Burma remains one of Southeast Asia's most opaque and isolated societies, frustrating analysts who're trying to find out more about the horrific Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy delta. Irrawaddy Magazine, based in the northern Thai city of Chiangmai, is a familiar resource to Burma watchers trying to monitor political events inside the country. Edited by Burmese exiles in Thailand, the magazine and its Web site have carried firsthand reports from inside Burma about cyclone survivors surrounded by bloated corpses, apparent outbreaks of disease, the low profile maintained by senior military leaders and mounting civilian anger at the regime's inadequate response to the calamity. Irriwaddy editor Aung Zaw spoke on the phone with NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu about what the exiles are being told about the mood inside the devastated areas of Burma, which the regime calls Myanmar. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Your Web site has a feature titled Tan Shwe Watch that tracks sightings of Burma's military leader, Tan Shwe. What's he been doing in reaction to this calamity?
Aung Zaw: Tan Shwe is nowhere to be seen. Overseas governments, the king of Thailand and other foreign dignitaries have been sending messages of sympathy and offers of help. But no response … Nothing from Tan Shwe.
Is that a normal reaction from him?
No, it's not normal. [Some people] wonder if something's very wrong. It's sad to see how the military leaders are so uncaring. People have seen aid parcels with the name of a top military leader written on them [as if the leader had donated them], even though the assistance has nothing to do with him. This shows the true color of Burma's military leaders. They're really, really nervous, and paranoid.
Media reports quoted the senior U.S. diplomat in Burma saying Burma's death toll may reach 100,000. They've also suggested cleanup efforts have been spearheaded by Buddhist monks, at least initially. Where is the military?
The military isn't moving quickly, despite the fact that there are 400,000 soldiers. Sadly, the death toll will continue to rise, due to disease and lack of clean water, clean food and other basic necessities. People are dying. Yet where are all the soldiers? Some have been seen near military housing, cutting [branches of fallen] trees and cleaning roads. They have been cleaning up a park in Rangoon where they often held military parades in the past. Yet they are [still conducting surveillance on] people working for a local NGO that offers free funeral services for cyclone victims. Even these NGO workers are being watched by the soldiers. How sick.
Until the cyclone struck, the government had been preoccupied with the May 10 constitutional referendum that the regime had hoped would proceed smoothly. Now the referendum is still slated to go ahead in northern Burma, but is postponed until May 24 in the devastated south. Is this feasible?
In the north people are still supposed to vote this week, but they're unwilling to because they're thinking about those dying in the south. This is the biggest catastrophe to hit Burma since World War II. People regard it as a bad omen. Since so many monks were killed [during the crackdown on monk-led protests] last September, people felt something really bad would happen--and now this.
Many Burmese believe natural disasters are supernatural omens portending political changes. Still, the junta has managed to stay in power for decades. And by moving its capital to Naypyidaw, the government managed to avoid the destruction that Rangoon has seen.
Yes, many believe the cyclone represents divine intervention. Burmese have become deeply superstitious, especially after this government came to power. They seek advice from soothsayers and numerologists … blaming events on destiny, fate, the past, bad karma. Now we've had a cyclone that [has possibly] killed more than 100,000 people. People think two things. They're angry at the military. And they're angry that the cyclone didn't hit Naypyidaw, the new capital city [to which authorities moved government offices from the old capital of Rangoon]. It cost more than $ 1 billion to construct Naypyidaw—and now the government has pledged just a fraction of that for reconstruction.
Foreign meteorologists reportedly warned the Burmese government that a major cyclone was coming, but Burma's state media were said to be preoccupied with coverage of the coming referendum instead.
It was delicate timing. The cyclone hit just a few days before the referendum. The Burmese people were expecting to be cheated and intimidated because of that vote. Now those dissidents who wanted to sabotage the elections feel the cyclone did their work for them.