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Burma's Cyclone: The Tipping Point?

Dead bodies after cyclone

A whole family is laid on the ground, killed after cyclone Nargis struck the township of Bogalay, in one of the hardest hit regions in Burma. Photo: European Press Agency.

As heavy rains continue to batter survivors of the cyclone that slammed into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region, the International Red Cross and the United Nations estimate the death toll as high as 120,000 people, with 2.5 million in urgent need of food, shelter and medical aid. Burma's military government -- which has been reluctant to allow international relief workers into the country -- acknowledges some 78,000 deaths.

This week, over a crackling cell phone, I reached our FRONTLINE/World correspondent in Burma. Like many journalists working under the military junta, he prefers to remain anonymous. He was staying in a hotel in downtown Rangoon when Cyclone Nargis struck May 3. The hotel staff, he says, warned that a storm was coming, but the government-controlled media never passed along warnings to the tens of thousands who could have sought higher ground.

"Like most people I went to bed that night without a clue of what was really in store," he tells me. "I made plans to meet someone for tea in the morning. Hours later, people outside were hanging on to palm trees and being sliced in half by corrugated metal."

He thinks the generals who have run Burma (Myanmar) with an iron fist since 1962 were more interested in their May 10 referendum on a new constitution than the approaching storm. Fourteen years in the making, the constitutional referendum was widely viewed as a rubber stamp to legitimize the junta.

While traveling around the country to assess the political impact of the cyclone, our correspondent spoke with Burmese who are part of an underground movement against the regime. He found dissidents hopeful that the regime's terrible mishandling of the storm's aftermath might be the tipping point that brings down the generals.

"Like most people I went to bed that night without a clue of what was really in store," he tells me. "Hours later, people outside were hanging on to palm trees and being sliced in half by corrugated metal."

There is talk, he says, that a showdown with the regime -- similar to the street demonstrations by Buddhist monks last September, which captivated the world's attention -- could come this summer.

JOE RUBIN: What was it like when the cyclone hit?

JOURNALIST IN BURMA: The window to our hotel room broke, and we heard crashing sounds all through the night. I couldn't help but think about the people who live in ramshackle housing. I dare say the majority of people in Burma live in housing that wouldn't withstand a storm like this. I kept thinking, Certainly there's got to be an eye to the storm; it'll stop after an hour or two. Instead, it just kept coming until dawn.

The government must have had the same information about this big storm that other countries and weather forecasters had. Why didn't they warn people? Was it simply incompetence?

I think they were too busy preparing for this referendum. It took them 14 years to draft this constitution, which was supposed to include all opposing voices. Instead, they excluded those voices. The vote was scheduled to take place on May 10, and in fact, despite the cyclone, they did go forward with it in other parts of the country this past weekend.

There have been many accounts of the Burmese government being slow to accept aid and refusing to grant visas to relief workers from other countries. Have you met people who are frustrated with the international community for not finding a way to get in faster?

No, the disappointment that everyone has expressed has been in the generals, not in the international community. Everyone we've spoken with has said, "Why don't they let the aid and the aid workers come?" These people need it so badly. Many nations are queuing up, willing to come in with aid, expertise and assistance. Why are the generals dragging their feet? Why are they being so slow about this, and in fact, even rejecting professional assistance and expertise from people who traditionally deal with disasters like this?

Junta leader voting.

Burma's leader General Than Shwe casts his vote in the referendum on a new constitution on May 10. The vote went ahead despite international appeals to delay the referendum to concentrate on emergency relief following the devastating cyclone. Photo: European Press Agency.

Well, of course, it's not in the generals' interests to let aid groups in, for the simple reason that the generals would look ridiculous by comparison. Two days after the storm hit, the national television station was broadcasting pictures of generals standing around, distributing boxes to people, while Muzak played in the background.

Have you talked to people active in the underground movement against the government?

Yes, I've talked to monks. I've talked to student activists and to underground activists who were heavily engaged during the September [2007] uprising and have remained so in the months since. They were diverted from their underground political activity to help their families rebuild homes. Now, they are assessing the gravity of the situation, driving around the city and trying to figure out how the impact of the storm might give rise to some sort of new uprising, which they had originally hoped would coincide with the referendum effort. Despite the tragedy of the cyclone, they're hopeful that this might be the turning point where people are so fed up they take to the streets.

So you've spoken with people who are active in the opposition since the storm?

Absolutely. They've pretty much unanimously said, "We are deeply angered by what's happened. We are deeply saddened, first for all the victims; then, we are deeply, deeply angered by the government's lack of genuine response." Perhaps the storm might end up being the real referendum on whether this military government should stay or go.

How risky is it to do this kind of reporting in Burma?

It's dangerous to talk openly to anybody because there are so many government informants. We had military intelligence outside our hotel watching us. Our guide pointed him out, and it was indeed very obvious. Everywhere we went there were those sorts of people around.

They've pretty much unanimously said, "We are deeply angered by what's happened. We are deeply saddened, first for all the victims; then, we are deeply, deeply angered by the government's lack of genuine response."

You're sitting in a teashop or in a restaurant, and all of a sudden somebody's staring at you. You become hypertense -- you realize that the people you're talking with are in great danger if they say something or do something that could land them in a heap of trouble. For us, it wouldn't be such a terrible thing -- we would be deported, but for them, it would be terrible.

After experiencing the cyclone in Rangoon, you traveled inland to the city of Mandalay to witness the voting. What did you see?

The only real hoopla around the referendum effort was from government employees, who were obviously told to get on trucks, buses, and ride around the city playing patriotic music. When it came to referendum day, we drove all around. We didn't see a lot of people queuing up to vote, but people told us that they all voted "no." They saw it as an opportunity to have some small say in a process that they don't believe in anyway. At least, people said, they took that opportunity, and it made them feel a bit better to vote against the junta.

It sounds like the government put a lot of resources into the vote.

Yes. On the state-run TV, they didn't lead with the cyclone story for the past several days. They led with the referendum story, and then, 15 minutes into a broadcast, finally, you'd get some pictures of generals doling out aid. They have been downplaying the seriousness of the crisis and the loss of life.

Joe Rubin is a reporter and video producer and a longtime contributor to FRONTLINE/World's broadcasts and website.

Related Stories

Burma: No Turning Back
Our contributor was in Rangoon on September 27th, the day that the Burmese military violently cracked down on unarmed democracy protesters. He was the only Western journalist in the middle of the crowds that day. Watch his dramatic video footage and read his account.

Burma: State of Fear
Watch our report from October 2006, when FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams travels undercover to Burma to expose the violence and repression carried out by Burma's government against its own people.


Marcia Seale - Wappingers Falls, ny
What would Jesus do? I can not believe that killing people will help but how can the world's governments, separately or together, or the citizens of the world join together to replace the many vicious rulers in countries like Burma? But isn't that why we have the UN?