The commentary, coming at a time when the government seemed to be finally accepting international access to the Irrawaddy Delta region, elicited global condemnation from political activists and human rights groups, as it underscored the cruelty of the military junta and its lack of concern for the welfare of the people. To this day, two and a half months after the cyclone, the international aid effort has fallen well short of the scope and depth of coverage required to meet the needs of the more than two million survivors directly affected by the storm. Outsiders with no experience inside Burma have stated that a “second wave of dying has begun” and made alarming predictions that “hundreds of thousands” of Burmese may die as the result of Burmese government obstruction.
As access has improved to the delta region, however, and the tri-partite aid coordination body, consisting of representatives of the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, and the government, completed its assessment of conditions, the conclusion of the aid agencies is that there were very few additional deaths after the cyclone’s initial fury. According to reports by The New York Times and the Associated Press, there was, in fact, no second wave of dying as the result of food shortages, epidemics, and exposure. The Burmese people in the delta showed exactly the resilience and strength to survive that the government of Burma was touting.
This in no way excuses the government for obstructing the relief effort. The resilience of the people derives from their life-long experience of government neglect and failure to tend to their basic needs. They knew that even in the aftermath of the cyclone they would probably be on their own, or reliant on neighbors, religious institutions, and other non-governmental sources of assistance.
My regret is that I didn’t have the courage to express skepticism about the alarmist predictions of a second wave of deaths as aid agencies gradually gained access to the delta within two or three weeks of the cyclone. My experience in Cambodia in the aftermath of the 1979 famine taught me that in the relatively lush environment of mainland Southeast Asia, once people are free to forage for food they will survive. Rice paddies are full of small fish, crabs, and frogs that provide protein. Fruit and edible plants grow in abundance. Air temperatures rarely go below 75 degrees, limiting deaths from exposure. Contaminated water is a menace, but in the rainy season drinking water can be collected.
I knew that no one in the Irrawaddy Delta was going to die from lack of food. The risk was that a cholera epidemic or a wave of diarrheal diseases might sweep through the weakened survivors, especially children. Thankfully, it appears that this did not occur.
International aid agencies have a long record of exaggerating their impact and underestimating the self-help capacity of local people. One of the primary lessons of the response to the 2004 tsunami was that the true “first responders,” the ones who save lives in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, are precisely the survivors themselves. They, and supporting organizations, including local government agencies, are the ones who make an immediate difference, well before even the fastest international agencies can mobilize. In disaster prone areas, therefore, strengthening the response capacity of communities and their institutions, whether government or non-governmental, is an essential investment to save lives in the future.
In Burma, the government and its most powerful institution, the military, did very little relief work. What helped save the day in Burma was the tremendous outpouring of individual and small group efforts by Burmese citizens. Buddhist monks, teachers, doctors, merchants — even travel agents according to a former U.S. diplomat in touch with friends inside the country —banded together to raise funds, collect materials, and provide direct assistance. While the military confiscated some of this aid, and periodically blocked access by Burmese, enough of these efforts were successful to help meet some of the immediate needs of the survivors. Coupled with their ability to live off the land as they re-gained their strength, these efforts were enough to stave off a second catastrophe.
“Frogs, not chocolate” is not going to become the motto of the international aid community, nor should it. The blocking of aid by the Burmese government in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis was unconscionable. But the phrase contains a measure of truth, and suggests that we should never underestimate people’s ability to find a way to survive in the face of catastrophe.