Burma: Will the Cyclone Weaken the Junta?

Five days after the storm, aid is crawling toward the most devastated areas of Burma. Food and supplies, unloaded from a United Nations container in the capital, Rangoon, on Tuesday afternoon, are beginning their slow trek toward the Ayeyarwady region of the country, the area hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis. Trucks stocked with water, tarps and other supplies are inching their way along roads strewn with uprooted trees and debris toward the lower delta. When necessary, U.N. workers get out and clear the roads by hand, even constructing logistical bridges in order to get the aid where it is needed most. When the roads disappear under water, supplies will be transferred to boats. "The entire lower region is flooded, which means we have to take the supplies by boat, and that adds a day," says Richard Horsey, spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Details of Nargis's destruction are still trickling in, but according to the few journalists and aid workers on the ground, Burma—also known as Myanmar—is facing the worst natural disaster in its history. The storm, which struck the country late Friday with winds of up to 125 miles per hour, caused waves up to 12 feet high in the Ayeyarwady delta region. According to a Burmese government spokesman, the surge destroyed 95 percent of the homes in the region. Official state media puts the death toll above 22,000, with an additional 41,000 missing, and more than a million people left homeless. Some officials have said the toll could reach as high as 100,000. The storm affected 24 million people, 6 million in Rangoon alone; the capital reportedly resembles a war zone, with toppled telephone poles and burst water pipes. In the Ayeyarwady area, which supplies the country with an estimated 70 percent of its rice, paddies had already been planted for the rice crop. The fields are now under water, causing unknown damage to the country's primary food source at a time when the world is in the throes of a global food crisis.

Politically, too, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma at an extremely delicate time. Last September the military-led government was widely criticized for its crackdown on prodemocracy protests led by Buddhist monks. Government soldiers opened fire on protestors, killing 10 by the government's official count and some 200 according to dissident groups, who said that more than 6,000 were detained. The cyclone and its aftermath could be the biggest challenge the dictatorial junta has yet to face, as residents become increasingly angry over the lack of assistance coming from their leaders. According to witnesses in the country, the cyclone-hit roads are being cleared not by the government but by the people themselves, including monks and nuns.

There was initial concern that the junta, known for its extreme xenophobia and paranoia, would not let relief agencies into the country. Those fears appeared unfounded when government officials publicly admitted the scale of the disaster and appealed for international assistance. On Tuesday the Royal Thai Air Force flew in the first shipment of medical and food aid; another plane arrived from China. According to Chris Kaye, director of the World Food Program in Burma, the government has provided "valuable cooperation," but much more cooperation will be needed in the short term to meet the needs of the hardest-hit.

Even while the government publicly appeals for aid, however, scores of relief workers from various agencies are sitting in Bangkok waiting for visas to enter the country. Aside from the materials brought in from Thailand and China, the supplies now getting through were pre-positioned by agencies before the disaster struck. Once additional aid is allowed in, relief workers will face the enormous task of getting it to the flooded lower delta region, where more than a million are believed to be without shelter, water, food, or sanitation. "The constraint is getting out to the affected population. Whole townships are underwater," says Horsey of UNOCHA.

The bottleneck is not getting supplies to Rangoon but getting them out to the countryside. Another concern is fuel. Stocks, including natural gas for cooking, are running low, and there is no domestic capability. The main port in Rangoon, which was badly damaged, is closed. If fuel stocks run low, that could hamper relief efforts, says Horsey.

While relief workers in Thailand await visas, their colleagues in Burma struggle to reach the victims and assess the true scope of the disaster. Teams from Doctors Without Borders who were already in Burma are working their way down to the Ayeyarwady region and are expected to arrive early Thursday. Their main focus will be to avert a second-wave catastrophe of waterborne diseases such as cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. "Waterborne diseases don't start up in the first couple of days," says Paul Heymans, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. "But we quickly have to get the people water and chlorination. The sooner the better."

The immediate needs of the victims of Cyclone Nargis are clear. What remains to be seen, however, is the long-term impact the storm will have on Burma and its isolationist regime. The generals have held the country and its citizens in an iron grasp since seizing power in 1962. During 46 years of brutal rule and economic mismanagement, the people have at least had enough to eat—thanks to fertile land and a favorable climate. But now food prices are soaring and lines for gas are said to be stretching for miles in Rangoon in the wake of the disaster. The junta's vicious response to last year's protests—sparked by a rise in fuel prices—might have intimidated the long-suffering Burmese into accepting the current hardships. But some analysts feel the lack of assurance about basic necessities could trigger further resistance to the generals. "If they don't get enough proper assistance out in the next couple of days or weeks, the people will be very angry, and that anger might overcome their fear because they may feel they have nothing to lose," Win Min, a lecturer on Burmese affairs at Thailand's Chiang Mai University, told the German press agency DPA.

One sign that the junta is not making concessions to the devastation: it's still planning to push ahead with a referendum on a new constitution that will cement its power indefinitely. The authorities did postpone the voting for two weeks in the worst-affected regions, but the rest of the country will cast its ballots on schedule on May 10. Before the storm the government was expected to declare victory regardless of the true outcome—and in spite of an April poll by a consortium of 10 independent media organizations that found that almost 65 percent of those polled planned to vote no on the referendum. With journalists and aid workers heading into the country, that result may now be harder to hide.