In the dark early hours of 12 November 1970 a tropical cyclone swung in from the Indian Ocean and made its way, to devastating effect, up the course of the world’s largest delta — the confluence of two huge river courses, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — in what was then East Pakistan. The delta was heavily populated with subsistence farmers and, further, the overwhelming majority of East Pakistan lay on land less than 20 metres above sea level and was thus vulnerable to even a gentle breeze lapping the waters of the Indian Ocean. If you were asked to design the perfect country to be all but wiped out by a weather-driven natural disaster, this would be it: low-lying, densely populated, little or no preventative infrastructure, mired in poverty. If you then placed that country in the worst place in the world for serious ‘storm-surge’ problems — around the fringes of the Indian Ocean, preferably near the mouth of the Ganges (which will act as a natural funnel for the cyclone) — then, for lo, you have East Pakistan; the world’s unluckiest country.
That storm killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people, not counting those who starved to death in the aftermath. It was the worst natural disaster resulting from unfortunate weather that the world had ever — or still has ever — seen. It is also the template for those who believe that disasters such as these, acts of God, can somehow effect monumental political change, that every cloud — even those big, grey, rapidly billowing, weird ones that herald misery — can have a silver lining. The Pakistan government responded to the cyclone with, as one local politician put it at the time, ‘gross neglect, callous indifference and utter indifference’. This was a commonly held view around the rest of the world, principally in the United States and western Europe, but felt with most conviction within Pakistan itself. Enraged by its remote and ineffectual government thousands of miles to the west, East Pakistan went to the polls and elected the pro-independence Awami League by a landslide; after a while, and a short war, the independent state of Bangladesh rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Well, actually, not very much like a phoenix. More like a paraplegic moa. Change, then, effected, or facilitated, by disaster.
A few score miles across the border from the old British colonial outpost of Cox’s Bazar in modern Bangladesh (an agreeable beachfront town which was itself smacked about by a cyclone in 1991), lies the benighted country of Burma — or Myanmar, take your pick — with its own handily funnel-shaped Irrawaddy river delta, anxious to receive ministrations from whatever tropical storm cycles are doing the rounds in that particular, stricken part of south-east Asia. The cyclone which hit the country last weekend has left perhaps 60,000 people dead, so far as we can tell.
Superficially, at least, there are similarities with the cyclone of 1970. A repressive and authoritarian government criticised for its secrecy, abuse of human rights and lack of democracy. A tardiness bordering on indifference towards the plight of its citizens. An incompetence in responding to the disaster and the intimation of dark motives on the part of its government ministers for refusing to acknowledge the scale of the problem. And a suspicion towards those Western governments and aid organisations which have expressed a wish to help. Foreign countries which want to help ‘will have to negotiate with the foreign ministry and senior authorities’, said the government spokesman Maung Maung Swe, a little haughtily. The generals are not known for their love of outside interference: back in 2004, they lied about the extent to which Burma had been affected by the Sumatran tsunami (eventually admitting that perhaps ‘40 to 60’ people had been killed, while some witnesses put the figure at perhaps ten times that amount) to the extent that they were initially left to cope alone by the aid agencies and official offers of help were rejected.
Even now, despite a more welcoming approach this time around from the foreign ministry, there is still the impression that the Burmese government would rather see its own people die than allow in meddling charities and the UN. And in the nastiest, most pragmatic terms, for the sake of its own survival as the world’s second or third worst government, it is probably right to be wary of outsiders coming in. Like North Korea, Burma’s government survives by imposing an almost total isolation upon its citizens.
I am not convinced by the thesis that natural disasters can by themselves effect welcome political change. At the most, they can sometimes act as a catalyst, as was most likely the case in East Pakistan; as Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill put it in a paper for Chatham House two or three years ago, the most one can hope for is that ‘they put into process potentially provocative social processes’, which might lead to a more strenuous form of agitation. And it would seem to follow from this that the more readily the Burmese government allows outsiders into their country, and the more effectively these outside agencies are seen to operate, the greater the chance for change.
That said, Bangladesh would most likely have clawed its way to independence without the 1970 cyclone and, arguably, the most exacerbating factor in encouraging dissent there was the government’s geographical remoteness from the afflicted area. The Burmese capital Rangoon, meanwhile, copped the full brunt of the cyclone. Elsewhere there has been little evidence of long-term political change occurring in the wake of disaster. It is true that the Sumatran tsunami probably hastened the speed with which the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which had been fighting a long and at times extremely violent guerrilla war, agreed to discuss peace terms with the Indonesian government. And it is true too that the eventual peace agreement, brokered by the west, has pretty much held even until today. But equally, both the GAM and the government in Jakarta were already on trajectories which made some sort of agreement highly likely, even before the tsunami wrought its devastation.
For Burma, the best hope is that the charities and the UN go in and open up the country in a manner which has not been possible for 30 or so years. But I would not bet that this will happen.