Nargis can’t be exaggerated

Among the many responses to the unconscionable blockading of humanitarian assistance to victims of the cyclone that swept through Burma on May 10, perhaps the strangest, if not the most offensive, have been claims that journalists, diplomats and aid workers have exaggerated the death toll.

These sorts of charges invariably come up when large numbers of people are killed, disappeared or displaced. They have their origins sometimes in misunderstanding of what really goes on during crises of this sort, sometimes in enmity towards human rights or humanitarian goals. In any case, that they have come up again in the wretched aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is particularly odd.

Take an article that David Rieff wrote for the Los Angeles Times (Save us from the rescuers, May 18). For Rieff, exaggerated reports are all about numbers. And not just high numbers for that matter, but pretty much any numbers. If the numbers jump up suddenly, he reasons, they’re suspect. But even if they don’t, they’re still suspect, because those who make them up are prone to hyperbole and have vested interests.

What Rieff omits is that those ultimately responsible for the making of numbers, those who are most prone to hyperbole and those with the biggest vested interests are not the relief agencies against whom he rails or their proponents but the national authorities who obstruct the making of accurate tallies with which to obtain a better picture of what needs to be done.

Burma’s government is particularly notorious for this sort of behavior, not least of all since the cyclone hit and the army carried or sold off the first planeloads of stuff that arrived. But it is by no means alone in Asia in its ability to manipulate and distort a tragedy for its own advantage.

This holds true both when exploiting natural disasters and also when designing manmade ones. Nobody, for instance, can ever say with any certainty as to how many people were killed for supposedly belonging to the communist party in Indonesia in 1965-66. The estimates vary enormously, although most start in the hundreds of thousands, and many run to over 1 million.

Likewise, on a lesser scale but more recently, no one knows how many people were killed for allegedly selling drugs in Thailand in 2003. There, the numbers start in the hundreds and run into the thousands. Not one police or government officer has ever been held to account over their murders.

In neither case has the inability to produce reliable totals been a fault of human rights bodies or victims’ advocates, nor has it been happenstance. On the contrary, it has at once been the fault and the success of government officials and others who have contrived to make it so. It has been their fault and their success that bodies have not been identified, records have not been kept and evidence has not been stored. It has been their fault and their success that hospitals have not done autopsies, police have not investigated and courts have not inquired.

Ultimately, it is the fault and success of the powerful that the truth of what has happened can never be known fully, that attempts to make sense of it by assigning numbers can be all too easily dismissed as exaggerated or inaccurate, and that those persons searching for answers can be ridiculed and silenced.

The issue for Burma today is not about numbers at all. It is about the language and behavior of social and political control, as it always is at such times. Those who make the mistake of wagging their fingers at the wrong people over the wrong issue do more than disservice themselves. They risk winding up like Rieff, as proxies for the holders of power, as spokespersons for the perpetrators of abuse.

Anyone who sincerely wants to get a sense of what has been going on in Burma should not bother with arguments about how many have died and how we can know for sure that humanitarian groups haven’t got it wrong. Learn from real stories instead. Websites like The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and Democratic Voice of Burma are daily retelling narratives of affected persons and also of those who have been packing their cars with supplies and driving them through the gauntlet of checkpoints that now ring the cyclone-affected areas.

These people aren’t giving accurate numbers of dead, killed, missing, sick or displaced. Some hazard guesses when prompted. But the way they offer up the figures suggests that they mean little. What counts is everything else: the odor of dead bodies still permeating the air two weeks on; the emptiness of mothers who have gone insane after witnessing their children being swept away before their eyes, the desperateness of people literally throwing themselves at arriving vehicles to plead for help.

“It is,” wrote a resident of Rangoon who joined one convoy a few days back, “worse than we expected.” No, Nargis hasn’t been exaggerated. It has been understated.

Source: Nargis can’t be exaggerated


4 responses to “Nargis can’t be exaggerated

  1. Myanmar villagers scavenge for rotten rice

    In Yawar Thar Yar, which has received no aid shipments since the cyclone hit, residents are reduced to hunting bits of food in mud littered with corpses.

    By a Times Staff Writer, May 28, 2008, Los Angeles Times

    YAWAR THAR YAR, MYANMAR — The search for food begins just after dawn.

    Each day, men, women and children fan out into paddies flooded by seawater, littered with corpses. Like prospectors working claims, they scoop up the muck in their bare hands and finger through it for grains of unmilled rice swept away by the cyclone.

    When their luck is good, they discover red chile peppers or small onions in mud reeking of the dead. Then, they can have condiments with their next meal of rotten rice and coconut meat.

    For more than three weeks now, the 149 survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis in this village have been living like stranded scavengers among the ruins of their own homes and the decomposing remains of their relatives. Ninety-one of them died in the storm.

    Myanmar’s military government, which has a relief hub just 10 miles north in the town of Bogalay, has not delivered aid to scores of remote villages like this across some of the most devastated areas of the Irrawaddy River delta. For now, the villagers’ only hope is goods that arrive from time to time in an underground supply chain operated by Buddhist monks in Bogalay, who are defying the ban on private relief operations in the delta.

    Monks say the government has loaded some of the villagers into trucks and shipped them off to work on forced labor projects.

    Those who remain, once proudly self-sufficient rice farmers, have become desperate hunter-gatherers, scrounging in the dirt and debris.

    “Now the only job for everyone in the village is searching for something to eat,” said Ko Sein Lwin, 45, who before the cyclone hit was able to keep three daughters in a university, at $500 each per year.

    “We’re starting out life again, not from the first step, but from zero,” he added grimly. “It’s like going back to the Stone Age.”

    The death toll has continued to rise, to an official count of about 78,000, as this Southeast Asian nation struggles with the effects of the May 2-3 storm. An additional 56,000 people are missing.

