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