying everything in its path

Nargis would become the deadliest storm ever to hit Burma, killing at least 138,000 people. The death toll is believed to be far higher because the Burmese authorities allegedly stopped counting, fearing political fallout.

Six weeks after the cyclone, the military regime began to close down relief camps and force the storm victims back to their devastated villages, according to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an opposition group. Foreign doctors from Thailand, the Philippines, India and Japan who were allowed into the country were told that Burma had enough doctors to deal with the situation and were sent home.

United Nations and other relief agencies, particularly from the United States, were initially banned from setting up operations. Roadblocks were established in the Irrawaddy Division to keep international aid workers from undertaking effective relief in the devastated area. Soldiers operating the roadblocks were told to look out for foreigners traveling into the area, according to opposition groups.

However, the National Coalition group reported, "Although Cyclone Nargis has been a disaster on a national scale for most people, it is a boon for the cronies of the junta.

Several days after the cyclone, the junta's Prime Minister Thein Sein assigned several ministers to take charge of relief and rehabilitation in different regions and chose several companies and businessmen close to the junta to provide "relief and reconstruction" services.

The junta and their cronies allegedly made millions of dollars from the money that flowed in for reconstruction. Weeks after the cyclone, hundreds of thousands of people still were without aid. Eventually, however, dozens of international and local relief agencies were able to deliver life-saving and life-sustaining aid for millions of the survivors.

Than Shwe, the 78-year-old senior general who rules the Burmese junta, eventually visited the devastated sites three weeks after the disaster. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard was on her way to the scene in Australia before the cyclone had finished its destruction. Some 4,000 Australian army soldiers were on the scene to seek to help the tens of thousands of survivors in the path of the storm.

As one critic pointed out, Australia is a real country. Burma isn't. There were homes and evacuation centers in cities, towns and villages on the Queensland coast that were strong enough to take the brunt of the storm, even though huge numbers were destroyed. Burma's east coast wasn't so lucky. For one thing, the mangrove swamps that protected the coast had been pulled out and replaced with fish farms, thus allowing the storm surge to roll far further inland than necessary. Poverty and depredation in the Irrawaddy River Delta were such that the majority of the dirt-poor denizens were living in accommodation that could be easily destroyed. It was.

But it has often been pointed out that Burma was one of the the richest countries in Asia at independence. Now it is the poorest. It was made that way by idiotic government policies. Despite the sham election that the country just went through, those government policies look like they will stay in place unless the citizens of Burma have a Cairo moment. That in itself is unlikely, given the brutal way the junta has cracked down in the past, and given the aid the junta gets from China, Thailand, India and other countries keen to raid Burma's assets.