From Cyclone Nargis to COVID-19, Myanmar has come a long way

The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has its flaws, but is heartening for those who remember the military junta’s callous response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008.


MAY 2 marks the 12th anniversary of the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history, when Cyclone Nargis roared out of the Bay of Bengal and devastated much of the Ayeyarwady Delta, killing at least 138,000 people.

Myanmar was a military dictatorship when Nargis struck and some are discussing the difference between the junta’s response to that disaster and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic by the elected National League for Democracy government.

You would expect an elected government to respond to a natural disaster or pandemic very differently to a military junta, but a look back at the 2008 cyclone is a reminder of how far things have come.

Any discussion of Cyclone Nargis should mention the late U Tun Lwin, an eminent weather forecaster who in 2008 was director-general of the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology. Tun Lwin knew that a cyclone was developing in the Bay of Bengal but was constrained by the military bureaucracy from issuing an advance warning.

Concerned about the potential devastation that could be unleashed by the cyclone, Tun Lwin sent a series of updates to the personal assistant of junta chief Senior General Than Shwe and telephoned several senior officials to issue warnings, he said in subsequent interviews.

However, the authorities did not take Tun Lwin’s warnings seriously and the suppression of information about the imminent threat posed by the cyclone meant there was a lack of preparation when it hit.

Figures released by the military government said that as well as killing about 140,000 people, Nargis left about 20,000 injured, destroyed about 700,000 houses and directly or indirectly affected about 11 million people, in Ayeyarwady Region and parts of Yangon Region. Many consider the real figures to have been higher.

If the military government had responded more seriously to the warnings about the cyclone and alerted the people and taken precautionary measures, thousands of lives may have been saved.

The junta was also criticised for closing all roads from Yangon to Ayeyarwady, partly to impose a news blackout. Journalists risked arrest if they went to cyclone-affected areas to report on the situation. The junta was also initially reluctant to accept offers of foreign aid and when it changed its mind, the aid had to be delivered to Yangon for distribution by the Tatmadaw.

There was an outpouring of support from the people across Myanmar, who wanted to do as much as they could to help their dying and traumatised compatriots. Donations of food and other necessities from throughout the country were transported to Ayeyarwady by truck and boat. However, the public response discomfited the junta, which eventually banned the convoys of aid donations.

In late May, a convoy of aid trucks that had travelled from Yangon’s outer western Hlaing Tharyar Township to the eastern Ayeyarwady towns of Dedaye and Kungyangon was stopped at Hlaing Tharyar on its return and the vehicles were confiscated and taken to the Government Technical Institute compound in Insein Township. The owners and drivers of the trucks were forced to sign an agreement not to return to Ayeyarwady and also had to pay a fine, after which the vehicles were returned. The dictators seemed determined to deter kind and compassionate acts of support for cyclone survivors.

There has been a very different response from the elected government to the novel coronavirus that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Even before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, the government introduced some precautionary measures and sought to raise awareness among the people.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the elected government, has taken the lead in the response to COVID-19 and has communicated with the public in a steady flow of information and guidance, including via her newly created personal Facebook account. The government is also cooperating with the WHO and other international organisations and it is accepting overseas assistance, including material and technical aid from China, which has succeeded in containing the virus.

On March 23, when the number of confirmed patients had risen to nearly 300,000 in 186 countries or territories, the first confirmed cases were reported in Myanmar, in two people who had returned from abroad. The government responded by stepping up prevention measures, establishing an emergency response fund and accepting donations from the rich and the general public.

There have been some weaknesses in managing the situation, including the sudden return in late March of thousands of migrant workers from COVID-19-affected Thailand. Because the government had not expected it, minimal preparations were made. Quarantine facilities were not yet ready to receive the returning migrants, and most of them were ordered to self-quarantine at home for two weeks after returning to their villages, which local authorities have struggled to enforce.

As a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, the government, in common with many governments around the world, has advised people to self-isolate at home. Staying at home will hurt people at the grassroots, so the government has arranged for them to receive free handouts of rice, cooking oil, beans, and other foodstuffs during the April 10-19 Thingyan holiday. The government has negotiated reduced rates for phone users with telecommunication companies, and has also given everyone connected to the electricity grid a K11,500 discount on their power bill for the month of April.

More and more people are complying with instructions issued by the government to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some wealthy people are donating medical equipment worth millions of dollars. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are donating the K11,500 exempted from their power bills and are giving basic food commodities to the poor.

The biggest difference in the the elected government’s response to COVID-19 and the military junta’s response to Cyclone Nargis is the attitude shown to the people. The military dictatorship treated the people as the enemy, as happened many times during more than five decades of military rule. If Myanmar was still a military dictatorship, the people would be in an unthinkably desperate situation because of COVID-19. They can find relief in the fact that it is being managed by an elected government, which derives its power from the people and is there to serve them.

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