The Ominous Promise of Natural Disasters

Two and half weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s southern coast, the ruling military junta has at last allowed a senior UN humanitarian official into the country to discuss relief measures. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is expected to meet the generals himself a few days later to formalize the UN’s relief program.

Depending on a possible respite from the incessant rain in the Irrawaddy delta since the cyclone, and assuming Senior General Tan Shwe really cooperates, some of the estimated 2.5 million victims in the delta might at last get some clean drinking water and dry rations three weeks after they were left destitute.

If the past is any prologue, however, Burma’s ruling junta should be extremely uneasy about how this crisis will play itself out. Natural disasters have upended many governments that were slow to act. The generals have shown no panic or remorse at their inaction, raising the question whether this is the desperate defiance of a dying regime or a shrewd Machiavellian measure by ruthless men who have maintained their hold on an isolated population for 46 years.

Information on the mindset of the generals is scant but it is quite likely that they are manipulating a calculated mix of realpolitik with superstition. After all this is the country some 20 years ago briefly introduced a series of currency notes in denominations of 9 up to 99 – all based on the then-strongman Ne Win’s belief in numerology and the power of the number 9. Old currency notes became invalid, inflation soared and widespread unrest followed, but the regime survived.

The recent cyclone, coming barely a season after last year’s failed Saffron Revolution by Burmese monks, is seen by some Burmese at home and abroad as divine retribution for the killing of monks last year. Whether the heavens act so expeditiously to correct wrongdoings of earthlings is another matter, but dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under detention for 12 of the last 18 years, and her followers would wish it were so. Suu Kyi may not have much say about the supernatural content of the storms, but natural disasters have a way of forcing ruthless and incompetent rulers to pay a heavy price for callous or negligent responses to human suffering. If not immediate ouster, an unmistakable erosion of arrogant authority sets in.

For instance, a massive earthquake in 1972 killed 20,000 civilians in Nicaragua and the mishandling of its aftermath by the dictator Anastasio Somoza was a major cause of the rise of the Sandinista insurgency that overthrew Somoza seven years later.

Another earthquake killed an estimated 10,000 people in Mexico City in 1985. President Miguel de la Madrid was nowhere to be seen in the aftermath, leaving citizen groups to organize ad hoc relief efforts. Belatedly, the president declared that Mexico was in no need of external help. The resulting mass protests eventually set in motion the slow end of the decades-long dominance of the ruling party.

Closer to home, the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China killed 600,000 people. The news of the death toll was leaked by Taiwan intelligence agencies, but the mainland, in the last throes of the Cultural Revolution, refused to acknowledge the extent of the damage and bungled the relief measures as the top leadership was plotting a post-Mao succession. Mao died a few months later, but it took three more years for Deng Xiao Ping to change the direction of the regime.

There is another cyclone disaster more pertinent to Burma, geographically at least. The Bay of Bengal is the scene of cyclones almost every year that blow through the Ganges delta of Bangladesh and India’s eastern coast. The impact on Burma of these cyclones is not all that severe, except once in several decades.

In November 1970, to the north of Burma, there struck a cyclone packing winds of 120 mph and waves as high as 30 feet, devastating coastal districts of what was still East Pakistan. Called one of history’s worst natural disasters, it killed about 1 million people. The Pakistani government, under a military dictatorship dominated by Punjabis and Pathans from the west and at odds with the Bengalis of the east, was extremely slow to act. Military ruler General Yahya Khan was visiting Beijing to consult his close friends and allies in Zhongnanhai and did not return to the country until a week after the disaster.

East Pakistan had been suffering from economic exploitation and neglect by the central government and the cyclone added fuel to the fire. Bengali nationalists swept the country’s first free election a month later. This led to a brutal military crackdown in March 1971, culminating in some 10 million Bengali refugees fleeing across the border into India that summer. India intervened and Bangladesh was born with the surrender of the Pakistani army in Dhaka in December.

Despite these parallels, there are differences in the situation between the Pakistan of 1970 and Burma 38 years later. The Bengali uprising rose to its climax only after a million deaths in the cyclone and the massacre of tens of thousands of Bengalis by the Pakistani army in March/April 1971. India had a major justification to support the Bangladeshi uprising because of the millions of refugees fleeing across its border.

In the case of Burma, its two major neighbors see no reason to intervene. The generals of Burma are close allies of China, which has supported them in the UN Security Council and with investment. The Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington even warned Western powers that Burma’s sovereignty should be respected, even when it comes to humanitarian intervention in disaster relief.

India burnt its hands by talking democracy to the Burmese regime back in the late 1980s and 1990s as the junta distanced itself from New Delhi and got closer to Beijing. Now India has managed to persuade the regime to allow some Indian relief ships and medical teams to start work in affected areas. Even the Association of Southeast Nations, after years of futile engagement with the junta, seems to have given up bringing pressure on a fellow member country.

International relief has slowly begun trickling in. But sooner or later – later rather sooner, if history is any guide, the generals and their regime will have to pay a price. The slow process of undermining their legitimacy may have been set in motion by the disaster.