MYANMAR'S "ROADMAP TO DEMOCRACY", ITS CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION AND CYCLONE NARGIS

ROADMAP TO DEMOCRACY AND MYANMAR BEGINS SOFTENING UP

In the early 2000s Myanmar unveiled its “road map to democracy”—a plan to create what the generals call a "developed and discipline-flourishing democracy" which guaranteed the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and control of key cabinet posts, along with the right to suspend democratic freedoms at any time. The opposition call the “roadmap” process and the democracy itself a sham. The chief human rights investigator for the UN, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said, "If you believe in gnomes, trolls and elves, you can believe in this democratic process in Myanmar.”

United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari—a Nigerian diplomat— made several visits to Myanmar in the late 2000s. He met with Myanmar leaders and pushed for the release of political prisoners. Sometimes he was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders. Other times he wasn’t. Sometimes he met with the junta leaders. Other times he didn’t. Often he was kept in the dark about his itinerary in Myanmar and told only he was confined to Yangon and would meet with Myanmar’s information minister. His offers to negotiate were rebuffed. He was rarely invited to the new capital in Naypidaw where the generals lived.

In August 2009, junta leader Than Shwe held talks with U.S. Senator Jim Webb, the first senior U.S. official to meet the leader of Myanmar. Webb won the release of U.S. citizen John Yettaw, who was jailed after swimming to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, and met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been a vocal critic of the Myanmar junta. The meeting with Than Shwe took place days after a court found Suu Kyi and Yettaw guilty of breeching security laws.

There were meetings between the junta and the opposition but they produced little results. The main topics of discussion were the release of political prisoners, the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi and the reopening of NLD branch offices. Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest in November 2010 (See Separate Articles on Aung San Suu Kyi), days after historic parliamentary elections.

Political Prisoners Set Free

Periodically opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists, some of them imprisoned since 1988, and others were released. Sometimes they were released after an appeal from the United Nations or international community. Sometimes not. Often they were released to mark some occasion. There was a vast reservoir of thousands of prisoners so some could be released almost any time for any reason.

In December 2004, two democracy leaders imprisoned in 1995 for handing out anti-government leaflets were set free. They were in their 70s when they were released. The same month 5070 prisoners were freed from 41 prisons across Myanmar. More than 14,000 prisoners were released between October, after a shake up in the junta, and December 2004.

In February 2010, the BBC reported: “Burma has freed the vice-chairman of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Tin Oo, 82, has been in prison or under house arrest for more than a decade. The release comes as Burma's ruling military junta prepares to hold national elections in 2010. Speaking after officials entered his house and announced his release, Tin Oo said he would continue to work for democracy. Tin Oo, who spent three years in prison after helping to found the NLD in 1988, has been either in prison or under house arrest since he was detained along with Ms Suu Kyi in 2003. The former defence minister, a highly decorated general, was forced into retirement in 1976. He was later sentenced to hard labour for treason. [Source: BBC, February 13, 2010]

Road Map to Democracy

In August 2003, Myanmar’s military regime proposed a “road map” for reconciliation with the opposition. The terms of the road map were defined by the military regime. It called for drafting a constitution and placing it before a referendum. If approved the new constitution would form the basis for a “free and fair” parliament. At the time the regime said democracy was far away because the opposition “NLD failed to work hand-in-hand with the government.” Gen. Khin Nyunt—the former intelligence chief and prime minister who was purged in 2004—was the general who proposed a "roadmap to democracy” and other reforms. One his motives, one diplomat told the New York Times, "Khin Nyunt and those around him may have decided that it is time for Burma to re-enter the world. Not because they have to. Perhaps just because it is embarrassing for the generals to be such pariahs in the world."

The seven stages of “roadmap to democracy” were: 1) First Phase - To reassemble the National Convention, which had been suspended since 1996; 2) Second Phase - To implement step by step the requisite tasks for the founding of a democratic system when the National Convention has been successfully concluded; 3) Third Phase - To draw up a draft constitution based on the general concepts and detailed principles advocated by the National Convention; 4) Fourth Phase - To hold a national referendum in order to endorse the draft constitution; 5) Fifth Phase - To hold free and fair elections for the formation of the required national legislative bodies (Hluttaw); 6) Sixth Phase - To convene the meeting of elected representative to the Hluttaw; 7) Seventh Phase - The leaders, government and authoritative bodies elected by the Hluttaw to continue with the task of constructing a new democratic state. [Source: Wikipedia]

