Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The decision by the ruling military junta in Burma to accept foreign assistance appears less a break from the past than an indication of the scale of devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis. Early suggestions that the number of deaths were in the hundreds were quickly revised upwards, currently standing at 22,000 with reports indicating that the final death-toll could be as high as 63,000.

The security forces, so efficient in tackling protestors in September, have proved less capable of providing relief. In the immediate wake of the cyclone they were glaringly absent, and have been criticized for providing very basic services in major towns, rather than in the hardest hit, and harder to reach, areas.

So far the amount of international aid pledged is relatively small though this is almost certain to increase when detailed assessments of the damage begin to filter back.

Despite being a cyclone prone country, Burma has no cyclone warning system. Military leaders have been publicly criticized, particularly by the US, for failing to warn and adequately prepare its citizens. While this criticism may be politically-motivated, one of the key successes of neighbouring Bangladesh has been in establishing a storm early warning system along with 'cyclone safe' houses. While cyclones still have a devastating effect on Bangladesh, the numbers killed have declined dramatically.

However, the international community, notably Australia's Foreign Minister, has called for the focus to be placed on delivering emergency relief rather than blame. Of course, a lack of preparedness both before and after the cyclone will undoubtedly leave Burmese increasingly unhappy with the junta. And families of the military will not have been immune from the effect of the cyclone, potentially increasing divisions within the military. Many Burma watchers believe there is increasing support for the opposition. Unprecedented reports indicate that many soldiers have gone AWOL to return to villages and look for relatives in the wake of the cyclone. Whether this is a true indication of dissent, or merely a reaction to the non-existent communication channels open to the general public, remains to be seen.

Large-scale natural disasters can clearly act as political catalysts. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami triggered peace-talks in Aceh, Indonesia. But the same tsunami triggered the return to civil war in Sri Lanka. In 1970 a cyclone in East Pakistan killed some 500,000 people. The poor response by the Pakistani central government strengthened the Bengali opposition movement in turn leading to the eventual independence of Bangladesh.

The cyclone has hit at a time when the country is preparing for a national referendum on its constitution. The government has been urging the population to 'vote yes'; the underground opposition urging them to 'vote no'. Opposition groups believe the constitution, although promising a path to democracy, will entrench military rule. The referendum, scheduled for 10 May, will undoubtedly be delayed. Burma's government has not allowed any debate of the referendum, and blocked opposition attempts to educate rural and illiterate members of the population about what the vote means. It is likely the junta will be highly sensitive to any perceived political activity carried out by international organisations involved in relief efforts. Foreigners are highly regulated and watched in Burma. An influx of western aid and personnel around the country is likely to make the government uncomfortable. Already there are delays in granting visas to UN workers.

It is pretty clear that the government in Burma focuses more on remaining in power (and self-aggrandisement) than on responsiveness to people's needs. The budget for the wedding of General Than Shwe's daughter in 2006 was, claim some opposition groups, three times higher than the spending on healthcare that year.

As a result of the cyclone, food prices will increase rapidly. The unexpected 2007 'Saffron revolution' protests were initially triggered after fuel prices were doubled, events soon took on a political tone. Shortly prior to the cyclone, the military government announced rice price increases. Rice prices in 2008 alone are thought to have increased by as much as 30% in some areas. Most Burmese struggle to meet daily needs and are thus sensitive to even the smallest price increase.

The cyclone has made some 2-3 million people homeless. Even with Burma's 500,000 strong army, the coordination and delivery of aid is lacking, the junta needs international organisations to step in. If the military is unable to provide food and shelter to those affected, it could see renewed protests on a much larger scale. Thus far, the junta has appeared immune from foreign pressure. The cyclone was a natural disaster and the junta will frame itself as a powerless victim. Similarly, involving international organisations and governments in relief efforts removes some responsibility. What international involvement could do, and has not yet achieved, is to build up a working relationship with the regime that directly benefits the Burmese people.

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Thursday 29 May 2008
Burma: Options for Engagement
Ashley South, Author and Southeast Asian Analyst


Further Resources

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The World Today

Members only contentBurma: On the Brink of Implosion, Kerry Brown and Gareth Price, November 2007
The world's most populous democracy and its new economic engine are both busy modifying positions on Burma, their much smaller but troublesome neighbour. India and China have growing economic interests there, yet seem to have come to very different conclusions about how to protect them.

Members only contentBurma: Tragedy in the Temples, Bertil Lintner, November 2007
The harsh crackdown on demonstrators in Burma may have sealed the ultimate fate of the military junta that has been in charge for so long. But when it falls from power, who could take over, and what problems would they face in holding the country together?

Members only contentBurma: Too Much to Hide, Bertil Lintner, July 2006
Another period of hope for change in Burma has given way to soul searching about how to deal with the latest disappointment. But the optimism was always misplaced, the generals have far too much to lose from any real openness.

Members only contentBurma: Refugees and Regional Relations, Gil Loescher and James Milner, July 2006
For nearly sixty years, the regime in Rangoon has remained in power by preventing democratic change and waging war against the country's numerous ethnic nationality parties.

Briefing Paper

Burma: Companies, NGOs and the New Diplomacy, October 2001
One of the most important features of the Burma debate is the role played by non-state actors - particularly NGOs, but also companies. A loose coalition of advocacy groups has put pressure on Western governments to impose sanctions on Burma, and on companies to withdraw from the country.

Meeting Summary

Burma: The Way Forward, April 2008
This discussion considered the views of the various political groupings which have, since 1990, worked together towards the establishment of a federal union of Burma.

In The News

Why won't the Chinese make Burma accept the aid?, May 2008
A desire for regional stability will be at the front of China's considerations as it responds to the impact of the crisis in Burma, and some within the Chinese Communist Party may be considering the advantages that might come from a monopoly of aid to the country, writes Kerry Brown in The Independent on Sunday.