Mon, Jan 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The politics of disaster

Burma has retained tight control over information about tsunami damage and published a suspiciously low death toll. This is just the latest example of a corrupt government worsening the suffering of its people in a time of disaster

THE OBSERVER , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

According to its military junta, Burma is a lucky country. Perhaps in compensation for the years of tyranny and degradation the army has brought, the gods decided that it should be spared. Readers who studied the maps of the Indian Ocean carried by every newspaper and television station last week can't have missed the grim, little boxes filled by terrible figures: Indonesia, 80,000 dead and rising; Sri Lanka, 27,000 and rising; India, 11,000 and rising, Thailand, 4,000 and rising. Yet when the eyes flitted to the top right corner they saw that Burma had only a few dozen dead to mourn.

Indeed, for the first three days, the official version was that Burma had survived without a scratch. The uniformed gangsters who run the kleptocracy, ravish its forests and murder its citizens, expressed their heart-felt sorrow and decent regret at the news from the rest of the region, but made no mention of the waves taking Burmese lives. A meteorological officer from Rangoon explained the miracle. The border with Thailand may only be 240km north of the devastated hotels of Phuket, but Burma was fortunate to have a coastline which rose from shallow seas. These drained the tsunami of its power before it reached land. The enfeebled waves washed ashore with more of a splash than a roar.

The line sounded plausible, but couldn't hold. In the surreal way of tyrannies, the Burmese dictators were asserting that there had been no loss of life at the precise moment when the rulers of the neighboring dictatorship of China sent them their public condolences for the loss of life.

Three days after the tsunami hit, the hacks on the New Light of Myanmar, the junta's mouthpiece, admitted that 43 people had died and 25 were missing. Few believed them.

Ever since Dec. 26, opponents of the regime who produce the Democratic Voice of Burma Web site have been receiving leads from scattered sources. An anonymous naval officer told them that a military installation on Coco Island in the Indian Ocean had been washed away. Magye Island in the Gulf of Bengal may also had been swamped, other sources said. There were reports of the Maubin University building being torn apart, possibly by an earthquake which hit after the waves, of fishermen never returning from the sea and of villages losing dozens of inhabitants. One rumor doing the rounds says that 500 died in one district alone, and it sounds plausible. Like everyone outside the military, the opium barons and the Chinese plutocrats who have bought up much of the country, the inhabitants of the coastal districts are desperately poor. Their flimsy shacks never looked as if they could withstand a raging sea.

illusion

It will take weeks to find out if the real death toll is anywhere near as bad as in Thailand -- if, that is, we ever find out. The junta has an interest in maintaining the illusion of total control. A public admission of weakness makes it seem vulnerable and plants the dangerous idea in people's minds that it may one day be weak enough to overthrow. Foreigners must be controlled as rigorously as the natives. Aid agencies need to grease palms and accept stringent restrictions on what they can do or say if they want to work in Burma. They can't be allowed to be independent sources of power which provide for the population and reveal the true nature of its suffering to the outside world. Last week reporters who tried to get information from the Unicef office in Rangoon were given a short course on the facts of life. The aid workers stonewalled because they would be thrown out of the country if they said a word out of place.

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