In August 2005, after a major purge and amidst a wave of repression, AFP reported: “The military government is now showing increasing signs of further centralising its power and tightening up its control in every respect,” said one local analyst. Diplomats have noted that Myanmar is making life more difficult for United Nations agencies in Yangon, as well as for non-governmental organizations...The junta is also returning its focus to implementing what it calls its seven-point “road map to democracy”. It has organized a series of public rallies at which military-sponsored groups as well as “reserve forces” such as war veterans roundly denounce “internal and external destructionists”, condemn international groups like the UN’s International Labor Organization, and back the military’s political agenda. Veteran Myanmar politician Win Naing said the junta is obsessed with its pursuit of the road map, which Western governments and the U.N. have dismissed as a sham. “The military authorities firmly believe that their long declared seven-point political road map is the only way out from their present predicament,” Win Naing told AFP. “They are therefore totally determined to go through with it, like it or not.”[Source: AFP, August 15, 2005]

On the junta insistence to sticks with "democracy roadmap" after the protests and crackdown in September 2007, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Myanmar supremo Than Shwe, leader of the ruling military, has vowed that the only path to political reform is via the junta's own "roadmap to democracy", which Western governments have dismissed as a sham. "We have declared a seven-step roadmap towards a democratic state," the Senior General said in a speech reported in official media. "The seven-step roadmap is the only means to smooth transition towards a new state." [Source: Reuters, Aung Hla Tun, November 17, 2007 <>]

“His words suggest that any discussions about political reform with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will have to take place within the framework of the junta's existing plan, which is now at stage three -- writing a new constitution. Stage one -- drawing up the outline of the charter -- ended in September 2007 after a National Convention that first met 14 years ago, but which hit trouble when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) refused to attend while she was under house arrest. A drafting commission of 54 people handpicked by the military has now been appointed and will hold their first meeting on Dec. 1. There has been no indication of how long they will take to complete their work. <>

“Western governments have dismissed the convention and its output as a blueprint for the army legitimising its grip on power after 45 years of unbroken military rule. Under the outlined charter, the head of the army will be the most powerful person in the country, with the ability to appoint key cabinet positions and suspend the constitution in the event of an emergency that he defines. Than Shwe described his government, which emerged in the early 1990s from the wreckage of late dictator Ne Win's rule, as a "transitive government of historical necessity which is undertaking a state transformation." "The road that we have been treading since 1988 till today was not a road of roses," Than Shwe was quoted as saying. "It was a rough road with internal and foreign political machinations, disturbances and obstacles that we had to overcome." <>

Myanmar’s Constitution Convention

Myanmar was without a constitution for two decades after 1988. Upon taking power in September 1988, the military-based State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) suspended the 1974 constitution. The SLORC called a constitutional convention in 1993, but it was suspended in 1996 when the National League for Democracy boycotted it, calling it undemocratic. It was held intermittently after that.

The military government's excuse for not holding elections through much of the 1990s and 2000s was the drafting of constitution, which it said needed the approval of all 135 ethnic groups to pass, a near impossible task, especially considering meeting were rarely conducted. In 1999, Lt. Col Hla Mon said that free election would be held in "two or three years" once the draft of constitution was finished. He said that 60 percent of the constitution had been discussed and working on it was continuing.

In May 2004, Myanmar reconvened the National Convention, without Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, to finish drafting the new constitution at a convention center about 40 kilometers north of Yangon. Two months of closed door discussions with 1,076 delegates were held. Most of the delegates were hand picked by the government. They included workers, businessmen and government employees. About 40 percent of them represented minorities. The government billed the meeting as the first stage towards restoring democracy on the “roadmap to democracy.” The opposition dismissed it as a sham. The National League of Democracy (NLD) refused to participate because of Suu Kyi’s detention.

The constitution convention was stopped in February 2005 and reopened in December 2005. The junta said that it wanted a large chunk of all the seats in the legislature to be reserved for the the armed forces and insisted on other measures that ensured its held on to power and the integrity of the state. “It’s a farce,” one 89-year-old retired government employee told AP. “I don’t have faith in the whole process, which is done for [the junta’s] own convenience, not for the good of the country. It’s obvious they are not sincere. Most of the delegates are not representative of the people.”

The junta adopted a policy of vagueness and foot-dragging. They said Aung San Suu Kyi would be released soon but never released her. They said a constitution would be put together soon but let the drafting convention drag on and on. Delegates who openly expressed their views faced potential arrest and imprisonment. Aung San Suu Kyi did not participate in the convention. Members of the NLP said they would not participate in the convention if it was conducted on the SPDC’s terms.

