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Burma (Myanmar) Disaster Diplomacy

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Burma (Myanmar) Disaster Diplomacy

Cyclone Nargis (3 May 2008)


  • 2-3 May 2008. Cyclone Nargis strikes Burma. Despite approximately 48 hours of warning given to Burmese authories, little preparations seem to have been completed. The initial death toll is put at 351.

  • 5 May 2008. The Burmese government states that the death toll is 10,000 and requests international assistance.

  • 6 May 2008. As the first international aid begins to arrive, the Burmese government states that the death toll is over 22,000 but some agencies still complain about difficulties in getting Burmese cooperation to send supplies.

  • 7 May 2008. The United Nations states that its planes loaded with relief supplies do not have clearance to land in Burma. Meanwhile, Burma has declined offers of aid from the U.S. navy. Reports start to come back from aid workers in the worst-hit areas describing immense needs.

  • 8 May 2008. The first United Nations plane with aid lands in Burma amidst confusion about permission for American planes to fly in.

  • 9 May 2008. Burma says that it needs international aid, but not international aid workers, and then is accused of impounding the aid delivered by the United Nations, a charge which the government denies.

  • 10 May 2008. The referendum proceeds across most of the country. Some aid arrives overland, with accusations that the government generals are taking credit for some of the aid by putting their names on the boxes.

  • 11 May 2008. A Red Cross boat carrying aid sinks on the way to the Irrawaddy Delta, although all crew members survive. The official death toll rises above 28,000.

  • 12 May 2008. The first American aid plane lands in Burma.

  • 15 May 2008. Burma's government announces the referendum results: with an voter turnout in excess of 99%, 92.4% voted in favour of the government's plans for a new constitution. A useful quotation from an unnamed foreign diplomat is that "If you just remove the people whose transport broke down on the way to the polling station, or who were sick that day, you'd be under 99 per cent".

  • 19 May 2008. Burma's leader General Than Shwe visits the worst-affected areas for the first time. After an ASEAN meeting, ASEAN's Secretary-General says that Burma will permit ASEAN to co-ordinate international relief.

  • 20 May 2008. As Burma's leader tours the disaster-hit areas for a second day, Burma declares three days of national mourning for those killed or missing in the disaster. National flags in Rangoon fly at half-mast.

  • 22-23 May 2008. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visits the devastated areas and holds talks with Burma's leaders. Burma's leaders announce that all international aid workers are permitted to enter Burma while aid will be accepted from civilian ships. The official death toll stands at 78,000 with 56,000 people still missing. Burma also publicly thanks foreign medical workers who have been assisting in the disaster zone.

  • 25 May 2008. An international conference in Rangoon attended by 52 countries pledges aid to Burma as Burma's Prime Minister tells the conference that international aid will be accepted with "no strings attached". Burma also asks for $11 billion to rebuild. Speculation mounts about whether or not the house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi, which expires on 27 May, will be renewed.

  • 27 May 2008. Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest is extended for another year.

Since the end of May 2008, significant political developments have occurred in Burma and with respect to Burma's international relations. Tracing these changes back to Cyclone Nargis or implying a direct cause and effect is tenuous at best. Nonetheless, deeper analysis is required to determine how the connections made due to Cyclone Nargis might or might not have influenced subsequent changes in Burma, within the context of all other factors.


  • 3 May 2008. Christopher Smith writes for Mizzima, comparing post-tsunami Aceh with post-cyclone Burma:
              ...there is scant evidence for optimism in the devastation of Cyclone Nargis proving the memorable catalyst of a solution to Burma's ills."
              Burma's political conflict is stalemated. While the concessions demanded to jumpstart dialogue by the parties concerned are not synonymous with what occurred between GAM and Jakarta, the vital point is that concessions will be required of all parties.
              What demands and positions will Burma's political opposition and military rulers be willing to forego in the aftermath of Nargis to make dialogue happen? Is it possible that opposition, pro-democracy leaders would serve within the existing, military, government?
              But, just maybe – as with the early ripples of a tsunami far out at sea – the aftermath of Nargis will provide a critical opportunity for members of the military and opposition parties to come together and work toward rebuilding Burma; one small, initial step in the confidence building process. And this, it is hoped, would prove the onset of a working relationship that will one day crash upon the shores of Burma and give birth to a unified and conflict-free Burma.

