Human Rights

Nargis’s Number Game

By Aung Zaw 10 May 2014

Cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people, but nobody knows for sure exactly how many perished in the storm that struck Burma six years ago. At first the regime announced that only 350 people had died, but later that number rose, with international observers estimating that 200,000 people had been killed. In this commentary from The Irrawaddy archives—originally published on May 22, 2008—the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief Aung Zaw reflects on the tragic numbers game following the cyclone.

Finally, Burma’s cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta region have been able to mourn their dead. The regime announced three days of official mourning but could offer no assurance that adequate aid is on the way.

Cyclone survivors are mourning without food and proper shelter from the rain, often encountering intimidation from armed police and local officials, who ordered them to stop begging for food and to show “discipline” when VIPs call on them.

Although it appears that Burmese officials have stopped counting the dead, nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck, the body count and numbers game aren’t over yet.

At first the regime, perhaps unaware of the true scale of the disaster, announced 350 people had died. That toll rose in steps, to 10,000, then more than 20,000 and on to 78,000, with 56,000 people listed as missing.

When the number of dead reached 130,000 the regime mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, nervously buried the fact on an inside page, reserving the front page for stories and pictures of the generals inspecting refugee camps and handing out aid packages to survivors.

Even that official toll is far short of the reliable estimates of international observers and diplomats, who believe more than 200,000 could have died. They say the cyclone struck more than 2 million people in one way or another.

But who knows the true figures behind this disaster? Who is counting the dead? There have been no major relief operations in the Irrawaddy delta region, let alone official attempts to rescue survivors and recover the dead.

We’re reminded of the 1988 uprising, when about 3,000 activists and students were believed to have been gunned down on the streets, while the regime insisted only a few hundred looters were killed. Twenty years on, the real death toll is still unknown.

Although the true scale of this month’s cyclone disaster is still to be revealed, the regime has issued a bizarre announcement that the first phase of the emergency relief mission is over.

Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein declared: “We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going on to the second phase, the rebuilding stage.” The New Light of Myanmar trumpeted in a headline: “Rehabilitation task goes on with greater momentum.”

The UN reports that its agencies and partners have been able to reach only about 25 percent of the people affected by the cyclone. But how we do know it is 25 percent? And how could the UN provide sustainable assistance to them? Denied visas and access, UN officials have been trying to deliver aid by remote control from Bangkok or Rangoon. And the UN continues to make one concession after another to junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Until now, The New Light of Myanmar, eschewing any informative reports on the plight of the cyclone victims and the impact of the disaster on the region, has been content to carry daily lists of aid and its origin. It paints a rosy picture of how VIPs are “helping” the victims and claims the situation is returning to “normal.”

Normal? Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must have wished it only were so, after Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win told them at a ministerial meeting in Singapore that his country needed US $11.7 billion for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan, Asean’s secretary-general, spoke for many when he cautioned, after a visit to Rangoon: “How do we know it’s $11 billion? How can we be certain?”

Surin said: “Accessibility is important to guarantee confidence and verify the damage and needs, otherwise confidence during pledging will be affected.”

Ahead of a donor conference in Rangoon on Sunday, Human Rights Watch warned donors that before they committed themselves to reconstruction projects they should obtain a commitment from the regime to make a significant contribution of its own. So far the regime has committed US $4.4 million (5 billion kyats)—hardly “significant” from a government that holds an estimated $4 billion in foreign reserves and is thought to collect $150 million monthly in revenues from gas exports.

Burma specialist Sean Turnell, of Macquarie University in Australia, posed the question: where is all that money sitting? And he came up with the answer: “What we do know is that it’s sitting somewhere where Burmese people can’t get access to it.”

Turnell added: “Either it’s sitting offshore or it’s sitting in the accounts of the Myanmar [Burma] Foreign Trade Bank or the Central Bank. But it looks like it’s only accessible by Than Shwe and perhaps one or two others; it’s not being used for the benefit of the Burmese people, which of course is critical at the moment. This sort of money can do an enormous amount with regard to the cyclone disaster, but it seems to be deliberately withheld.”

Meanwhile, aid is trickling into Burma, at least at Rangoon’s international airport—and at least here the facts are being meticulously recorded.

A regime report on Thursday listed the latest arrivals at Rangoon airport: “AN-12 flight carrying 17.12 tons of office equipment, generators, tarpaulin and racks donated by WFP, four C -130 flights carrying about 20 tons of plywood, water bottles, blankets, plastic, nylon ropes, hammers and nails donated by the United State of America, Y 7-100 flight carrying 3 tons of medicines for Laos medical team from Lao PDR, A- 300 flight carrying over 22 tons of foods, cables, medicines and medical equipments donated by KOICA of the Republic of Korea, IL-76 carrying 35.75 tons of water purifiers and related equipment, medicines, tents, foods and plastic donated by Doctors Without Borders of Belgium and IL-76 flight carrying 59.64 tons of construction material and tarpaulin donated by IFRC.”

Laura Bush, a strong advocate of Burma’s democracy movement, stepped in with some numbers, too. The First Lady told Voice of America: “The United States has been very active in trying to help. I think so far about 40 C-130s have landed in Rangoon with supplies for the people of Burma.”

The impressive numbers of US relief flights to Rangoon also present accounting problems for Lt-Col Douglas Powell, spokesman for the US relief mission at Thailand’s Utapao air base. “I think we have 36 flights so far,” he said. “Oh… wait a minute, let me check my notebook. Err…we now have 41 flights so far.”

The US has also offered dozens of CH-47 helicopters and amphibious vehicles to deliver aid and supplies, but the regime is uninterested.

A particularly heartrending statistic is the number of children who died or lost their parents in the cyclone. But even here the numbers are vague.

UNICEF estimates that 40 percent of those who died in the cyclone and its aftermath were children. Ramesh Shrestha, UNICEF’s representative in Burma, said the number of children left without guardians is more than 600 and could rise.

Shrestha admitted to The Associated Press: “We have no idea as to how many there are, but from the bits and pieces that we have, there are more than 600 or 700 unaccompanied minors so far.”

A volunteer relief worker in the Irrawaddy delta estimated that more than 1,000 children under the age of 13 in Laputta Township alone lost their parents in the cyclone. The British-based charity Save the Children estimates that 30,000 children under the age of five living in the Irrawaddy delta region were already malnourished before the cyclone and warns that thousands of them now face death from starvation.

The numbers game continues on Saturday, when the regime resumes its constitutional referendum in the cyclone-hit areas. We can expect ludicrously inflated numbers again, probably matching the statistics dreamed up by the junta after the first session of voting on May 10.

Aung Toe, head of the Referendum Holding Committee, said that in the May 10 voting the draft constitution was approved by 92.4 percent of the 22 million eligible voters, and he put the voter turnout at more than 99 percent.

The constitution will guarantee 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and promises the construction of a “modern, developed and flourishing disciplinary democracy.”

Aung Toe said a further 5 million citizens are eligible to vote on May 24 in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta, the region worst hit by the cyclone.

One cyclone survivor Kyi Hla, a 65-year-old grandmother, lost 12 members of her family, including her grandchildren. She is now reunited with three of her sons and five daughters-in-law, while the rest of her family perished in the cyclone and its tidal wave.

She related her remarkable survival story in Laputta to an undercover reporter from The Irrawaddy magazine—and, unlike the improbable statistics the regime plucks out of thin air, the numbers contained in her story ring with the deafening resonance of truth.