Myanmar's Constitutional Convention Create a “Charter for Thugocracy

The final session of the constitution convention started in July 2007. In September 2007, after 14 years, the constitution convention was finally completed, marking the completion of the first step on the seven-step “road map to democracy.” As before critics dismissed the whole endeavor a sham. About 1,000 delegates showed up at Nyaung-Hna-Pin convention center, about 45 kilometers north of Yangon, for the closing ceremony.

The Economist reported: After 14 years of intermittent meetings and tortured prevarication, a constitutional commission appointed by Myanmar's junta has come up with the document outlining the principles to underpin a new constitution which will give a thin democratic façade to continued military rule. At the closing session of the convention, Myanmar's acting prime minister, General Thein Sein, presented its conclusion, offering what the regime regards as “disciplined democracy”, as a roaring success” despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were excluded from the process. So have the numerous groups representing ethnic insurgencies. [Source: The Economist, September 6, 2007 \\\]

Under the guidelines, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president will be a military man, and the army will control important ministries, including defence and home affairs. The army would set its own budget, and would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power whenever deemed necessary. The charter would ban Miss Suu Kyi, as the widow of a foreigner, from holding elected office. It has also disappointed the hopes of the country's various rebel ethnic groups for greater autonomy. On the pretext of “national security” the guidelines also severely curtail civil liberties and the rights of political parties. \\\

Provisions of Myanmar’s New Constitution

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker: “The constitution created a civilian-dominated government, with a two-house Parliament that would meet at least once a year, and an elected head of state. Power remains vested in the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his military council. Twenty-five per cent of parliamentary seats are set aside for military officers, and a seventy-five-per-cent-plus vote in Parliament is required to amend the constitution, meaning that the military can always veto proposed changes. Human rights are enumerated, but the constitution holds that, if circumstances require, the military can retake authority and those rights can be abrogated. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

The constitution grants limited rights to freedom of religion. Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 354 states that “every citizen shall be at liberty … if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality … to develop … [the] religion they profess and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.” [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]

The constitution does not transfer power to a civilian administration (key ministries remain in the hands of the military) or provide greater autonomy for Myanmar's 100-plus ethnic minorities. The army commander-in- chief will be the most powerful man in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power "in times of emergency." The military will hold 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament and hold veto power over its decisions.

Jared Genser wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the new constitution “provides the military, which is immune from prosecution, with the right to overturn any decision of the other branches of government. The leader of the military has the power to appoint one-quarter of both houses of parliament — all that is needed to veto any constitutional amendment. Perhaps most chilling is the constitution's establishment of a National Defense and Security Council, a vague institution that appears to be merely a new moniker for the State Peace and Development Council, otherwise known as the Burmese junta. [Source: Jared Genser, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2010]

Saffron Revolution: September 2007 Protests in Myanmar

In August and September 2007, there were large anti-government protests in Myanmar. The protests initially began over increased fuel prices and these evolved into larger demonstrations led by pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks. Demonstrations led by Buddhist monks against the military junta brought 100,000 people into the streets of Yangon on September 24 calling for national reconciliation and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Two days later the junta began cracking down on the demonstrations. On September 27, soldiers and security forces fired automatic weapons into a crowd, killing perhaps dozens. Over 3,000 people were arrested. It was the strongest use of force since 1988, the event is sometimes called the Saffron Revolution because of the participation of saffron-robed monks.

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, It was “the biggest demonstrations in 20 years against one of the most stubborn and brutal military regimes in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and believers marched in the biggest cities of Burma, peacefully demanding justice, relief from soaring prices and democratic reform. Students armed with digital cameras e-mailed images of the so-called Saffron Revolution across the world. Then the inevitable crackdown began. Dozens of demonstrators were killed by police batons and army bullets; thousands were locked up. Twelve months later the opposition is scattered, its leaders imprisoned and its power broken...The September 2007 uprising originated in much smaller demonstrations against a sudden rise in prices caused by the decision of the junta to remove subsidies on food in August of that year. The sudden economic hardship that this caused added to long-running resentment about the refusal of the junta to acknowledge the results of a general election in 1990, won by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.” [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, September 26, 2008]

