The massive storm that hit Burma on May 2 could not have come at a worse time for the generals who rule the country. As Cyclone Nargis raged toward them across the Indian Ocean, Burma's military government was busy preparing for a referendum—originally scheduled for May 10—they hoped would ratify a new constitution legalizing military rule.
In fact, the generals were so preoccupied with making sure their new charter would pass smoothly that they played down urgent warnings from India and others of the impending cyclone, according to foreign wire reports. That delay would prove fatal to legions of their subjects who were caught unawares. Now,
with roughly 17,330 square kilometers of Burma underwater and tens of thousands confirmed dead, the generals have reluctantly agreed to postpone balloting in two of the worst-hit provinces—but, incredibly, have insisted it will go as planned in the country's north.
Yet even if the vote passes, the ruthless soldiers who have ruled this Asian state since 1962 may have made their final blunder—or at least started a process that will lead to their eventual downfall. From Mexico City to Managua to the Middle Kingdom, natural disasters in the past have had a way of undermining ruthless and incompetent leaders. The process can take years. But once set in motion, the forces unleashed by a destructive natural event—and a ham-handed government response—can prove as unstoppable as an actual tsunami.
Just how badly Burma has suffered is still hard to determine, since the xenophobic and paranoid regime has accepted only a trickle of international aid and denied visas to virtually all foreign journalists. But the official count of the dead and missing already exceeded 60,000 as of this writing and was expected to grow. More than 1 million Burmese have lost their homes, and Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in the country, warned last week that the lack of food, medicine, clean water and other basic needs could bring the death toll to 100,000. World Food Program spokesperson Paul Risley said the victims' needs were so vast that they've been "like trying to fill a bathtub with an eyedropper."
Meanwhile, the government seems to have gone missing in action. The 400,000-strong military kept an unusually low profile last week, suggesting serious dysfunction at the top. Sr. Gen. Tan Shwe, the nation's leader, was nowhere to be seen. Buddhist monks and nuns appeared to be spearheading community clean-up campaigns—although state censors instructed the media to report only on military relief efforts. But some troops seemed more concerned with social control than social welfare. Instead of helping emergency services, for example, some soldiers conducted surveillance of local NGO staffers who were offering free funeral services to the bereaved families, according to Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thai-based magazine about Burma.
"Burmese dissidents who planned to sabotage the [constitutional] election," he says, "feel the cyclone has done their work for them" by driving ordinary Burmese into the arms of the opposition. Many citizens in this superstitious country seem to believe that the storm represented nothing less than divine retribution—cosmic payback for the violent sacrilege committed by the junta last September, when the military put a bloody end to the "Saffron Revolution." Crowds of monks had taken to the streets with an estimated 100,000 civilians to protest the country's deepening economic hardships, including an abrupt fuel-price hike. The regime responded with fury, beating and imprisoning clerics and laypeople alike and killing as many as 138. Now many Burmese see the monster cyclone as proof that Than Shwe and his junta have lost the "mandate of heaven"—the supernatural right to govern.
Recent history shows that a similar process—sometimes minus the supernatural overtones—has occurred in other authoritarian states following major disasters. Such crises tend to underscore government incompetence and corruption, and stiffen resistance to already unpopular rulers.
That's what happened in Mexico City in 1985. After a massive earthquake hit, the authorities and the country's aloof president, Miguel de la Madrid, went AWOL for days, leaving citizens to organize rescue efforts themselves. When the president finally did appear, he initially announced that Mexico "didn't need outside help." With more than 10,000 estimated dead, survivors had quickly taken to the streets to denounce the government's weak response. These protests energized a new crop of community activists and opposition leaders, lighting a spark that eventually brought down Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) years later.
An earthquake had a similar effect in Tangshan, China, in 1976. By the time that quake hit, killing up to 600,000, the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end, Mao was ailing and moderate leaders were already plotting to oust his most zealous accomplices. When the government then proceeded to badly fumble relief efforts— refusing international aid, among other things—it strengthened the hand of reformers who wanted to end China's isolation. Three months later, Mao was dead, the extremist "Gang of Four" was behind bars and the reins of power were passing to Deng Xiaoping—now famous for his unabashed embrace of capitalism.
In each of these cases, the chain of events leading to political change was long and complicated, but the governments' incompetence in the face of great tragedy helped tip the scales. This slow-motion process occurred in Nicaragua, too, after a huge quake killed 20,000 in 1972. The country's dictator, Anastasio Somoza, would hold on for seven more years before being overthrown by the Sandinistas. But the flagrant way Somoza siphoned off foreign assistance and profited from the reconstruction helped turn the business community against him—a shift that ultimately helped spell the dictator's undoing.
One shouldn't count out Burma's leaders yet. The military has managed to cling to power for 46 years now, despite losing an election in 1990 to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who's been under house arrest nearly ever since. And the regime has a ready reply to deny it has now lost its heavenly mandate. In 2005, heeding astrologers' advice, the officers moved the country's capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a hardscrabble town some 250 miles north. This location helped the new capital escape the worst of Nargis's wrath—though of course it's unclear whether this was a sign of blessing or just dumb luck. Still, the generals must know that surviving a cyclone is one thing. Avoiding the human earthquake it provokes is a whole other matter.