  • Ben Wisner (4 May 2008):
              The Burmese government seems to have been very poorly prepared. They seem to have no trained relief workers as the reports are that "police and military" are conducting these efforts. I suspect Smith is correct that the military government's performance is not going to win praise among the people of Burma. As a result, if Buddhist monks have mobilized to provide assistance, as often happens in Asian countries, the contrast in response will further work to undermine whatever credibility the junta has left.
              I was also struck by the fact that with so much sophisticated cyclone forecasting technology and warning systems available in the region, apparently no attempt was made to evacuate people from Haing-Gyi Island in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River.
              In terms of disaster diplomacy impacts, there is often a time lag between gross mismanagement and scandal in government disaster response and the eventual major change. Some believe the beginning of the end of its 70 odd year hold on national power for the PRI in Mexico was government mismanagement of the 1985 earthquake. But that didn't manifest itself at the polls until some years later with first, the Mexico City elections, and later the national ones. Likewise the earthquake in Nicaragua did alienate the middle class, who saw how corrupt Somoza was, and they began to support the Sandinistas in various ways, but that was years before final overthrow in 1979.

  • JC Gaillard (5 May 2008)
              My feeling would be that there are some ongoing changes both influenced by internal and external factors. In this context, the present disaster and related relief and rehabilitation/reconstruction activities may have an impact. On the local side, if national authorities fail to provide the victims with appropriate aid, it may indeed increase people's resentment against the junta. But do people vote according to their own opinion or are there other factors influencing individuals' decision? Vote buying, threat, violence, etc., are non-disaster factors which may have a strong influence as well. A way for the disaster to have a sweeping local influence would be to trigger a massive popular upheaval but it seems unlikely in Burma.           On the international side, will the junta continue to refuse the foreign aid? If not, it may be an entry for Western NGOs to the grassroots level which may be important. That happened in post-tsunami Aceh, but Aceh was almost totally closed to foreign organisations before the tsunami and the turning effect was brutal; maybe more than it would be in the case of Burma. Furthermore, even if foreign NGOs are able to conduct grassroots relief and rehabilitation activities, what will be the level of control/influence of Burma's authorities?

  • George Kent (5 May 2008)
              Disaster diplomacy is about what Smith describes as "the concept of natural disasters as paving the road for conflict transformation". We already knew that it can go either way, with disasters sometimes facilitating conflict transformation and sometimes impeding it. Thus, the real question on the table is under what conditions can disasters facilitate conflict transformation? What have we learned about this from the Aceh and Burma experiences? What is the reasoning behind the idea that disasters could pave the road for conflict transformation?

  • Richard Krajeski (5 May 2008):
              The initial time frame of the event has a levelling effect on the population--necessity, scarcity lend themselves to cooperative actions. Those actions can either be built upon for multiple good/justice in the region or they can turn very viciously to exponentially increase the tension that was pre-existing. It is essential that outside resources understand the dynamic and use the opportunity to open discourse/resources between those who were otherwise in conflict. This participatory approach can break prejudicial barriers faster than anything else I have experienced. It creates knowledge among those who were otherwise separate and it allows for change to happen.

  • Guy Sapirstein (6 May 2008)
              It would seem to me that collaboration would best be fostered in the earlier stage (heroism, culminating in cohesion) alongside awareness building that this state of unity will not prevail unless the entire community comes together in the recovery efforts as well as mitigation of future hazards. The early phase, in my experience, is a time where more vulnerable segments of the population (e.g. women, poor) are as important in terms of their contribution to the efforts as traditionally more powerful segments. It is during that early phase that engagement of the vulnerable needs to take place--both in terms of their own sense of agency and in terms of "having a seat at the table"--future collaboration and decision making.
              My own personal bias, being a psychologist, is to engage people based on their psycho-social needs. During and after crisis and disaster those needs can be summarized as: Safety, Predictability and Control. "Transcending two sides of civil conflict" can occur (more easily) when those needs are addressed and met.