Many who joined the protests were ordinary people moved by the courage of marching Buddhist monks to take their own stand against the government. The peaceful demonstrators were easy targets for the military. Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “Labor leader Su Su Nway told Time: "The junta is trying to create a very intimidating environment. People must stand up," she says, "and choose between freedom and oppression."Thousands of Burmese are doing just that... Significantly, Buddhist monks have marched by the hundreds in several cities, adding a stamp of spiritual authority to the protest movement in this deeply devout country....No surprise then that many Burmese sympathize with the protesters. "You knock on a door late at night and whisper, 'Let me in, brother,'" says an activist who has so far escaped the police dragnet. "People willingly help us, even though they're well aware of the dire consequences." The regime is doing its best to prevent further unrest and capture any stray dissidents. Trucks full of hired enforcers patrol major street corners in Rangoon. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has received reports that some of the arrested activists are being tortured. But the generals have to be careful with their clampdown--too much violence could fuel even more civilian anger. "It's likely that an economic spark, combined with a dramatically violent response from the regime, could set the stage for revolt," says Aung Naing Oo, a Bangkok-based Burma analyst. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, September 17, 2007]

Opposition After the September 2007 Protests

A year after the protests, Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “Across the country, and principally in the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Sittwe, monks and lay activists are using mobile telephones and the internet to keep the spirit of opposition alive. Mass demonstrations, of the kind that so shook the Government a year ago, are almost out of the question – any public display of opposition would end in long imprisonment. Instead tiny, loosely linked groups of activists secretly perpetrate small, symbolic acts of defiance in anticipation of the moment when the opportunity to take to the streets will represent itself again. “It is impossible for us to demonstrate openly now because the security is too much,” Min Tun, the abbot of a monastery in Mandalay, told The Times. “But there will be opportunities and there will be demonstrations in the future. The Saffron Revolution is not finished.” [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, September 26, 2008]

The Venerable Min Tun (like the other Burmese activists in this report, his name has been changed) presents another example of the kind of action by which the Saffron revolutionaries sustain their morale. It is a simple sketch of a human hand inside a circle – it might represent a friendly wave, the raised palm of the Buddha or the hand of a traffic policeman. This is the symbol of the “stop campaign”, an emblem of peaceful resistance to the military regime. The stop sign has been printed on pamphlets scattered in the streets of Mandalay by night and sprayed on walls, above splashes of red paint that symbolise the blood shed by the regime. A young man named Lu Kar explained how he used a tiny stamp to imprint the symbol on the banknotes in the shop where he works. “The stop sign means stop torture, stop violence, stop injustice, and there are many people like me, making this mark on the banknotes,” he said. “Eventually, in a few months or a year, people will look at their money and start to notice.”

Increased oppression has forced the anti-junta resistance to extremes of ingenuity, and even wit. Stray dogs have been set loose with signs round their necks bearing the names of Senior General Than Shwe and his junta. Poets have published acrostic verses whose first letters spell out insulting messages about the generals. Ironically, it is the savageness of the economic suffering in Burma, and the cartoon-like crudity and brutality of its rulers, which give some in the democratic movement hope. “The demonstrations last year happened for a reason, because of underlying social and economic problems,” Maung Maung, an opposition journalist, said. “They have put people in prison and killed some, but those economic problems are still there.”

In the meantime the organising continues discreetly. Various opposition groups put out bulletins and statements but they are less like formal membership organisations than loosely linked networks of friends. The Venerable Min Tun explained that his group, the All Burma Monks Association, had a cell system whereby one monk remained in touch with four laymen so that when the momentum towards demonstrations reached a sufficient level they could be mobilised quickly.

In 2009, the Washington Post reported: “Activists and diplomats say the government has become more like a greedy mafia than an all-powerful military regime. And it appears increasingly shaky. "Living in any authoritarian country, while you're in the midst of it, it's hard to see that they'll ever cede power or go away -- or anything," Villarosa said. "But actually, they cause their own destruction. And their foundations are rotting. "It's going to happen here," she added. "It's a question of time. None of these [regimes] go on forever. It is going to collapse. The foundations are getting weaker and weaker." [Source: Washington Post, August 24, 2009 ||||]

May 2008 Constitutional Referendum

In April, 2008, as one step on its long-promised “road map” to democracy, the dictatorship ratified a new constitution. The 194-page charter was on sale for $1 at private stalls and government bookstores and sold well. "Fifty copies sold like hot cakes in less than an hour," a roadside bookstall owner told Reuters. "I never thought our people would be so keen on the constitution."

Despite the Cyclone Nargis tragedy, the junta proceeded with its May 2008 constitutional referendum, the first vote in Burma since 1990. The military regime rejected United Nations suggestions that independent observers be allowed to monitor the referendum vote. Foreign media was not allowed into Myanmar to cover the vote either. There were reports of military agents standing watch over ballot boxes — and stuffing them — and threatening citizens with fines and prison sentences if they didn't vote the way the regime demanded.