    United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Senior Gen. Than Shwe had assured him Friday that relief workers from any country would be welcome. But the regime has made no announcement itself.

    It has said it needs $11 billion for reconstruction. But about 50 donor nations, including the United States, have made firm commitments for only $100 million, in part because of widespread distrust of the generals.

    As the government tried to coax more aid from donors Sunday at a conference in Yangon, the country’s principal city, Buddhist monks in Bogalay were secretly organizing six boats to carry out their next unauthorized relief mission.

    After evicting thousands of people from Bogalay’s relief camps, the government is trying to cut off the monks’ aid to delta villages, said a local abbot, who is a leader of the underground effort.

    He spoke on condition he not be named, fearing military reprisals against him and the relief operation, which thousands of survivors in remote villagers are depending on for support.

    When they can, the monks gather donations secretly because authorities insist that all aid must be channeled through the military. On May 19, when private donors tried to deliver a few truckloads of supplies to the abbot’s monastery, security forces attempted to turn them back.

    “All the soldiers and police locked arms and blocked the street in front of our monastery,” he said, as a military helicopter hovered before landing across the river. “The driver panicked, so I pulled him out and drove myself, shouting through a loudspeaker, ‘Get out of the way or I’ll hit you with the truck!’ ”

    The abbot showed video, which he said a colleague shot with a camera hidden under his maroon robes, to support claims that the military is evicting cyclone survivors from private relief camps.

    In one video, a soldier slaps an elderly woman in the face with a paper listing the names of the expelled. She was pleading for permission to stay in a Hindu temple over the weekend, the monk said. It was the last of several private relief camps operating before authorities closed it, he said.

    “Most of these refugees are not educated,” said the abbot, trying to explain the soldiers’ disdain for the villagers. “They don’t even know how to sign their names. They just use fingerprints. So the military thinks they’re not human.”

    The evictions have resulted in a number of deaths, the abbot said. Dozens of survivors died May 18 when three riverboats capsized in a storm as they were heading back to villages flattened by the cyclone, he said.

    Military officers told those returning to their destroyed villages to sign forms that said they were doing so willingly, the abbot said.

    Soldiers herded thousands more onto trucks to be taken north to Mo Oo Pin, where they are being forced to make jute and do roadwork for less than $1 a day, the abbot said.

    He said some of the laborers had made their way back into Bogalay under cover of darkness to ask the monks for food.

    In another video, people who look scared and speechless, some crying, are loaded onto a large military truck in front of a monastery as an army officer with stars on his epaulets supervises. Two other soldiers stand nearby, apparently compiling lists of the storm survivors’ names.

    The U.N., the U.S. State Department and human rights groups have long accused the military regime that rules Myanmar, also called Burma, of using forced labor for road building and other projects. Activists who speak out against forced labor are routinely jailed.

    The abbot said 36 monks are running the underground relief effort, along with 10 volunteer doctors and 20 village navigators who help them maneuver through the delta’s network of rivers and canals to elude patrol boats and reach isolated villages.

    “We’re preparing for a confrontation,” the monk said. “If they try to close us down, we’re prepared to fight.”

    Echoing accusations made in other parts of the disaster zone in recent days, the monk said local authorities were providing barely enough basic food for storm victims to survive, while hoarding the rest for profit.

    “They are selling the most valuable things to businessmen in Chinatown,” he charged.

    Sein Lwin’s village is half an hour’s walk from the closest river, so the monks’ boats, and other unauthorized relief operations, don’t reach it.

    When the boats make their quick stops with aid at a nearby village, Sein Lwin and his neighbors must ask for a share of the fresh supplies. They make do with what other destitute survivors are willing to give up, usually just 2 cups of rice per person each day.

    Cash savings disappeared in the cyclone-driven surge of waves at least 8 feet high that raced through the village. Gaping holes in Sein Lwin’s roof are patched up with pieces of tarp that he dragged from the river as they floated past after the storm.

    The cyclone smashed a brick and cinder-block primary school to rubble. All of the books are gone, and no one has heard from the teachers, who live in Bogalay and were scheduled to start classes again on June 1 for 80 students.

    Many of Sein Lwin’s neighbors have rashes from washing in filthy water. Eight adults in the next village have diarrhea.

    So far, they’re coping with antibiotics, but villagers said they fear health problems will get worse the longer they live in such primitive conditions.

    When a visitor asked why the regime would refuse to help so many people like him, Sein Lwin stared blankly ahead. More than 20 villagers in the room with him sat in uncomfortable silence. They were afraid to speak their minds.

  2. This post has reminded me an article I read recently in London Review of Books ( written by Hugh Pennington, a British epidemiologist. Pennington argues that the threat of diseases in the aftermath of the cyclone has been overplayed. Using statistical data, Pennington claims that, against common ideas, diseases rarely follow disasters of this kind and refutes the idea that the unburied are a significant source of disease. I have no idea about epidemics and I assume these arguments are right. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the WHO warnings are more related to the lack of clean water, shelters, food and health care than to the unburied corpses. And I can’t help asking myself in how many of all the disasters considered by Mr. Pennington the responsible Government acted with such criminal negligence, leaving to their own fate hundreds of thousands during weeks in a wasted land.

    Thank you very much for your answer and the links to my last comment and, of course, for your excellent blog.

  3. Pingback: Burma opinions

  4. My friends in Burma, and those helping from the Thailand side, have told me that they feel the numbers of the dead and missing in the media are lower than they think the real numbers will show in time. I know that over 130,000 have died and that is what I tell people when i speak in public here in the United States. China’s earthquake got much more media coverage, that lasted longer, than Burma’s Cyclone even though 3 times as many people have died. We need to keep the worlds attention focused on Burma. This is the only way things will change for the better. Jack Slade

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