Nargis: World’s worst response to a natural disaster

Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

In the weeks after Cyclone Nargis swept through lower Burma on 2 and 3 May 2008, bringing in its wake a tidal wave that submerged vast areas of the delta region and took with it what was ultimately an untold number of lives, it quickly became apparent that from the time of the cyclone’s approach and in its aftermath, the response of the military regime was in fact the world’s worst response to a natural disaster of any government in modern times.

Not only did the generals deliberately avoid contact with world leaders and international organisations desperate to offer assistance to the millions left in dire need of water, basic food and health care, not to mention longer-term relief but they also forged ahead with the charade of a referendum on a new constitution designed to extend their grip on power indefinitely. Government officials were instructed specifically to neglect the plight of the storm victims and continue their work to prepare for the referendum, which was merely postponed by two weeks in some townships, including holding public meetings where locals were ordered to attend or pay fines. And the twisted priorities that characterise dictatorship became further apparent when sailors who left their docked ships at the Thilawar Pier during the height of the cyclone were reportedly detained and charged with abandoning ship. The situation even became so absurd that the Secretary General of the United Nations was making phone calls to Senior General Than Shwe but he was refusing to receive them.

Realising that the government was not going to do anything to assist them, local people, and then those further away from the worst affected areas, began organising themselves. In Rangoon residents and monks cleared roads themselves and shared water and other essentials. Where soldiers were sent out to do some work, ridiculously they went into the houses in the area to ask people to lend knives and saws with which to cut. In the delta, thousands of homeless people gathered at monasteries and received assistance from monks, many of whom also took on impromptu relief coordinating roles.

The regime went beyond being obstinate to outright criminality when on May 9 it seized the World Food Programme’s supplies in Rangoon and forced a planeload of supplies from Qatar to be returned to the country of origin. The taking of the supplies came as such a shock to a WFP spokesman that it was rightly described as “unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts”.

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Emissaries who visited the country, like the prime minister of Thailand, demonstrated that some small gains could be made, and some concessions were obtained and a degree of international assistance has been allowed. However, it is paltry by comparison to the scale of the disaster and accompanied by persistent needless obstacles presented by the regime.

The world has proven itself incapable of coming to terms with a regime that is so odious that it places the small risk of its own position being undermined by letting in foreign assistance, or even talking on the telephone, over the basic needs of its citizens for water, food and medicine. The cost in terms of human lives on a vast scale was manifestly of no concern to it, and yet world opinion and political will proved unable to address this utter immorality.

For years there has been a hard debate among humanitarian aid workers and regional specialists about the merits or otherwise of engaging with Burma’s government in order to reach the population. That debate is now in many respects irrelevant. There is no possibility of meaningful engagement with an administration that goesScreen Shot 2015-12-17 at 4.13.34 PM even beyond the denying of access to outside groups when millions of its people are in desperate need of help and to the point of robbing the UN. Although ways will be reopened and some methods found for work in the country under this government, at no time can it be forgotten as to what sort of administration it really is with which the world is dealing.The Association of Southeast AsianNations, China and India need to besingled out for their belated andinconsistent approaches to a problemof such enormity right on theirdoorsteps. Collectively, Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 4.14.16 PMthey too mustgo down in history as having failed the

people of Burma. Had the association and these two presumptive superpowers shown strong leadership and a determination from the start not to put up with any nonsense, things could have been different. But their inadequate and uncoordinated reactions belittled the disaster as well as its victims and left everything in the hands of the generals.

One effect of the cyclone is likely to be in the form of a vastly increased number of routine human rights abuses, although these are extremely difficult to document in the affected areas. Reports from around the country, not only from directly affected regions, indicate that arbitrary taxation has been on the rise on the pretext of cyclone recovery efforts. Forced labour is also reportedly increasing, as there is a desperate need to rebuild damaged infrastructure, which was in many places to begin with. There have been reports of children orphaned due to the cyclone being picked up and taken away in army trucks, ostensibly for special care.

Another effect is in the form of persons involved in the relief effort, taking up the slack left by the lack of either international or government aid, themselves being charged. Among them have been young men who assisted in cremating and burying the bodies of deceased persons, including a nationally renowned comedian, Zarganar, and the leader of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Group, U Myint Aye.