Burma's army-drafted constitution was overwhelmingly approved (by 92.4 percent of the 22 million voters with alleged voter turnout of 99 percent) on May 10 in the first phase of a two-stage referendum amid Cyclone Nargis. The new charter paved the way for multi-party elections in 2010 that would end five decades of military rule while guaranteeing the military 25 percent of seats in parliament. NLD spokesman Nyan Win, condemned the vote, saying: "This referendum was full of cheating and fraud across the country; In some villages, authorities and polling station officials ticked the ballots themselves and did not let the voters do anything."

Myanmar Cracks Down on 'No' Campaign and Order Civil Servants to Vote “Yes”

A month before the constitution referendum, Reuters reported: “Burma's main opposition party urged that there be international observers of the May 10 constitutional referendum, saying its "No" campaigners were being assaulted and their materials seized in the run-up to the vote. "Local authorities are committing acts of suppression by trying to seize documents of the NLD and detain or interrogate township organizers, the National League for Democracy said a day after the junta-drafted charter was made public. [Source: Reuters April 10, 2008]

NLD spokesman Nyan Win told Reuters at least three NLD members were attacked by unknown assailants as they campaigned against the constitution in Yangon, the former Burma's biggest city. "For this reason, it is now obvious that the forthcoming referendum cannot be free and fair," the party's executive committee said in a statement demanding foreign observers, including from the United Nations.

Myanmar Information Minister Kyaw Hsaw promised last month the vote would be "free and fair," but he bluntly rejected offers of U.N. technical assistance and monitors.The junta, which tightly controls the media in Burma has urged the country's 53 million people to back the charter, an important step in the junta's seven-point "road map to democracy." The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper accused unnamed foreign governments of aiding the opposition to "destabilize the country" before the referendum. It said some foreign diplomats in Rangoon (Yangon) had visited NLD headquarters to "give directives to harm the interests of the nation and the people."

The junta has ordered civil servants to vote "yes" on the referendum and to persuade their family members to do so too. "We have been told we will have to vote in our offices," a government employee said. The junta has not publicly explained how the referendum will be run.

In early May news agencies reported: “Hundreds of government workers in Myanmar were forced to vote in favor of an army-drafted constitution in non-secret ballots, held more than a week before a May 10 referendum, some of the workers said. In one of the cases, about 700 employees in the Ministry of Electric Power-2’s Yangon office were forced to tick their ballot papers with local referendum officials observing, witnesses said. “We were all shocked and some people were furious but they couldn’t do anything,” said one of those present, who did not want to be identified for fear of recrimination. [Source: Agencies, May 3, 2008 )( ]

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p> “They said those who wanted to vote ‘no’ had to hand in their resignation,” the worker said. Civil servants in government ministries in Naypyidaw, the new capital, also reported advance voting in which they were forced to endorse the charter. “They even told us to ensure that all our family members vote ‘yes.’ I’m really angry with myself because I couldn’t do anything,” said one of them, an educated middle-ranking officer. “I have to stick it out because of my family. I’ve never felt more humiliated in about 20 years service here. I really wish I had voted ‘no,’” he said. )(

Cyclone Nargis

In early May 2008, Burma was struck by Cyclone Nargis, which left over 138,000 dead and tens of thousands injured, and 2.5 million homeless. It was the worst natural disaster ever in Myanmar (Burma). Damage was estimated at over $10 billion, which made it the most damaging cyclone ever recorded in this basin. The Myanmar government estimated the storm completely destroyed 450,000 of 800,000 homes hit. Associated Press called it “Asia's answer to Hurricane Katrina”—except it was much more deadly.

Packing winds upwards of 195 kph (120 mph), Cyclone Nargis became one of Asia's deadliest storms by hitting land at one of the lowest points in Myanmar and setting off a storm surge that reached over 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland. Among the worst areas were Labutta, Bogale, Pyapon, Dedaye and Kyaiklat. More than 400,000 hectares of farmland were flooded with seawater and more than 200,000 drafts animals were killed in the Yangon and Irrawaddy areas. Before the storm hit this area produced 3.3 million tons of crops on 900,000 hectares of land in the monsoon season and 1 million tons of crops on 200,000 hectares in the summer. Initially some said that crops could only be raised on 40 percent of the damaged land and loses could clip two percent off Myanmar’s GDP for 2008 but after the disaster journalists reported that crops were raised in many places thought to be unable to produce crops.

