Burma: An Upside to the Relief Effort

They line the roads running south from Burma's former capital, Rangoon. Aid organizations call them "separated children" because so many don't know if their parents are alive or dead. They're waiting for food, water and other essentials, delivered by private groups operating without legal authority amid a brutal dictatorship. It's all surprisingly open: drivers pull over and hand out cargos of noodles and water as armed soldiers look on. Then the kids return to the churches, temples and schools that have become makeshift refugee camps in towns across the Irrawaddy Delta.

The storm that battered Burma on May 2 left as many as 128,000 people dead, according to the Red Cross, and orphaned children by the thousands. Two weeks on, the scene suggests a halfhearted official relief effort at best. The junta's strategy: keep it an internal affair—even if that triggers what the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs calls "a second wave of deaths." To the paranoid men who run Burma, the tragedy unfolding in their heartland is an acceptable price to pay for not welcoming in large numbers of foreign experts. "They see the outside world as a bigger threat," says one Burmese intellectual who does not wish to be named.

Yet the generals' strategy implies a trade-off. Because government agencies have fallen so far short, various community networks, NGOs and religious groups are scrambling to fill the void. They're networking on the fly, moving food, medicine and other essentials into the flood zone, and often arriving to find survivors who still haven't received any official assistance. "They've established channels to work around the government and deliver aid directly to the villages," says Jasmin Lorch, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. These aide workers represent a ray of hope—for both cyclone victims and, longer term, for Burma's political development. Lorch, who did fieldwork in Burma from 2004 to 2007, found a nascent "civil society" consisting of community-based schools, orphanages run by Buddhist monks, homegrown Christian charities and several dozen registered NGOs.

Whether these groups can coalesce into a meaningful force after the crisis is unclear. If they continue to find common cause with local officials, win tolerance from top military leaders and assiduously cast themselves as apolitical and therefore nonthreatening, the social structures they've created could become permanent. "There is a potential for that dynamic," says John Virgoe, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "But because of the way the country has been [misgoverned] for so long, people are not accustomed to coming together." Given the junta's record of brutality, a benign outcome is anything but ensured. "Never forget," says a foreign expert familiar with the country's political dynamic, "that the Army stands ready to shoot its own people."