The devastating cyclone in Myanmar has left over a hundred thousand dead, and returned world attention to a region plagued by political oppression.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a small country in Asia bordered by Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. A military junta has ruled Myanmar since a military coup in 1962.
The history of Myanmar involves, like so many countries in turmoil, colonialism. Ruled by the British since the Victorian era, the country achieved independence in 1948, but according to Thomas Lansner’s “Brief History of Burma,” it was “beset by ethnic strife” as minority groups sought autonomy from the Burmese majority. This new government survived just 14 years before the Burma Socialist Programme Party took over.
The BSPP prevented free elections and crushed “freedom of expression and association” for 26 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, protests by student and labor groups were routinely quashed, and “torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were common.”
Politically, there seemed to be hope for Burma in 1990 when democratic leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won the country’s “first multi-party election in 30 years.” But her party never rose to power, and the junta has continued its reign. The BBC profiles Myanmar (which the U.K. refers to as Burma) in its “Country Profiles” section. The article includes facts and statistics, as well as a political history and profiles of the country’s leaders.
Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on May 5. It is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions homeless. According to Amnesty International, the Myanmar government has put the death toll at only 23,000. International aid agencies have attempted to reach the country to provide food, medical supplies and temporary shelter, but the government has blocked many of these efforts. On May 9, the government released a statement saying that it would refuse “rescue and information teams from foreign countries” and would use only its own resources.
FindingDulcinea’s article on the relief process in Myanmar sheds light on how the government has reacted since the cyclone hit. The U.N.’s attempt to deliver aid last week resulted in supplies being seized by Myanmar authorities, and other delays observed are purported to be “paperwork” related.
On May 11, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) announced that its supplies had reached over 27,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta region. The aid included “28 tons of high-energy biscuits,” according a UN news release. The day before, a land convoy from Thailand from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reached Myanmar, carrying emergency supplies like plastic sheets.
Cyclone Nargis has extensively damaged crops; the largest area affected in Myanmar was the Irrawaddy River Delta, the country’s “rice bowl.” In a May 7 post to “Interesting Times,” his New Yorker-hosted blog, George Packer notes that Myanmar was in trouble long before the catastrophic weather: “Burma used to be the world’s largest exporter of rice; after decades of military misrule, it now has trouble feeding itself.” In refusing foreign aid, Myanmar’s government is declaring that it “wants the money and supplies, but … doesn’t want the foreigners with their helicopters and expertise, for the same reason that it doesn’t allow journalists to enter Burma: the regime survives by smothering the truth, from its own people and from the outside world.”
In spite of the cyclone, the military junta went ahead with an “election” the weekend of May 10 and 11, writes Robyn Meredith in Forbes magazine. “[E]lections were held across all but the most devastated regions of Myanmar. The elections were designed to ensure the military retained power in the long term, while rulers touted the vote as a move toward democracy.” Meredith visited Myanmar some weeks ago and observed the country’s desperate attempts to export goods—including wood from what’s left of its teak forests—to save the dwindling economy. Myanmar’s other exports include natural gas and substantial quantities of opium. Meredith says there are some signs of modernization in the country, but the cyclone is another strike against change.