Cyclone Nargis was a rare, eastward-moving, low-latitude, strong tropical cyclone. It made landfall in the evening of May 2, 2008 and lashed Myanmar for three days. It sent a storm surges 40 kilometers up the densely-populated Irrawaddy Delta. Nargis advanced eastward along the coastal delta region, over rivers, other waterways and villages surrounded by paddy fields. The cyclone initially hit the land with wind speeds of up to 194 kph, and later accelerated to a top speed of 238 kph. The name "Nargis" is an Urdu word meaning daffodil.

Two days after the cyclone hit AFP reported: “Nargis tore through Myanmar, razing thousands of buildings and knocking out power lines, state media said. Residents awoke to scenes of devastation after the cyclone bore through swathes of southern Myanmar, uprooting trees, cutting phone lines and water pipes, and clogging streets with debris. Myanmar's state channel MRTV said that 109 people had been killed in Haing Gyi island, just off the coast of southwestern Ayeyawaddy division where the storm first hit. The authorities have declared disaster zones in the regions of Yangon, Ayeyawaddy, Bago, Mon and Karen states. MRTV said that about 20,000 houses have been destroyed on Haing Gyi island, and 92,706 people there were now homeless. In one mainland township in Ayeyawaddy, 75 percent of all homes were believed to be destroyed, the channel said, adding that authorities had launched a rescue operation in the region.[Source: AFP, May 4, 2008]

Nargis made landfall around the mouth of the Ayeyawaddy (Irrawaddy) river, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Yangon, before hitting the country's economic hub. The cyclone brought down power and phone lines. The coastal area of Ayeyawaddy appears worst hit by the natural disaster, but Yangon was also battered. Traffic lights, billboards and street lamps littered the roads after being knocked over by strong winds. Trees in the leafy city were uprooted, crushing buildings and cars, while water pipes were also cut, forcing people out onto the streets with buckets to try and buy water from the few shops that remained open. Roofs of houses have been torn away, while only a few taxis and buses -- which tripled their fares -- braved the debris-clogged streets. Electricity supplies and telecommunications in Yangon have been cut since late Friday night as the storm bore down from the Bay of Bengal, packing winds of 190-240 kilometers (120-150 miles) per hour.

Nargis is the deadliest named cyclone in the North Indian Ocean Basin, as well as the second deadliest named cyclone of all time, behind Typhoon Nina of 1975, in which 229,000 people died after the Banqiao Dam collapsed in China. Including unnamed storms like the 1970 Bhola cyclone, Nargis is the eighth deadliest cyclone of all time, but an uncertainty between the deaths caused by Nargis and those caused by other cyclones (like the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone), could put Nargis as seventh deadliest or higher, because the exact death toll is uncertain. Nargis was the first tropical cyclone to strike the country since Cyclone Mala made landfall in 2006, which was slightly stronger, but had a significantly lower impact. According to reports, Indian authorities had warned Burma about the danger that Cyclone Nargis posed 48 hours before it hit the country's coast. [Source: Wikipedia]

Deadliest Tropical Cyclones Rank (Name/Year, Region, Fatalities): 1) Bhola 1970, Bangladesh 500,000; 2) India 1839, India, 300,000; 3) Haiphong 1881 , Vietnam 300,000; 4) Nina 1975, China 229,000; 5) Nargis 2008 Myanmar 140,000. [Source: NOAA, MDR]

Myanmar’s Military Junta Blocks and Slows Aid and Relief

Alexander G. Higgins of Associated Press wrote: “As aid agencies awaited government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport, the U.N. said Myanmar's government seized two planeloads of food and supplies and would not let its experts into the country. The government said it had taken control of the supplies to distribute them itself. The U.N. always requires experienced aid workers to accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said. "Those are the rules," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent. We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims." [Source: Alexander G. Higgins, Associated Press, May 9, 2008 /<>\]

“Many relief agencies, including the Red Cross, were able to get a quick start on the operation because they already had operations in the country. But they have run into problems with slow government approval of new aid shipments and refusal to admit additional staff. Governments have sent their own planeloads of aid, but there was little sign of the shipments, Ladekarl said Friday after his arrival in Yangon, the country's largest city. "I got through an airport that normally would be full of emergency relief planes and a lot of relief. There was only one little plane," said Ladekarl, who already had a visa to visit Myanmar before the storm hit. /<>\

"We've seen the scale of the destruction and the suffering is huge," said Hugues Robert, head of Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency operations in Geneva. "But we will not be able to address these urgent needs without the necessary additional supplies and the arrival of more experienced emergency staff, particularly experts in water and sanitation." MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, had 40 foreign workers and 1,000 local volunteers in Myanmar before the cyclone, and they have all been redeployed to help in the recovery effort with the permission of national authorities, said Fred Baldini in the organization's Geneva office. "There has been no problem," he said. But MSF has not received visas for additional aid workers to arrive from abroad. /<>\

U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “may victims refuse to be interviewed because government authorities are watching them. Some complain that aid, especially food, was being stolen by authorities. They claim officials distribute less than donors provide and that some have substituted good quality rice for poor quality rice.”

