The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 72/No. 21      May 26, 2008

Social disaster unfolds after
cyclone hits Myanmar
(front page)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand, May 12—A social disaster has exploded in Myanmar in the aftermath of a cyclone that ripped through the country May 3. Tens of thousands have died—150,000 by some estimates—and 1 million are homeless.

The devastation has been magnified by the legacy of imperialist underdevelopment of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and the brutal military dictatorship that has ruled the country for 46 years.

Imperialist governments are using promises of aid to pressure the military government to carry out political and economic “reforms” to their liking. London, which extracted massive amounts of wealth as Burma’s colonial master from 1886 to 1948, promised a paltry 5 million (US$10 million). UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that food aid provided so far may only be a 10th of what’s needed.

For its part, Myanmar’s dictatorship has impeded the delivery of food and other supplies. It has seized some shipments and dragged its feet on issuing entry visas to foreign aid officials.

The government issued warnings of the coming cyclone a week before it hit. However, the country has no radar system that could have tracked the storm as it moved across the Irrawaddy Delta in the south.

“The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages,” the minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung Swe, told reporters in Yangon, the capital, May 6. Most of the deaths were in the delta, which is home to more than 6 million of Myanmar’s 53 million people.

Contamination of drinking water through floods, sewage, and corpses brings with it the threat of cholera and other fatal illnesses. Naing Ko Ko from the New Zealand Office of the National Council for the Union of Burma told the Militant that with no resources at hand, people “don’t know what to do about the dead bodies floating in the water—not just people but cattle and pigs and other animals.”  
Aid with an eyedropper
Myanmar is rich in natural resources including oil, natural gas, and gems, but has very little infrastructure. Its foreign debt is nearly $7 billion.

The U.S. government, which maintains investment and trade sanctions against Myanmar, pledged a paltry $3 million to UN agencies to help with emergency food distribution. European Union officials announced a similar level of aid.

U.S. president George Bush pointedly announced the aid at a ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi. Held for many years in Yangon under house arrest, Suu Kyi heads the opposition National League for Democracy. The league won elections in 1990, but the junta blocked the new parliament from meeting.

The Myanmar government has insisted that it control aid distribution, hindering the arrival of even these pittances. On May 8—five days after the storm hit—the first Red Cross flight landed. Other flights have followed.

According to a May 9 AP article, “only one out of 10 people who are homeless, injured or threatened by disease and hunger have received some kind of aid in the week since the cyclone hit.” As demand has increased, prices have skyrocketed. The article noted that the price of water had increased five-fold in Yangon, while rice had gone up by 60 percent.

The inaction of the military junta—which commands an army of 450,000—stands in contrast to its rapid response to last year’s massive prodemocracy protests by students and working people.

“People don’t accept the military regime, but they are afraid of the gun,” said Naing Ko Ko. The officer caste dominates political and economic life in the country.

In spite of the disaster, the government has proceeded with a referendum to legitimize its rule, postponing the vote only in the areas worst affected.  
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