  • Ilan Kelman (6 May 2008)
              On 2-3 May, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma killing at least 22,000 people. Two possibilities exist for disaster diplomacy: (i) improved international relations with Burma and (ii) reduced conflict within internal politics.
              Regarding Burma's international relations, the government has invited international humanitarian relief and is opening the country's doors to some degree to permit that aid to arrive and be distributed. It is feasible that the results of this door opening cannot be controlled. Indonesia tried but failed to limit humanitarian intervention in Aceh after the 26 December 2004 tsunami.
              North Korea is an excellent example of the opposite, where the government did fully control the humanitarian relief and the wider impacts of that humanitarian relief. The consequence was that repeated assistance over the past decade from the international community has not (yet?) led to significant long-term diplomatic outcomes. In fact, some have argued that North Korea manipulated the disasters to acquire the assistance they needed by giving false promises and then slamming shut the diplomatic doors after they received needed aid. Others point to ongoing rapprochement and negotiations, with relief intertwined with many other considerations, to show a slow shift in North Korea's stance and a creeping but tangible opening of the country which was precipitated by the disasters (as well as changing global politics).
              Regarding reduced conflict within internal politics, that would almost inevitably mean a collapse of the military junta and an attempt at a return to democracy. There is no doubt that the people of Burma have seen their government fail in permitting this cyclone to become a disaster. That could be the trigger for people to react to the long-term underlying concerns about governance and oppression which were shown in the attempted revolution several months ago. On the other hand, if people are too distracted by the disaster to worry about governance or if they are too used to obeying the government irrespective of the consequences, then the military has the potential of clinging to power and showing their governance through appropriate relief and reconstruction.
              These two aspects of Burma's conflict and disaster situation are, of course intertwined and influence each other. Much will also depend on the final extent of the disaster and the manner in which that is admitted. If the people of Burma or the rest of the world do not know about the reality, such as a death toll much larger than that being reported, then they cannot react to that reality. Yet we are now in a realm of a major catastrophe having been admitted and the final scale of death and destruction should not change people's view of it being a "major catastrophe".
              Also consider the analogy with the Cuba-USA case study for which a disaster in one country led to offers of aid from the other. None of the disasters yielded lasting diplomatic outcomes between the two countries. Even if the USA offers aid to Burma and even if that aid is accepted, there is no particular reason why this situation should be different from Cuba-USA--apart from the scale of the disaster. Similarly, cyclones have struck India and Pakistan, but as with earthquakes, no robust, long-term effect was seen on India-Pakistan relations due to those cyclones. As with Nicaragua's dictator Somoza being destabilised by the 1972 earthquake there--not because the earthquake caused the revolution but because the earthquake catalysed the revolution by exposing the problems with Somoza--the 1970 cyclone which struck (then) East Pakistan killing up to 500,000 people was one fact factor amongst many leading to the successful Bangladesh War of Independence because it further exposed, in a dramatic fashion, all the rumbling grievances and chronic problems which led to consideration of independence.

  • Ben Wisner (7 May 2008) writes The Whole World is Watching? Some thoughts on 'neglected' disasters (46 kb in PDF) for World Vision International.

  • Ben Wisner (8 May 2008):
              As the situation unfolds, there have been two opinions expressed about the delays on the part of the military government to allow in shipments (except from Thailand, India, and China, and now, today, possibly one UN cargo plane) and provide visas for waiting experts. I believe the UN's UNDAC team has gotten 4--all Asian passport holders--approved, but it has another 36 pending!
              One opinion is that the junta doesn't want outsiders around for the referendum, which still hasn't been postponed. The other opinion, expressed by an unnamed foreign expert who was already in country when Nargis hit, is that the government is so centralized and dysfunctional that it is slow at approving everything.
              In either case, this is a politico-administrative disaster heaped on a socio-economic disasters (fragile housing and low levels of preparedness), on top of aa political-ecological disaster (80% mangroves removed to make way for fish and shrimp farms).
              In view of the government's incompetence now nearly a week later, with as many as a million homeless, and as far as I have seen reported very few low-draft boats available to take supplies and medical assistance into the delta zone (Merlin has obtained and converted a luxury river boat!), there seems to be an urgent case for the humanitarian community to assert what the French foreign minister calls the "right to provide aid."
              Labor PM of Australia, Rudd, has said, "don't criticize the Myanmar government" and just work with them and get aid in. If such an approach were working, I'd agree. But the window for saving lives and averting a massive secondary publish health disaster (diarrhoeal diseases, malaria, rat-borne diseases such as typhus) is rapidly shutting.

