The people of Burma take omens seriously. For centuries, the paths of planets and vagaries of weather have been scrutinized by astrologers, who divine a relationship between celestial irregularities and earthly mayhem. So when Cyclone Nargis tore across the country on May 2 and 3 killing tens of thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless Burmese couldn't help but note the curious timing: exactly a week later, on May 10, the country's thuggish ruling junta was set to hold a constitutional referendum, a step toward what the military has called a "discipline-flourishing democracy." Critics dismissed the plebiscite as nothing more than a political ruse to legitimize the military's grip on power, noting that the proposed constitution reserves a hefty chunk of parliamentary seats for the army and bars top opposition leaders from holding office. Then the heavens opened and the winds lashed. The gods, it appeared, weren't happy either with where Burma's leaders were taking their country.
Cleaning up after a catastrophe is hard work in any country witness the debacle that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But few places are less prepared than the isolated, desperately poor nation of 53 million that is Burma. Ruled by a clique of reclusive generals since 1962, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has degenerated from a resource-rich country, which upon independence from the British 60 years ago was hailed as a model for modern Asia, into an economic disaster zone. Burma now boasts one of the world's worst health systems, a worrisome situation as diseases fester in the wake of the storm. Medical experts warn that filthy water, poor sanitation and lack of shelter could prove almost as deadly as the cyclone itself. And estimates of how many people were killed by the storm and an accompanying tidal surge could spiral far higher. On May 7, the senior U.S. diplomat in Burma, Shari Villarosa, said the death toll could exceed 100,000, nearly five times the junta's estimate at the time.
The scene of devastation has reached apocalyptic levels. Aerial photos of the Irrawaddy delta, Burma's rice bowl, show much of the region still inundated by a vast surge of muddy water. The few residents who have been able to communicate with the outside world describe rice fields littered with bodies and villages where not a single bamboo shack was left standing. Even in the commercial capital Rangoon, where structures are more sturdily constructed, roofs were sheared off buildings and nearly all the city's main streets were uprooted of their columns of stately trees. "We have a major humanitarian catastrophe on our hands," says Chris Kaye, Burma country director for the U.N.'s World Food Program.
A Crack Opens
Could there be a silver lining to the cyclone's clouds? For decades, outsiders have searched for a way to pry open Burma's secretive regime. So paranoid are members of the junta about any outside influence that in recent years they have severely curtailed movements by foreign aid workers, forcing organizations like the French arm of Doctors Without Borders to abandon the country. When the 2004 tsunami swept over Burma, the generals refused any outside help. This time, though, the military announced it would welcome foreign aid. Three days after the storm, a trickle of donated food started reaching victims near Rangoon, although scores of other aid workers were still grounded in neighboring Thailand as the Burmese embassy considered processing their visas. Meanwhile, U.S. navy ships were idling in nearby Thai waters, seeking permission to enter Burmese waters and help with the relief effort. On May 6, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged $3.25 million in emergency aid to a country normally cut off from American largesse because of sanctions motivated by the Burmese regime's appalling human-rights record.
The willingness of the generals to even entertain the idea of outside help was enough to excite Burma watchers who have been waiting for decades for something anything that might augur a sliver of openness from the military leadership. Hopeful aid workers point to the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the 2004 tsunami galvanized warring factions to lay down their arms. But Burma's seclusion is more akin to that of North Korea, a country that gulps down foreign aid without reciprocal political concessions. And corruption is so rampant in Burma that NGOs worry about how much aid will actually reach the neediest victims. "One side of me wants to hope for openness," says Khin Omar, a Burmese former student activist who lives in exile in Thailand. "But the other side knows the regime is smart enough to let in aid and then close any window of opportunity for reform."
Do It Yourself
Cut off from the rest of the world for decades, the residents of Rangoon were surely not expecting cavalcades of foreign aid workers to descend soon after the tidal surge and winds abated. But what must have seemed particularly galling was the absence of Burmese military troops participating in the immediate cleanup effort. In September, when thousands of monks led countrywide protests against rising commodity prices, soldiers from the 450,000-strong army responded with chilling brutality, spraying live ammunition at the burgundy-robed demonstrators. The official government death toll was 31, although international observers believe the actual figure was far higher. For months after the massacre, soldiers patrolled the streets, flushing out suspected dissidents and crushing small protests against the upcoming constitutional referendum. But shortly after last weekend's storm, the troops appeared to have gone AWOL. One foreign NGO worker who was in Rangoon recalls seeing just one military truck on the streets in the hours after the cyclone. The vehicle drove up to a downed tree blocking the road, paused and then left. The following day, the foreigner saw a group of about 20 soldiers tackle another fallen tree armed with nothing but a machete and a single handsaw.
Left to fend for themselves, residents of Rangoon rushed to the markets to stock up on plastic sheeting, food and water. In just two days, prices of some basic commodities had already quadrupled. Even before the cyclone hit, Rangoon was reeling from the price hikes that had sparked last year's civil protests; additional increases could push tens of thousands of shantytown dwellers from chronic malnutrition to starvation. Outside Rangoon, the fate of millions remains largely unknown, since roads are blocked and telephone lines are down. In a frightening glimpse of the storm's destructive power, the country's state media reported that in the delta town of Bogalay alone, 10,000 people had been killed. Infrastructure has been heavily damaged, with some aid workers reporting it could be months before the electrical grid and water supply in affected areas are restored.
The Politics of Disaster
After first announcing that the constitutional referendum would take place as scheduled, the junta did finally decide on May 6 to postpone the plebiscite until May 24 in the hardest-hit townships. Initially a state-run newspaper said there would be no delay because the people of Burma were eagerly looking forward to the chance to vote. But, says Aung Zaw, a Burmese in exile who edits the Thailand-based Irrawaddy newsmagazine, "what the people in Burma are eagerly looking forward to is the military government bringing them food and water and shelter."
One place that the cyclone spared was Burma's new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, which was carved out of the jungle by the ruling junta in 2005. Burmese civil servants who had to move from Rangoon to the new capital were given no explanation for the shift. But some local journalists in Rangoon speculated that junta leader Than Shwe had been swayed by soothsayers who predicted that civil unrest and a natural disaster would soon strike the city of roughly 5 million. In September, the monk-led protests made the first part of the prophecy come true; the cyclone fulfilled the second half. Holed up in their jungle capital, the generals escaped the wrath of the cyclone. "People I've spoken to back in Burma say they're angry at two things," says Aung Zaw, the Irrawaddy editor. "First, they're angry at the military for reacting so slowly. And second, they're angry at the cyclone for missing Naypyidaw." The long-suffering Burmese can only hope that divine intervention will not be so kind to the generals next time.