Tropical cyclone Nargis – which hit Burma around midnight on Friday – has ruined many parts of a country which already has poor infrastructure due to the history of blundering by its military dictators. Foreign journalists have posed the question: what will the Burmese people think of a regime that rushes armed soldiers onto the streets to quell any signs of protest but which has been sluggish in assisting the thousands in dire need? I doubt the Burmese will be spending much time over that one - they have more pressing worries and they know the true colours of their rulers well enough by now.
The cyclone has prised open just a little the clamshell of secrecy which the regime enforces on the country’s affairs. Starting from a death toll of 450, official figures have vaulted with each passing day, with the generals now claiming 15,000 people have died due to the cyclone. They have also finally appealed for international humanitarian aid wider than their circle of friendly neighbouring countries that bolster their continued misrule. Such aid in the past has been hampered by the regime’s corruption and the restrictions it placed on the movements of aid workers. In the past donors were naturally wary (and in fact were warned off by many Burma support groups) to provide aid if it would line the pockets of the generals rather than reaching the people. And aid workers on the ground often quit out of sheer frustration at not being able to access areas of crisis due to lengthy delays in getting official permission. Today there are cries that cyclone relief aid must reach the people unhampered. It’s obvious that is what’s needed. Whether the generals will allow it remains to be seen.
Some commentators are reading into the regime’s admission of the scale of the devastation positive signs of a new openness. Wishful thinking, as a particularly chilling example of brutality comes to light from Rangoon’s Insein prison.
As the cyclone hit, it ripped off many zinc roofs of the prison buildings. According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), this the sequence of events that followed:
‘Due to the destruction in one area of the prison, over 1,500 prisoners were forced to congregate inside prison hall no. 1. No one was allowed to seek safety, and they were locked inside the hall until the next morning May 3, 2008. Prisoners were wet, cold and hungry as well as angry. Even though prisoners requested prison guards open the doors and move them to safety, the authorities ignored their request. Some prisoners started shouting demands, and some set fire to the prison hall. The fire burnt down the hall, and a riot situation ensued in the prison.’
At this point the authorities did what tends to happen in Burma whenever there is a breach of ‘discipline’, no matter how compelling the circumstances. They opened fire. And they gunned down 36 prisoners, wounding about 70 others.
Is it any wonder that people of good faith who try to engage with the regime often come away soiled?
Read the Assistance Association for Political Prisoner’s account of the events in Insein prison.