History & Current Events
Click to see an interactive map, created by the New York Times in 2008, that graphs the progress of the hurricane topographically and with before and after shots
_The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization can now estimate that at the time Nargis hit, it devastated 65% of the country’s rice paddies and, because it hit at the height of the growing season, it also ruined rice already brought into warehouses. Nargis also blew away over 700,000 homes, killed three-fourths of livestock, and sank half the Burmese fishing fleet. With a rising death toll, food and water shortages, and the possibility of disease, the situation in Burma needed critical and immediate attention.
On May 5, 2008, the United Nations and international aid agencies met in Bangkok to discuss possible aid disbursement strategies. A decision was reached that Thailand would co-ordinate responses to the disaster. However, during the first two to three weeks following the disaster, the regime frustrated international attempts at executing relief operations, and internally undermined the process by denying workers access to affected areas. Then First Lady Laura Bush went so far as to criticise the military junta for a slow response, urging it to accept offers of United States aid. Similarly, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Kin Moon warned of the “dire consequences” behind the government’s decisions. Neither statement was acknowledged by the Burmese military junta.
The international political situation grew so tense that by May 7, France even suggested ignoring Burma’s national sovereignty and invoking a special UN “responsibility to protect” clause to get aid to cyclone victims without internal approval. Despite mounting frustration, other countries dismissed the idea. Instead, the United Nations launched an appeal for aid, asking for an estimated USD 187 million. Amongst the top pledges were the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, France, and Australia. Alongside such efforts, the UN began to pressure Burma to speed up the issuing of visas to foreign relief experts—dozens of whom continued to wait in Thailand. The Burmese government responded by saying that while it wanted both money and supplies, it did not want foreign aid workers within its borders. Officials further demanded rights to manage the aid distribution themselves.
_In fact, the Burmese government’s final numbers estimated the death toll at 136,000 people by the end of the year 2008. However, many international organizations have continually disputed the claim. Amongst these organizations was the United Nations, which as early as May 14, 2008 released its official estimate to be at 140,000, a huge disparity from the May 14 numbers given by Burmese officials, which put the death toll at 38,000.
At the time of the disaster, poor evacuation and relief-aid put many more in danger for disease, and made it difficult to account for those missing. Still, most foreign aid workers were unable to enter the country. Aid shipments continued to encounter border delays. Neither would be able to flow freely into the country until the end of the month. With estimates by the United Nations that between 1.6 to 2.5 million locals were in need of immediate help, top aid agencies continued to unsuccessfully pressure Burma to hand over control of distribution services, especially after reports were released that aid was not reaching the worst hit areas.
Finally, two weeks after the Cyclone hit, military leader Than Shwe visited a refugee camp outside Rangoon. Shortly after Burma asked for and was denied a loan from the World Bank, which refused saying that the country had no solvency after the government had stopped paying its debt in 1998. Unable to procure a loan, Burma allowed ASEAN member nations to send envoys with doctors and relief workers—a momentary relief for locals and a small success of international efforts.
_However, the incoming relief workers did not resolve nor expedite the process of reconstruction in the area. Reports continued for months after on the situation left behind by Cyclone Nargis from international media. Amongst some of the more disturbing news stories released included accounts that Burma’s military regime had forced many cyclone survivors to do menial labour in exchange for food. Many international human rights groups further reported on the government’s campaign to evict displaced citizens from aid shelters, and discriminatory practices against affected minorities. Some, like the ethnic minorities in Karen State, who make up 60% of the Irrawaddy River Delta region, were denied basic resources such as food, medical care, and fresh water.
To date, Cyclone Nargis’ aftermath continues to haunt the affected people of Burma. As late as May 2011, the Burmese government continued to ask for seed money from the international community to fuel reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately, accusations of corruption and mismanagement of funds by the Burmese government from members of the international community continue to make donors reluctant to provide aid without restrictions and conditionality.