Tuesday, May 06, 2008
NARGIS THE BIGGEST ASIAN DISASTER SINCE TSUNAMI
t was difficult to believe my ears last night, after returning home and putting on CNN International. I had thought the casualty figures, after Cyclone Nargis ploughed through Burma on Saturday, would probably rise above the 350+ cited yesterday, especially since many areas were yet to report their conditions. Then I heard the announcer say the deaths had topped 4,000. What? Ten minutes later, another update. At least 10,000 had perished. What?
Today The Irrawaddy reports more than 15,000 deaths, and that's likely to rise rapidly. Junta Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on state-run television today that 10,000 had died in one town alone. UN officials said those left without shelter may number in the millions.
The massive scale of the disaster has finally prompted the military regime to accept outside assistance, an about-face that alone demonstrates how dire the situation is. The junta itself has retreated into the shadows over the last six months, following their despicable violent suppression of peaceful protests against their misrule. Very few soldiers have been spotted lately doing any of the recovery work, although state television did show a couple of uniforms pulling branches around. Monks and other citizens have organised themselves, and seem to be doing most of it.
A town-by-town compilation of casualty figures shows that the Irrawaddy Division, comprising the hardest hit delta areas southwest of Rangoon, had nearly 15,000 deaths -- 10,000 of them in the single town of Bogalay. The high death toll in those low-lying deltas is likely due to the huge sea surge that the cyclone brought with it. Among the 5 million or so inhabitants of Rangoon, 59 deaths have been reported. Of course the cyclone continued in a north-easterly direction through the ethnic minority regions (Karen State, Shan State, Mon State, etc.). Of them there's been little information, and the junta certainly cares about them even less. Those regions are where many of the huge armed forces are presently occupied with razing villages, raping women, and other such pursuits.
The main pre-occupation of the former capital's residents has been finding enough clean water to drink. In one of the hardest hit areas of the city, Sang Chaung township, people said the junta authorities have provided almost no help or support. If a neighbourhood needs water to drink (and who doesn't?), they must organise to pay a fire brigade to come and pump it for them.
"In order to get drinking and utility water, for example, you have to hire fire engines," [a Sang Chaung resident] said.In Isein township around 1000 homes are submerged, and the people are taking refuge in a nearby Buddhist monastery. The monks are doing relief work while the junta's soldiers are missing in action, and their civilian militia thugs, the "USDA", are playing to the cameras for the evening news.
"You have to pay 30,000 kyat to the fire brigade and 17,000 for the fuel. People from the ward jointly hire it and you pump water out of the drilled well using the motor, and then share it out."
"Everyone has to queue and get a bucket or two of water for each household. People are quite busy with the business of getting water."
"The Union Solidarity and Development Association members are only there for show. They only chopped and cleared [the trees] where people could see them and just took photographs for records," he said.That's not to say the junta's 400,000 strong army hasn't been busy with other things. On Saturday, when Nargis had ploughed through the delta and was bearing down on Rangoon, many of the zinc roofs at Insein Prison were torn away. Insein (and yes, it sounds like "insane") houses most of Burma's political prisoners. See the tribute video by Democratic Voice of Burma that I posted here in November, (also with a satellite image of the massive prison), and more photos and information on a few of Burma's prisoners of conscience here. Just so you have an idea of some of the people we're talking about here.
"In fact, on roads where people are finding it hard to travel, more than 1000 monks from Sanchaung township and Kyitmyintaing township worked together to chop down the trees and clear the streets."
"As a result, the transportation system is becoming a little bit better."
Members of the public offered the monks clean drinking water and food while they worked.
When Nargis hit and tore off those roofs, around 1000 prisoners were forced into the main prison hall, according to a statement by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). The frightened prisoners were locked inside the hall, and no one was allowed to seek safety.
"The prisoners were wet and cold and some of them started a fire to try and keep warm. Unfortunately, the fire began to give off thick smoke, and prisoners panicked," it said.If Nargis didn't get you, the Tatmadaw will. AAPP says it is not known if any of those killed or wounded were political prisoners, but this is equally disgusting even if they were all just regular convicts.
"As they were locked inside the hall, they couldn’t flee to safety. The situation escalated and chaos ensued."
Soldiers and riot police brought in to control the situation opened fire on the prisoners, killing 36 and injuring 70.
The junta's sham constitutional referendum is to go ahead as planned in four days' time. In a statement today, the military ruling clique said the people are "eagerly looking forward to voting." More likely, they are eagerly looking for some water to drink, or looking for someone responsible to come and help pick up all the bodies left laying alongside the highways.
Some people are calling the junta's stubbornness "inhuman", but that would be an insult to the non-human creatures of the world. Nyo Ohn Myint, the foreign affairs spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said the junta is actually taking advantage of the disaster. The referendum only requires 50% approval to pass (a similar referendum in Thailand last year needed 60%), and the regime already has all its supporters mobilized. The fewer the voters, the better their chance of winning.
There's also the factor of Dictator-in-Chief Than Shwe's deep superstitions. He selected the most auspicious date in consultation with his astrologers, and that's probably the main reason he refuses to postpone.
While people search for water and food, and with prices for any available commodities shooting through the roof, 800 tons of rice are sitting in a Rangoon warehouse for immediate distribution. Yet it sits there for one reason: The World Food Programme needs to wait for junta permission before doing anything.
How many ways can Burma's inept rulers find to kill their own people? (OK, they are ept at shooting and beating monks and citizens, but inept at anything else.)
Than Shwe may actually be feeling vindicated in his own mind, after all the ridicule over his silly new "capital" in the middle of nowhere -- Nay Pyi Daw, the "Abode of Kings". Rumour has it that his astrologer had warned him of social upheaval and natural disaster in Rangoon, and this resulted in his decision to move far away.
Some Burmese see the present calamity as divine retribution, a traditional sign the country is ruled by a bad king or tyrant. Many Burmese are even angrier than they already were at the junta, for the lack of assistance now when it's needed. And some say they're angry at Cyclone Nargis because it didn't hit Nay Pyi Daw, where it might have done some good.