COMMENT The problem with dictators and disasters
By Sreeram Chaulia
NEW YORK - As the full extent of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis
dawns, it is clear that Myanmar's military junta has earned one more black mark
in its egregious record of rule. United Nations officials reveal that the
response of the country's long-reigning tyrants to offers of humanitarian aid
has been typically suspicious and opaque, even though the scale of the disaster
is massive (approximately 100,000 casualties and more than 1 million displaced
The tardy relief measures mounted by the Myanmar army, coupled with the
blockading of United Nations relief efforts through
various barriers, reflect the criminality of the regime. By inordinately
delaying aid flights and visas for UN relief workers, and confiscating
international emergency supplies, the junta has demonstrated not only total
insensitivity towards the suffering of its own people but also its paranoid
Having ruled with an iron fist for more than four decades by sealing off the
country from outside influences, the generals in their secluded new capital at
Naypyidaw, led by Senior General Than Shwe, clearly do not see any reason for
relaxing the imprisonment of their population in the wake of Cyclone Nargis'
fury. A number of calculations underlie the junta's obstructionist attitude to
foreign assistance for cyclone victims.
First, it is motivated by fear of exposure of the socio-economic and political
conditions that prevail in the Irrawaddy Delta, the hardest cyclone-hit region.
If the UN is able to access the Delta, there is a danger of civilians lodging a
deluge of complaints not only about their immediate travails from the cyclone,
but also concerning the long-term oppression they have faced under military
While the scale of repression in Myanmar is known generically, the gory details
are locked behind layers of state intelligence and military penetration of
society. Opening the country to foreign-led cyclone relief teams threatens,
through their inevitable communications with global media, to spill the beans
on the military's brutal grassroots security policies.
Second, disaster relief organized by foreigners would be unpalatable to the
junta's obsession for command and control through tight supervision and
surveillance of the people. Admission of outsiders for cyclone relief would be
seen by the hardliners in Naypyidaw as a potential crack in the door that could
widen and loosen their grip on power.
By its very nature, the humanitarian enterprise lingers after a disaster and
devises "post-emergency" projects that would potentially entail a near
permanent presence in the country. That has been witnessed with the 2004
tsunami disaster and the long stay by foreign aid organizations in disaster-hit
areas of Indonesia and Thailand. The junta is afraid that the UN, not to
mention the United States, might use the cyclone as a Trojan Horse to
eventually promote real grassroots democracy in Myanmar.
Interestingly, Naypyidaw did not procrastinate in accepting emergency aid from
India, China, Thailand and Indonesia immediately after the cyclone. These Asian
countries are perceived as innocuous compared to the UN because of their close
strategic relations with the junta. Their aid is being handed directly over to
the Myanmar authorities without tracking the endpoint distribution or
monitoring the use of the supplies.
The International Herald Tribune reported that part of the UN relief tranche
that did manage to enter Myanmar had been confiscated by the junta to organize
its perverse referendum on a new constitution, which was held in most areas of
the country on Saturday and was apparently a bigger government priority than
rescuing cyclone victims.
Diversion of emergency aid to military purposes is a worldwide problem
compounded by bilateral government-to-government assistance involving
undemocratic recipient regimes like Myanmar.
A third reason why the junta has stymied international aid is apprehension that
it might awaken domestic civil society. Local community-based organizations,
citizens' self-help groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are
independent of state direction are virtually non-existent in Myanmar. Strict
regulation of societal activism is necessary for the junta to deflect criticism
and popular calls for accountability.
Fear of 'NGO-ization'
The entry of foreign aid organizations on a large scale usually goes
hand-in-hand with the spawning of local "implementing partners" and
"NGO-ization" of the social sphere. While partner NGOs of international
humanitarian organizations rarely address sensitive subjects like protection of
civilians from atrocities and abuse, they could have unintended consequences of
allowing spaces within which more radical citizen activism could emerge. Hence,
the determination of the junta to contain domestic dissent is a likely factor
behind obstructing UN and Western-led humanitarian aid.
To be sure, Myanmar's junta is not unique in mishandling disaster relief. North
Korea's totalitarian regime has long shown no mercy for its starving
population. Since the late 1990s, more than 3 million North Koreans are
believed to have died from the man-made disasters of food shortages. The hermit
regime has hence become dependent on foreign food assistance. However, the UN
is reeling under donor fatigue due to legitimate concerns that the aid is being
siphoned off by the Kim Jong-il regime to maintain and even strengthen the hold
of his totalitarian government and the army on the hapless population.
In Africa, the despotic governments of Zimbabwe and Sudan have shown similar
symptoms of either refusing foreign aid or misusing it for partisan purposes.
The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe under the authoritarian President Robert
Mugabe adversely affects more than half of the country's 11.6 million people
who wilt under severe drought, poverty, an HIV/AIDS pandemic, economic decline
and government-sponsored excesses. Yet Mugabe angrily denies that his country
needs food aid and exacerbates the crisis by clamping down on expression of
The military regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan has presided over a series of
life-threatening humanitarian crises by orchestrating army and militia violence
on civilians in the country's southern and western regions. UN initiatives to
provide material relief and protection to Sudan's people have been frustrated
at every step by the Bashir dictatorship, with the backing of tyrannical
regimes in Egypt and Algeria. The Myanmar junta's botching of the Cyclone
Nargis relief effort is thus part of a larger trend of authoritarian regimes
mismanaging disaster response.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that democracies are
better positioned than non-democracies to deal with famines, droughts and other
disasters. Elected governments act in a more responsible fashion when their
populations are buffeted by natural or man-made disasters since power for
politicians depends on popular mandates at the polls, not through the barrel of
a gun. Moreover, democracies have a relatively freer media that scrutinizes the
post-disaster response of the authorities for the public interest. The relative
success of India in handling disasters like tsunamis, floods and earthquakes
vis-a-vis Myanmar, North Korea or Pakistan would seem to vindicate Sen's
The gross inaction and belated response of the US government to Hurricane
Katrina, which battered the southern state of Louisiana in 2005, however raises
questions about the quality of democracy and its relation to effective and
humane disaster response. According to a Gallup poll conducted shortly after
the hurricane lashed New Orleans, six out of every 10 black residents said that
"if most of Katrina's victims were white, relief would have arrived sooner".
The callous and biased approach of the US government to a huge natural calamity
was contextually no less criminal than what the Myanmar junta has done in the
wake of Cyclone Nargis. It turns out that both Naypyidaw and Washington have
their respective fiddling Neros. The counter-example of Katrina shows the
limitations of the intellectual case for democracy as a panacea for improved
A state will have to be democratic not so much in form but in substance (ie
respectful of minorities and weaker sections of society) to effectively
mitigate disasters or relieve citizens after they inevitably occur. The junta's
lack of response to Cyclone Nargis sends another unmistakable signal that
Myanmar sorely needs an end to its dark night of military dictatorship. Yet
establishing real democracy - not the sham constitutional referendum process
held by the junta over the weekend - is the only way for Myanmar's pummeled
people to train and prepare themselves for future calamities.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher of international affairs at the Maxwell
School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.