Disastrous governance

Tsunami denial shows Rangoon is the worst enemy of its people In the wake of the tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asia, and amid the daze and gloom of a truly global calamity, any bit of good news – every reason to hope – is obviously welcome.

And yet here is one optimistic assertion that even the world’s overwhelmed aid agencies are finding hard to believe: Burma’s initial

declaration that it survived the tsunami relatively unscathed has been met with skepticism and concern.

The country’s ruling junta initially said that less than 60 of its people were killed, and about 100 were injured and remain unaccounted for.

Given the 150,000 people who died in its immediate neighborhood, those numbers should represent a miracle. But given the frontage of Burma to the Andaman Sea, aid groups, scientists, and Burmese exiles fear it is more indicative of something more familiar and less inspiring. They have called for independent assessments of the tsunami’s impact on the country’s southwestern coast.

That in itself poses a formidable challenge. Burma’s ruling junta is notoriously protective, and defensive, of any bit of news or information that can be gathered from within its borders. All media is state-controlled.

Very few outsiders, even among aid organizations and foreign officials, are granted free access to any part of the country.

Even teams from Unicef and the World Food Program (WFP) had difficulty getting clearance to visit the areas most likely to have been affected by the calamity. It was only last week that the WFP had its chance.

Until things are validated on the ground, international relief efforts had to resort to satellite pictures to have a clearer idea of how the tsunamis hit Burma. The early prognosis was that the country indeed suffered much less damage than neighboring Thailand, but surely must have been underestimating, if not underdeclaring, the actual effects of the tsunami. Burmese exile groups say their own sources so far place the country’s death toll at 400 to 600.

Now that the WFP has returned with its own findings, it appears that the junta may yet be vindicated in its reports, but only up to a point. The WFP says the official death toll is probably close to accurate, although at least 10,000 Burmese may yet need food assistance.

Whether Burma was indeed somehow spared or its leaders somehow managed to bury the truth will surely remain up for debate. Whatever the facts, to those for whom Burma’s story is as unfamiliar as the concept of oceans erasing entire villages, the junta’s perceived denial is probably as mind-boggling as the calamity itself. Clearly, after all, this was nobody’s fault. Why in the world would any government downplay the misery caused by a natural disaster on its own people?

On one level, Rangoon is notorious for the habit. The world’s skepticism of everything Rangoon says, or does not say, is as reflexive as the Burmese junta’s response to any disaster that befalls their people, or any problem afflicting their society. Its military leaders not only deny corruption, poverty, and the existence of a narcotics industry in Burma; they also work hard to filter the air of any hint of vulnerability: whether it be to opposition politicians, the international community, human rights advocates, or nature itself.

In a feature published in June by Irrawaddy Magazine (an independent Burmese publication operating out of Thailand), journalist Dominic Faulder noted how Burma’s state-controlled media failed to make any mention of a May typhoon, the strongest storm to hit the country in 30 years, that sunk vessels, killed 140, and rendered an estimated 18,000 homeless.

In that same feature, Faulder revisited the scene and incident of what is now simply referred to as the Great Fire of Mandalay. In 1981, Faulder wrote, up to a sixth of the city may have been razed by a fire that started at a black market fuel shop, displacing tens of thousands. Once again, the state press said nothing of the matter. News wires with no access to the city or the story could only make short, sketchy dispatches.

“Officially, nothing happened, so there was no way of guessing how many people may have died,” Faulder wrote. “A town of 100,000 could burn to the ground here and nobody would ever know about it.”

On a deeper level, the rationale behind this habit of denial is simple but uncompromising. For a military government that imprisoned, killed, and chased away the country’s last democratically elected leaders, and for a brutal leadership that suppresses journalists and writers, legitimacy is tied to never having to admit any problem, making disasters inconvenient.

If not for anything else, catastrophes of this scale – like a fuel-train collision that kills 3,000 in North Korea, or a massive earthquake in Iran – tend to give the aid agencies compelling arguments to be allowed into even the most notoriously secretive of states. That affords the world a glimpse of living standards, infrastructure, systems, children, poverty, and such other indicators of reality within the world’s most restricted borders. Never mind if the tour is incidental to the help that their neighbors merely want to offer. For the Burmese junta, any glimpse of imperfection in a rule defined by denial is one glimpse too many. And so between the need to aid its people and its reflex to hide any blemish, the junta has been consistent in making its choice.

As Faulder wrote: this is “the land where disasters don’t happen, officially.” For the people of Burma, that tragedy is as devastating – and more lingering – than anything the tsunami may have brought to their shores.