Cyclone Nargis which hit Myanmar on May 3, 2008 was one of Asia’s deadliest natural disasters. Sweeping through the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, it affected the lives of more than 2.5 million people, claimed at least 60,000 lives and made more than one million people homeless.
Disasters do not occur in a social and political vacuum. Even if viewed as natural events or as acts of god, the level of government preparedness and response, and the vulnerability or marginality of those affected, largely determines the outcome. This is not new - the literature of natural disasters has highlighted the social and political dimensions of such events for decades.
In this case there seems to have been no pre-disaster preparation and those affected were among Myanmar’s most vulnerable.
But can catastrophic events like Cyclone Nargis act as the catalyst of political change? Does the lack of planning, and an inept, incapable and corrupt government response to such an event, ultimately produce an environment or set in motion processes, that will nurture social and political change?
These are not easy questions to answer, but there have been some examples in the past where a natural disaster seems to have helped usher in a new political era.
The experience of the cyclone which devastated what was then East Pakistan in 1970 provides one example. This powerful storm killed more than 500,000 people and rendered up to five million people homeless.
As in Myanmar, the regime reacted with indifference and callous neglect and had done absolutely nothing to prepare for such an event. The political price paid for such indifference, was the victory of the pro-autonomy party in the national election and eventually, after a short civil war and Indian intervention, the emergence of the independent state of Bangladesh.
Many also see the fall of the corrupt Somoza regime in Nicaragua as related to the regime’s corrupt and ineffectual response to the earthquake which devastated the capital Managua in 1972.
Finally, the aftermath of the tsunami which struck Indonesia in 2004 eventually opened up Aceh, which for decades had been under martial law and closed to most international human rights groups. Could we expect something of the same to happen in Myanmar?
The odds are not good, despite the fact that the generals have now allowed aid and aid workers to enter the stricken areas. Indeed the disaster may well play less of a role than the current referendum on a new constitution, which may serve to deflect attention away from the government’s ineffectual response to the cyclone.
Disturbingly, there have also been reports that the military have been redirecting food aid away from those most in need to give to government soldiers. It is also likely that any post-cyclone collective action for change will be viewed as a threat to state security and dealt with accordingly.
Finally, as Naomi Klein recently pointed out in The Guardian, this disaster may ultimately provide a political windfall for the generals in that it has removed or isolated hundreds of thousands of ethnic Karen rice farmers in one swoop, making available large tracts of valuable land for distribution to supporters of the regime.
There would seem little doubt that the general’s response to the cyclone and the international community has been inherently politically motivated. Even if this disaster does not terrify Myanmar’s repressive regime, as has been recently claimed, it nevertheless has stripped away some of the veneer the generals had erected over their regime and opened it up to wider public scrutiny.
Hopefully, existing inequalities and poverty will not be exacerbated by the regime’s post-Cyclone manipulation. It is too early to judge the long-term political consequences of this and whether or not Cyclone Nargis has the potential to ignite public reaction and produce meaningful social and political change. But consequences there will be.