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Myanmar 101

This week’s Bluffer’s Guide is by yours truly, about the crisis in Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis.

I was actually responsible for the entire Seven Days page this week, replacing the vacationing Peter Cooney. So I ended up filing the story to myself (literally, in that I emailed it to my work address from home).

For those who don’t subscribe to the paper, Seven Days also includes a summary of headlines from the week, quotes from each day, editorial cartoons from papers around the world (this week it’s all about Myanmar’s reluctance to accept aid and its decision to keep on with a constitutional referendum to give its governing junta more power) and a few items from this week in history (it was 15 years ago this week, for example, that the Expos retired their first jersey, No. 10 Rusty Staub)

No online link for the bluffer’s guide, so I’ve included it below:

So, what happened? On May 2, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in Myanmar, and became the deadliest natural disaster in the country’s history, killing tens of thousands. International relief efforts have been stymied by the government’s reluctance to issue visas.

Wait, wasn’t that Burma? Yeah, it’s confusing. In 1989, the military junta unilaterally changed the English version of the country’s official name from Burma to Myanmar. Democracy activists reject the legitimacy of that decision and continue to use the name Burma, along with countries such as the United States and Canada. The United Nations, however, recognizes Myanmar.

So how bad was this cyclone? Bad. The storm grew in the Bay of Bengal during the last week of April. It then began weakening, before rapidly intensifying the day before it hit the coast. By that point, it had reached peak wind speeds of 215 kilometres per hour, the equivalent of a Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane.

What’s the death toll? Nobody knows for sure. The UN confirmed 38,000 deaths, while the Red Cross says the number could be anywhere from 60,000 to 130,000. The official government figure is 130,000 dead or missing. It is probably the deadliest cyclone since a 1991 storm hit Bangladesh, killing 138,000 people.

What’s being done to help? Western governments and the United Nations have begun relief efforts, but report frustration that the Myanmar government is being slow to grant visas into the country.

How are neighbouring countries responding? Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, countries hardest hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (and receiving no assistance from Myanmar) offered millions of dollars worth of money, food and medicine. India, which still has close ties to Myanmar, has led efforts with 140 tonnes of materials.

What is Canada doing? The federal government has promised $2 million in relief aid, including 2,000 shelter kits that left Canada on Wednesday and are being handed off to the International Red Cross in Thailand.

Why is Myanmar resisting aid? Because it makes them look bad. Myanmar has been a military dictatorship ever since a coup d’├ętat in 1962. Free elections in 1990 resulted in a landslide victory for democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, but the results were ignored by the government which refused to step down. Opposition political parties are banned, the Internet is strictly regulated, the media (what little of it is not run by the government) is thoroughly censored and prisons are filled with political prisoners.

Is anything getting in? Yes. Though the government accepted money and supplies from other countries (which it would then proudly hand out to its citizens to improve its image), foreign aid workers would embarrass the military junta, and are being resisted to an extent the UN World Food Programme called “unprecedented” in modern history. The first U.S. military relief plane was only allowed to land in the country 10 days after the disaster.

How will this affect the food crisis? It doesn’t look good. Myanmar is a fertile source of rice, and the cyclone hit at a critical time. Farmers lost 149,000 water buffaloes, which won’t be replaced before the critical plowing season. Aid groups are trying to replace them with Chinese-built machines, but time is running out. Farmers also need tonnes of rice seeds after the ones they had just planted were washed away. If the harvest isn’t saved, a famine might dramatically increase the number of casualties.

Bad timing: Only 10 days after the disaster in Myanmar, a major earthquake in neighbouring China (magnitude 7.9) caused a catastrophe on a similarly devastating scale. The earthquake has affected relief efforts in the region, which must now split between helping both areas.

Worse timing: In the aftermath of the disaster, the Myanmar government decided to proceed with a controversial constitutional referendum, delaying the vote only in the worst affected areas until May 24. The new constitution, which the government said was approved by over 90 per cent of voters and a 99 per cent turnout, reserves parliamentary seats for military officers and restricts who can run for president.

Open-ended discussion question: How would this diaster have affected Myanmar if the country had a free and democratic government and a healthy economy like its neighbours?

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