After the storm in Burma
After the storm in Burma
Landing in Rangoon in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the Human Rights Center’s Eric Stover witnessed the impacts firsthand — and now warns of a ‘second wave’
BERKELEY – As faculty director of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, Eric Stover makes a career of flying into the teeth of tragedy, tirelessly investigating and documenting the effects of war, repression, and poverty in global hotspots as diverse as Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Iraq.
When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, Stover was already en route to Rangoon to observe the vote on a government-sponsored constitutional referendum. He arrived the day after the cyclone hit. During his two weeks in the country — as international aid workers and foreign journalists alike were denied entry or forced to leave — he saw the impacts not only of the cyclone itself, which killed an estimated 134,000 people and left 2.4 million others without shelter, but the ways in which 45 years of military rule are exacerbating the crisis.
This wasn’t the first time Stover, an adjunct professor of law and public health, has visited Burma — also known as Myanmar, the name preferred by the ruling junta. As co-author of a 2007 report, The Gathering Storm: Infectious Diseases and Human Rights in Burma (PDF), he had documented the absence of any real health-care infrastructure in the reclusive nation — some 40 percent of its budget goes to support a standing army of more than 400,000, the second-largest in Southeast Asia — and the enormous obstacles confronting those attempting to provide humanitarian assistance to its 47 million people.
Even United Nations representatives have seemed reluctant to criticize the government’s pitiful (some would say pitiless) response to the tragedy. Stover is among the relatively few foreigners who not only witnessed the immediate devastation firsthand but is willing to speak openly about the ongoing dangers spawned by Burma’s repressive political climate.
“This is a country where you have very poor ability to respond to any kind of emergency, let alone the public health of its citizens,” Stover says. “When the cyclone hit over the evening on the 2nd and 3rd of May, there was not adequate warning given to people in the delta, or in Rangoon, or in any of the towns that were struck. There were some announcements made on national television and radio, but it certainly wasn’t adequate timing.”
Had residents of the delta had time to get to higher ground, he suspects, many might have been saved.
“In particular, what strikes you when you see the devastation from the cyclone is the fact that many of the buildings that were made of brick or concrete managed to stay up, and people could have taken refuge there, in monasteries or schools or elsewhere. But what happened, and what often happens in natural disasters, is the poorest people, the most vulnerable people, are affected the most, because they live in thatched huts or structures made out of bamboo, which were swept out to sea or simply blown away.”
Complicating an already dire situation was what Stover calls “a compounding of factors,” including “very poor health status to begin with,” the fact that nongovernmental organizations working inside the country were caught off-guard, and the government’s recalcitrance in issuing visas to foreign crisis experts and aid workers. So highly militarized is the political culture, he explains, that local officials are reluctant to act without the junta’s approval.
“You had a kind of stagnation taking place, a freezing,” he says. “People didn’t know what to do.”
Nearly three weeks after the cyclone hit, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Burma’s top official, Gen. Than Shwe, about getting help to the millions of people — as many as three-quarters of those affected — believed to have gone without any kind of assistance. “To me, that’s just unprecedented — that a secretary general would have to travel to a country to meet with its leader to plead to have international aid come into the country,” Stover says.
Stover himself managed to make two separate trips about 100 miles south of Rangoon to the delta, taking advantage of “a small window of opportunity” before the government began setting up roadblocks to keep foreigners out of the worst-hit areas.
“What was really incredible, being there and seeing it, was the response of Burmese citizens, the response of local business groups and religious groups and NGOs,” he reports. “Many of them saw that their government was doing nothing, that the international community was stymied, and so they went around and collected donations, and bought rice and dried fish and other supplies in the market and headed into the delta as best they could.”
The aid that has gotten through is “a drop in the bucket” compared with the desperate, widespread need for food and housing, he adds. Even more concerning, perhaps, is what Stover calls “the second wave” — the likelihood that conditions will deteriorate further still for those who managed to survive the cyclone and its immediate aftermath.
“What you see as you drive through is that people’s houses have been demolished, and they’ve quickly made shelters, and they live inside these shelters sometimes with their livestock. The water is rising because the monsoon season has come early, so there’s the possibility of a rise in dengue fever, diarrheal diseases, and, of course, cholera.” The World Health Organization, he notes, estimates that 60 percent of the country’s health-care infrastructure — pathetically inadequate to begin with — has been destroyed.
Add to that the fact that Burmese farmers were preparing for the annual rice planting when Nargis hit, but in many cases are now without oxen to help with the planting or money with which to buy fertilizer, having been forced to spend what little they had on building supplies. Those who were relocated to temporary shelters won’t be able to plant at all, auguring a potential problem for the nation’s economy when November’s harvest arrives.
As in war, Stover says, a major casualty of natural disasters is truth. That applies especially in Burma, where state television aired images that minimized the destruction and instead showed “military officers going out and handing out rice along the roads around Rangoon and declaring that they were on top of it.” What is needed, he believes, is an inquiry into the government’s response to the continuing crisis.
“The secretary general said this is not a time for politics, this is a time to save lives,” observes Stover. “And while that is certainly the case and should be fully supported, everything is political, and at some point we have to look at this through a political lens and try and understand how more international pressure can be placed on the Myanmar government to bring it into the 21st century.”
The referendum, he notes, was anything but free and fair: The draft constitution put forward by the country’s rulers was largely unavailable for review by the voters outside Rangoon, and critics had no real opportunity to voice their opposition — even as citizens were dunned with pro-government messages in newspapers and on TV. The measure passed overwhelmingly with what the government said was a 99 percent turnout — and what Stover facetiously calls “a historical first in any country.”
Yet while he’s sensitive to the struggles of NGOs and activists in a country as repressive as Burma, he insists that truth is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism.
“It may make things more difficult, but we have to get to the bottom of this,” he says. “I think if we ignore it, it only continues the problem. And that’s what’s happened for too long. I mean, the military has been in power since 1962. We need to know what happened.”