On the anniversary of last year’s tsunami, is it time to revisit the damage that this natural disaster may have caused in Myanmar? The secretive and totalitarian government is not known for providing welfare to its citizens. The official death toll was finalised at 86, although sources from within the country placed the number of deaths in the hundreds.
The official death toll was established by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in co-operation with the Myanmar Red Cross. The Myanmar Red Cross (pdf file) works closely with the Myanmar state and 23 members of the 37 member governing council are appointed by the government or act as representatives of its ministries. The IFRC, the Myanmar Red Cross, the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF and World Vision were already working within the country and inspected the affected islands in January 2005. Their conclusions were in line with the government’s assessment:
The group concluded that Myanmar has been largely spared from the destructive forces of the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami, and that the initial emergency needs have been met by the Government and by the aid community. The group’s assessment of the scale of impact is in line with the Government’s own findings. The group confirms a death toll of 60-80, and estimates the longer-term affected population at 10-15,000, of whom 5-7,000 are directly affected……
Over the course of the last 10 days a series of assessment and verification missions were undertaken by one or more of the partners already working in Myanmar – to the Rakhine Coast, the Ayeyarwady Delta and the southern coast including the most populated islands of the Myeik archipelago and the islands off Kawthaung around Lampi Island.
Moreover, Kerry Howley, assistant editor at Reason, questioned these statistics on January 7th 2005. All of the organisations that carried out the assessments were unlikely to disagree with the government’s figures since they wished to continue their own work.
I spent last year working with a weekly newspaper in Myanmar, where I attempted to cover some of the worst floods to hit the country in 30 years. Getting people to talk about the flooding, which left thousands homeless last August, was tantamount to asking them to denounce the dictatorship. Government officials hung up when my translator asked for specifics (except for one who helpfully explained, “it’s not our culture to talk to the public.”) The government’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology would not reveal the water levels or would simply lie. The local Red Cross representatives claimed they couldn’t tell me about the floods because the branch office in that area was, in fact, flooded. Major International NGOs like WorldVision were afraid their operations would be halted if they so much as revealed how many blankets they were distributing. After much hand-wringing, WorldVision representatives gave me the story, at which point a government censor perused the piece and expunged all reference to death and destruction.
One Year on: when will we know how many died in Myanmar? A United Nations report that ‘agrees’ with the Myanmar government’s own figures should be treated with grave suspicion. The final damage and death toll remains hostage to the murderers of Yangon.