  • George Kent (8 May 2008)
              Should the world help even if Myanmar doesn't want it? The relevant legal context was discussed in a recent book I edited on Global Obligations for the Right to Food.
              "[In international law,] the discussion is mainly about the rights of the donors to have access to the needy so that their goods and services can be delivered without interference. The argument says needy people have a right to receive assistance if other people offer to provide it. It does not say that the needy have a right to receive certain kinds of assistance, and therefore others have an obligation to provide it. The main concern appears to be with the rights of those who provide the assistance, not the rights of those who need it.
              The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty advanced an argument of this sort in 2001 in its report on The Responsibility to Protect, clarifying guidelines for humanitarian intervention. The approach was highlighted in a UN report on A More Secure World in 2004, a UN declaration in 2005, and again in the G8 Summit in 2006. On April 28, 2006, in Resolution 1674, the UN Security Council again made similar claims, asserting the right of the international community to provide protection to people whose human rights were being violated. It acknowledged that at least under some circumstances the international community has a responsibility to provide such protection, but this responsibility has not been spelled out. ...
              The assertion of a right to intervene with no counterpart obligation to intervene under some circumstances implicitly invites the politicization of intervention decisions. Those who intervene within nations on humanitarian grounds should not be free to choose who and when they help. . . . There should be recognition of obligations, and not only rights, on the part of those who would intervene.
              It is not surprising that the donors and protectors tend to emphasize their rights rather than their obligations. However, one would think that if the powerful are going to claim a right to assist under some conditions, they should also have an obligation to assist under some conditions."
              The dangers of powerful countries claiming the right to help as they please is demonstrated with glaring clarity in Iraq. Forcible intervention anywhere should be decided multilaterally, in the Security Council, and not by single nations acting on their own authority. We should be cautious about encouraging powerful countries to act as they please.
              Apart from the legal considerations, the unfolding situation in Myanmar shows that [United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs] John Holmes is correct. The regime there is in fact relenting and allowing assistance to come in.

  • Martin, M.F. and R. Margesson. 2008 (9 May). Cyclone Nargis and Burma’s Constitutional Referendum, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

  • Ben Wisner (10 May 2008):
              After seven days, clearly a large number of the approximately 1.5-2 million affected people are managing minimally to meet their needs in some way. This suggests two very important lines of research in the future if there is opportunity. Both have important implications for policy aimed at reinforcing resilience and preparedness.
              The first is to investigate precisely how a stratified random sample of those affected have managed to meet their needs -- how much stored food has been recovered and used even if in damaged and less palatable form? What local innovations have attempted to purify drinking water? How many health workers and first aiders among those affected have remained active? How much has been salvaged from damaged health posts and hospitals (the WHO map of health facilities in the delta region shows a very large number). How are the needs of pregnant women, the frail elderly, people already ill or even hospitalized before the cyclone, and small children being met? How are orphans or children separated from their families being cared for? How much local rescue and recovery of farm animals is taking place?
              Without minimizing the urgency of getting outside aid in and also the importance of outside logistics and other specialists' permission to organize delivery of aid and other immediate assistance, there are undoubtedly spontaneous, local efforts going on. They can tell researchers a lot about how communities can best prepare themselves for future instances when aid is delayed. We should recall that aid was also delayed in the case of Hurricane Katrina, and that authorities in San Francisco advise residents to be prepared for self-assistance for a long as 96 hours in the case of the "big one" (large earthquake).
              The second line of research is whether and how unaffected Burmese in other parts of the country are attempting to get assistance to the affected delta. It would be very surprising if this is not occurring but so far there have been no reports covering this aspect of volunteerism inside the country. There must be kinship relations that link affected and unaffected people. Even absent direct kinship, spontaneous assistance from unaffected parts of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia were remarked after the Asian tsunami.
              News this morning of UNHCR's successful overland shipment of aid from Thailand is encouraging. It may be that we will learn in the future of more aid arriving overland (by truck/lorry) and from upstream by boat -- assistance provided by the Burmese people themselves.