Top Myanmar Comic Given Prison Sentence of 59 Years over Cyclone Aid

In August 2008, Myanmar's most famous comedian was charged in a secret court, along with a sports writer and two activists, for delivering aid to survivors of deadly Cyclone Nargis, their lawyer said. AFP reported: The comedian, Zaganar, and sports writer Zaw Thet Htwe had been distributing aid to cyclone victims before their arrest, but authorities still have not revealed exactly why they were arrested. A 23-year-old activist, Tin Maung Aye, was charged with helping Zaganar, but the charges against the fourth activist, Thant Zain Aung, remained unclear, the lawyer said. [Source: AFP, August 8, 2008]

Jim Pollard wrote in The Nation: “Zarganar was a comedian, leader of the performing troupe Mya Ponnama Anyeint, which appeared regularly on television and was famous for ridiculing the government of General Ne Win. He was heavily involved in the relief work, organising hundreds of showbiz volunteers to deliver aid to rural areas. In interviews with foreign news media, including the BBC, he expressed his outrage at the junta's indifference to the people's suffering. The Special Branch Police swiftly descended, piling on charges including incitement and breaking media laws, and in November he was jailed for a staggering 59 years. There were two separate rulings, evidently aimed at silencing him forever. At least the first - the 59-year sentence - was so absurd that he was still able to joke about it. The second ruling, however, punished his family by transferring him to Myitkyina Jail in Kachin State, in the far north. Zarganar's term was later reduced to 35 years.” He was released in October 2011. [Source: Jim Pollard, The Nation, February 8, 2011]

Cyclone Nargis Helps Bring Democratic Reforms to Myanmar?

Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar credited with launching the astonishing political and economic reforms that dramatically changed and opened up the nation, may have been motivated to reform Myanmar by what he saw and experienced during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Serving as prime minister at the time of the disaster, he was regime’s mouthpiece during Nargis and was noted for his callousness towards the Irrawaddy Delta, the region of his birth. While 2.4 million people struggled for survival he made a number of statements that thing were okay and the government had everything under control even though that was far from the case.

Commenting on what might have motivated Thein Sein to make the reforms he did, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “One catalyst appears to have been Cyclone Nargis. The storm was Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, killing more than 130,000 people and transforming the fertile countryside of Mr. Thein Sein’s childhood into a landscape of flattened villages and rivers clogged with bloated bodies. At the time, Mr. Thein Sein was the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts. But as he crisscrossed the devastated Irrawaddy Delta in a helicopter, he saw how woefully unprepared his impoverished country was for the catastrophe. The cyclone became a “mental trigger,” said U Tin Maung Thann, the head of a research organization based in Yangon that provides policy advice to the president. “It made him realize the limitations of the old regime.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012 +]

“As the leader of the country’s preparedness committee, Mr. Thein Sein would have been partly to blame for the government’s failings. Critics were scathing about the decision to turn down foreign assistance in the distribution of food and other aid, a move that slowed the response as the world was captivated by images of haggard villagers desperate for help. But analysts pointed out that Mr. Thein Sein did at least make himself accessible to his people, unlike his fellow generals, who in the days immediately after the storm remained hunkered down in the capital, Naypyidaw, which was untouched by Nargis. +

Referendum 'Held' Despite Deadly Cyclone

Myanmar’s ruling junta decided go ahead with its constitutional referendum on May 10, 2008 in spite of the fact the country had been devastated by powerful cyclone Nargis, which left thousands dead. France 24 reported: Myanmar’s “official newspaper “New Light of Myanmar” confirmed that the referendum, the first of its kind after 18 years, would take place as planned. The decision angered a large part of the Burmese population. “We hardly have anything to eat, and they want to send us to vote!” exclaimed an irate Burmese citizen, affected by the cyclone, said. [Source: Cyril Payen, France 24, May 5, 2008 ::]

