Cyclone Nargis: What went wrong in Burma?

Htet Aung Kyaw

May 7, 2008 (DVB)-Many people, including this correspondent, were shocked to hear the Burmese state media announcing that the death toll of Cyclone Nargis had reached 4000 on Sunday.

As I work for daily news media, I had not been surprised when they announced 351 deaths in Saturday, as DVB had aired an interview with an official from Burma’s meteorology department on 30 April forecasting a cyclone with wind speeds of 40 miles per hour to hit delta, coastal and Rangoon regions on Friday.

If the speed had been 40 miles as the authorities said, there could not have been as much damage as we are seeing today, with over 25,000 deaths, and 40,000 missing.

So what went wrong? Was the meteorology department hiding the real information or was the lack of modern equipment to blame for not predicting the deadly cyclone?

Having worked in the media for over a decade, I know well the junta’s notorious censorship, especially of political news. But I didn’t think they would hide information on impending disasters, especially not after the reality of the 2004 tsunami which killed 93 in Burma. So I suspected that lack of modern equipment rather than suppression of information was to blame.

But my optimism was to prove misguided when I read an AFP news article in which Indian Meteorological Department spokesman B.P. Yadav said his department had warned the Burmese authorities of the coming cyclone.

"Forty-eight hours before Nargis struck, we indicated its point of crossing [landfall], its severity and all related issues to Myanmarese agencies," Yadav told the French news agency on Tuesday, after the US first lady alleged that the military junta failed to warn its citizens of the impending storm.

The allegation has come not only from the US but also from survivors in the delta region.

"I also heard what you did, that the wind would hit us at 40 miles per hour, from Myanmar Athan. That’s why we weren’t too worried and were unprepared" says Dr Aye Kyu from Laputta city, where he says about 100,000 people are dead and missing.

Dr Aye Kyu said about 20 people died in his city when buildings collapsed in the wind but thousands more were killed when the wind and tide hit lower-lying areas and dozen of villages were swept entirely into the sea.

"The wind was 150 miles per hour, the waves were higher than my home and the tide was more than 12 feet high. How can fishing villages survive that?" he said to this correspondent in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

He also pointed out another aspect of what he felt was the old-fashioned thinking of the Burmese. "I have lived in Laputta for more than 30 years, and we have often heard similar warnings about winds and tides. But in the past, the wind never came to our city as it went to Hing Gyi Island, Pathein region, Arakan state and finally to Bangladesh. But this time, it came directly to us," he lamented.

The allegations of government failures relate not only to the lack of pre-cyclone warnings, but also to the lack of government assistance in the aftermath."Victims have nothing, they are lying on the ground in monasteries and they urgently need food, water, shelter and medicine" Dr Aye Kyu said, but suggested that the UN should give aid directly to victims, not through the government.

When asked about the referendum which will be held in most of the country on Saturday but has been postponed by two weeks in his city, Dr Aye Kyu is critical.

"As we are Buddhists, the top generals should respect the lives of the thousands who died in the seven days before 10 May. I do not believe the survivors will be ready to vote within two weeks."

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma radio and TV station.

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