"There is no major drama here," says Stephan Jooris of Médecins Sans Frontières in Rangoon, who estimates that about 90 Burmese were killed by the tsunami, in contrast to more than 5,000 dead in neighboring Thailand. "People think we're lying. I can't explain it, but it's the truth."
A lucky mix of geography and plate tectonics explains Burma's good fortune. The earthquake that created the tsunami occurred along a north-south fault line near Sumatra, sending the strongest waves to the east and west. According to computer models done by scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, the waves that struck Burma, which lies mostly north of the fault, were much weaker than those that hit Thailand and Sri Lanka. "If the fault line had been running east-west, there could have been considerably more damage to Burma," says Jason Ali, a geoscientist at the University of Hong Kong. The small, rocky islands and coral reef that shield much of the country's coastline may have also helped blunt the waves.
Burma's history of official secrecy may be more than just the usual knee-jerk reaction to bad news. The country's generals have been known to view natural events in a highly superstitious light: the discovery of a huge ruby or block of jade or a white elephant is invariably trumpeted as a validation of their rule, while a major earthquake could be seen as an omen of impending regime change. Whatever the tsunami's heavenly consequences for their rulers, however, ordinary Burmese have every reason to feel lucky.