One doesn’t have to be a paranoid Tatmadaw (Burmese army) jefe to believe that the United States, France, and the UK and the international NGOs would be perfectly happy to see the Myanmar government’s prestige and authority swept away as collateral damage as foreign personnel, money, and attitudes flood into the Irrawaddy delta after Cyclone Nargis.
Even under normal conditions, international NGOs are a calculated risk for a socialist dictatorship.
They provide assistance and international engagement, but they provide an alternate concept of how social services can be provided, how capable and well-funded these services can be—and who should deliver them.
And, since they have foreign ties, NGOs can’t be pushed around as easily when they conflict with the government’s priorities.
So, in socialist states like China and Burma, only apolitical NGOs like the Red Cross—that accept a subordinate role within the command and control structure of the state—need apply.
When a colossal disaster like Nargis strikes, it’s a mortal challenge for the government to assert its relevance, authority, and control as international aid tries to stampede into the death zone and even compliant local NGOs threaten to slip the leash.
Therefore, as I’ve argued before, the Burmese military is not sitting on its hands as the “refusing aid” reports might lead one to believe.
Instead, it’s buttoning up the delta, accepting dump-and-go aid, and energetically imposing a socialist disaster relief narrative on the situation to compete with the Western insistence that only a massive international effort far beyond the government’s capacity is a practical and moral necessity.
An June 4 article in the government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar offers the local perspective on the extent of destruction of paddy fields in the delta:
A total of 0.18 million acres in Ayeyawady Divsion was destroyed by the storm. The number of destroyed acres in Ayeyawady Division is equivalent to 0.009 per cent of the cultivation acreage of the country and 0.036 per cent of the cultivation acreage of the Ayeyawady Division.
That number is, of course, acreage destroyed—presumably land that ceased to exist as the Nargis storm surge remade the landscape—and not land “affected” i.e. temporarily flooded, salinated, and clogged with corpses and debris, which the FAO estimates to be about 15% of Myanmar’s total paddylands
And that number might be a combination of wishful thinking and government BS.
But it offers an interesting rebuttal to the Western reporting on the issue which, through inattentive reading, might give the impression that 65% of Burma’s agricultural capacity has been destroyed. (I might add that, based on the experience of the Boxing Day tsunami, fields contaminated by sea water are effectively desalinated by the kind of abundant monsoon rainfall Burma is now experiencing, and can return to full production by the next planting.)
The Myanmar government’s recipe for disaster relief looks a lot like what China did in the fifties and sixties: downplaying the human magnitude of the crisis; lots of mass mobilization, suck-it-up and back-to-work rhetoric; very little hand-holding in the refugee camps; and no admission that international aid is necessary, and not just welcome.
Looking ahead, it should come as no surprise that the junta is getting ready to deal with challenges to its rule and settle a few scores.
The media outlet Mizzima is an opposition site, but this piece of tittle-tattle about Maung Aye—the junta’s number two man behind octogenarian Than Shwe and the guy who’s been doing the heavy lifting in the delta–has the ring of truth:
The regime has reversed its promise to cooperate with international aid agencies and will restrict their activities in the coming weeks, according to reliable sources in the Burmese army. “The Americans and the INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] are intent on enslaving our country, they do not want to help our people,” General Maung Aye told government ministers in charge of reconstruction earlier this week. Local community organisations are also to be targeted, as they are seen as slaves to donors, the source said
Two days ago in the regional capital, Pathein, Maung Aye told ministers charged with co-ordinating the rehabilitation and reconstruction effort that the government had “declared war on the INGOs and local groups who received donations money from donors”.
Maung Aye has long been suspicious of the activities of international aid agencies. When then military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt was arrested in October 2004, Maung Aye was dismayed when he discovered the extent and access international NGOs had got – especially in Shan state. He feared that their work in the predominantly ethnic areas would destabilise government efforts to disarm the ethnic rebel groups that had ceasefire agreements with the government.
“Maung Aye may also have been shocked at the extent of the relief efforts being carried out by local Burmese community groups, like those of Zargana and Kyaw Thu,” the independent Burmese academic, Win Min told Mizzima. “The army’s efforts by comparison would seem insignificant,” he added.
It’s a little premature to go after the NGOs and their domestic sympathizers now, when the junta is still trying to gauge how much disaster relief and reconstruction aid can be extracted from the international community.
I imagine that we will see an increase in stories in New Light of Myanmar extolling military relief efforts and denigrating NGOs in a month or so, when the last load of plastic sheeting and water purification tablets has been unloaded at Yangon airport.
Then the junta will be ready to roll the dice on the key event that will determine the success of its disaster strategy and perhaps its political survival: bullying and cajoling the shell-shocked farmers of the delta to return to their shattered fields and plant the crucial monsoon paddy.