France 24 “qualifies the junta’s decision as “surrealist” at a time when “half the population is completely cut off from the world.” Furthermore, the junta is reported to have warned the population against abstention. The military said that “there should be at least one vote per home”, failing which the head of the family could face six months in prison. With a wind speed between 190 and 240 km/h, the cyclone hit Burma’s south-western coast before spreading eastward. The most severe damages were caused at the Irrawaddy coastline. Burma’s largest city Rangoon was also affected. ::

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “In the midst of disaster, ballot boxes. As foreign aid groups bang on the door in an attempt to deliver disaster relief, the generals who run Myanmar have a priority of their own, a constitutional referendum. The constitution is central to the generals' political battle plans - "life and death" for the highest leaders, in the words of one Burmese analyst. "To approve the state constitution is the national duty of the entire people," the state-run New Light of Myanmar said in a front-page headline Friday. "Let us all cast 'yes' votes in the nation's interest," the newspaper declared. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, May 9, 2008 <<]

“One of the first official announcements after the cyclone struck, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving close to a million homeless, was that the referendum would proceed as planned. Since then, the government has relented a bit, postponing the vote for two weeks in 47 townships in the worst-hit areas, where some villages were obliterated by the storm. The junta's plan to go ahead with the vote while restricting the delivery of disaster aid from the United Nations and other relief agencies has drawn widespread criticism and amazement. Almost a week after the cyclone, Myanmar continued to block all but a trickle of foreign aid, barring large-scale deliveries by the World Food Program and other United Nations relief agencies. <<

“As one analyst noted, some of the same soldiers who could be rescuing survivors are likely to be dispatched instead to guard polling places and help carry out the balloting. "It is one of the best examples of the disregard for the people by the military," said the analyst, Josef Silverstein an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. <<

“As the generals see it, a constitution endorsed by a popular vote will give them formal legitimacy 20 years after the current junta seized power at a time of bloody massacre. The generals' determination to proceed with the referendum may come in part from the same source as their reluctance to allow in foreign aid workers: a fear of the outside world.If the aid workers are allowed into their closed and tightly ruled country, the generals fear, they could bring the contamination of foreign ideas and standards. If the constitution is postponed, they may feel, it will be a victory for outside elements who are trying to destabilize Myanmar. <<

“Last September, one government commentary said foreign enemies feared the passage of the constitution because it would guarantee Myanmar's independence. "Some global powers who practice hegemonism totally dislike the proposed constitution as it contains stipulations assuring self-determination and prohibiting the stationing of foreign troops on Myanmar soil," the commentary read. Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese exile commentator based in Bangkok, said he saw a personal motive among the generals who are pushing forward with the constitution: survival. Its guarantee of military supremacy in a civilian government, and an amnesty it contains for past official misdeeds, may be their savior from retribution if they are ever forced from office. "This is life or death for Than Shwe," he said, referring to the leader of the junta. "He needs military people - his people - in key places so he won't have to answer for the crimes he has committed." <<

Results of 2008 Constitutional Referendum

After the results from delayed referendum vote came from the areas hit by Cyclone Nargis, Reuters reported: Voters in cyclone-hit areas of Burma have overwhelmingly approved a constitution which critics say will perpetuate the military's decades-old grip on power, state radio said. The constitution was approved by a 92.4 percent vote in a referendum held in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon, also known as Yangon, on Saturday, the radio said. The turnout was 26.8 out of 27.4 million eligible voters, or 96 percent. The Saturday balloting was irrelevant since the main May 10 referendum had already approved the draft document by an identical 92.4 percent. Voting was postponed in areas hit by Cyclone Nargis. The junta says the constitution will pave the way for a general election in 2010. [Source: AP, May 26, 2008]

After the results of the main referendum vote were announced Associated Press reported: “Myanmar’s junta announced that a pro-military constitution has won overwhelming support in a referendum, which was held despite widespread criticism and in the midst of a national tragedy – a devastating cyclone that the Red Cross says may have killed more than 125,000 people. The document was approved by 92.4 percent of the 22 million eligible voters, said Aung Toe, head of the Referendum Holding Committee on state radio. He put voter turnout at more than 99 percent. [Source: AP. May 15, 2008]

Voting was postponed until May 24 in the Irrawaddy delta and Yangon areas, which were worst hit by Cyclone Nargis. But state radio said the results of the late balloting could not mathematically reverse the constitution’s approval. Myanmar’s government issued a revised casualty toll Wednesday night, saying 38,491 were known dead and 27,838 were missing.But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said its estimate put the number of dead between 68,833 and 127,990.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014


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