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Zarganar (a.k.a. Ko Thura), a famous comedian in Burma who took the lead in relief efforts among members of the arts and entertainment industry, had his house searched and was taken away at the start of June. According to information that the Asian Human Rights Commission pieced together from a number of sources, around seven police led by the Rangoon Western District police chief together with the local council chairman came to Zarganar’s house in Rangoon just before 8pm on June 4 and went inside saying that they just wanted to search it. After they recovered a computer, some VCDs of the cyclone damage as well as the new Rambo movie (the story is situated in Burma) and the wedding video of the junta leader’s daughter they said that they would also take Zarganar with them “for a short while”, meaning “around a couple of days”. They also took around USD 1000 of money for the cyclone relief effort.

Zarganar has been working constantly on cyclone relief since May 7, and had given numerous interviews to overseas-based radio stations and other media about his work and the needs of the people. He had also ridiculed state media reports about the cyclone aftermath and in an interview with Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 4.18.18 PMthe Thailand-based Irrawaddy News service published on May 21, Zarganar said that many cyclone survivors didn’t want the UN Secretary General to visit for fear that security would be tightened and that they might get sent away in order to make the temporary resettlement camps look good for the VIPs.

According to Zarganar’s sister, he had used all his own money for the cyclone victims and had sold his and his wife’s mobile phones (which are expensive in Burma) to fund the work. He had organised over 400 volunteers to work in some 42 villages that had been neglected since the cyclone struck. Following Zarganar’s arrest, the group’s relief efforts also were halted.

At the end of July, Zarganar and former sports magazine editor Zaw Thet Htwe, who had also been working hard for cyclone victims, were brought into the closed court within the Insein Prison for the first time and like so many of the people accused over the September 2007 protests, charged with violating section 505(b) of the Penal Code for causing public alarm. The families of the two were not informed that they would be brought on that date and charged.

Zarganar has in total been charged with seven offences under section 505(b), 295 (defiling a place of worship with intent to insult religion), and under the Illegal Associations Law, Video Law and Electronic Transactions Law: the same categories of offences as those against Nay Phone Latt (see ‘Ten case studies in illegal arrest and imprisonment, this edition of article 2, case no. 9).

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Similarly, 57-year-old U Myint Aye and two other members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP) group were in early August taken away as a consequence of their cyclone relief Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 4.21.59 PMwork. A group of police and officials came to Myint Aye’s house at around 4pm on 8 August 2008 and after searching it for over two hours and taking some documents and other items they told Myint Aye to go with them for a short while. The group included Police Captain Kyaw Sein of Rangoon Division Police (intelligence), Special Branch personnel, the chairman of the ward council and another council official.

Myint Aye did not come back that night as promised. The next afternoon, another team led by the chief of police in Kyimyindaing Township came to the house and asked for some sets of clothes for Myint Aye, indicating that he would be detained for some time. They told his family not to worry and to ask for any help if they need it; however, as in other cases like this they did not give any details about where they had taken Myint Aye or why.

Although Myint Aye’s house was itself affected in the storm he instead had gone promptly to the worst-affected areas and was by May 6 among the first people to have gone into the delta and begun reporting to overseas-based media about the lack of any assistance. After a few days in the delta he told one Thailand- based group that

The refugees’ suffering here is great. We have bought and distributed as much rice grain as we can. HRDP Bogalay residents have taken charge. We can’t distribute it to one (victim) by one. We’d get trampled by the crowds. We give three bags of rice to a monastery to cook, the next day, another three bags. So far we’ve distributed over 70 bags a little at a time like that.

Myint Aye’s detention followed that of another two members of the HRDP group. Myo Min, who lives nearby, was taken on August 6 and Ko Thant Zaw Myint was taken on August 7. The arrests coincided with the visit to the country of the new United Nations special expert on human rights in Burma.

At time that this edition of article 2 was going to press, it was reported in the state-run media that Myint Aye is to be charged with allegedly organising bombings in Rangoon and for receiving money from abroad for that purpose.

Over the last two to three years many members of the HRDP group have been arrested, including Ko Thiha, whose case is also mentioned in this edition, convicted of sedition (Penal Code section 124A) and upsetting public tranquility, section 505(b), sentenced to 22 years in prison; Ko Myint Naing, 40, Ko Kyaw Lwin, 40, U Hla Shein, 62, U Mya Sein, 50, U Win, 50, and U Myint, 59, the “Hinthada 6”, sentenced to four to eight years for upsetting public tranquility (Penal Code section 505(b)(c)) and Ko Min Min, 30, residing in Pyi Township, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for illegal tuition (for the cases of the Hinthada 6 and Ko Min Min see, ‘Burma, political psychosis and legal dementia’, article 2, vol. 6, nos. 5-6, October-December 2007).

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