  • Ilan Kelman (11 May 2008)
              From a disaster diplomacy perspective, post-cyclone Burma has so far not had much impact on the politics, internal or external.
              Regarding internal politics, the media were generally reporting that Burmese were voting "yes" in the referendum because they were too scared to consider otherwise. Reports are emerging of widespread dissatisfaction with the government including open criticism, but not (yet?) of revolutionary rumblings on the basis of the cyclone.
              Three considerations temper these observations. First, the media in Burma are highly controlled. What is reported is not necessarily what is happening, so a credible picture cannot necessarily be formulated. For example, little has been heard from Burma's opposition yet they must have views of the cyclone and the referendum. Second, quite fairly, the first priority must be dealing with the disaster and that has not yet happened particularly well. Afterwards, other considerations might become more prominent. Third, no reason exists why an immediate change should happen. Sometimes, awareness of how to change politically takes time. Cyclone Nargis could fade in the memories of those not directly affected or hindsight will identify it as the trigger which led to the overthrow, violent or otherwise, of the military junta.
              Regarding Burma's international relations, a struggle is going on between the Burmese government's desire to keep the country closed and the obvious need for post-disaster external assistance. From the limited information available, the debate appears to be petty and ridiculous and is likely killing people who have already suffered immensely from the cyclone. Will the world finally be goaded into action, legal or illegal, against the military junta? Or, unlike some other cases, will national sovereignty be respected and the Burmese government permitted to continue operating its oppression as before? The latter seems much more likely due to the lack of self-interest in bringing down the Burmese government.
              Yet the cyclone might still end up opening the door a crack which permits a slower opening of the country over the coming months and years. Of particular interest could be "disaster para-diplomacy", the possibility of Burmese people seeking or accepting aid from people, organisations, and governments without going through Burma's government. Alternatively, the door to Burma might yet again slam shut once the world's interest has drifted away from Cyclone Nargis' impact.

  • Kelman, I. 2008. "Burma and China Disaster Diplomacy". Disaster and Social Crisis Research Network Electronic Newsletter, no. 34 (April-June), pp. 2-3, full text (11 kb in PDF).

  • Stover, E. and P. Vinck. 2008 (August 13). "Cyclone Nargis and the Politics of Relief and Reconstruction Aid in Burma (Myanmar)". JAMA, vol. 300, no. 6, pp. 729-731.

  • Selth, A. 2008. "Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Cyclone Nargis and Myanmar's Fears of Invasion". Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 379-402.

  • Kivimäki, T. and M.B. Pedersen. 2008. Burma: Mapping The Challenges and Opportunities For Dialogue and Reconciliation. Martti Ahtisaari Rapid Reaction Facility, Crisis Management Initiative, Brussels, Belgium.

  • Honda, M. 2009 (October). Natural Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance in Asia: The Case of Myanmar. Working Paper 2009-E-4, Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration (GIARI), Waseda University Global COE Program, Tokyo, Japan.

  • Alles, P. 2012. "Depoliticizing Natural Disasters to Enhance Human Security in a Sovereignty-Based Context: Lessons from Aceh (2004) to Yangon (2008)". Chapter 8, pp. 157-172 in B.C.G. Teh (ed.), Human Security: Securing East Asia’s Future, Springer, Dordrecht, Germany.

  • Kovach, T. 2013 (April 19). The Politics of Disaster Response: Disaster Diplomacy and the Responsibility to Protect after Cyclone Nargis. Completed for American University School of International Service, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., full text (121 kb in PDF).

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