Storm warnings, Cyclone Nargis and the media

A New Mandala reader has sent through these comments on the period immediately before Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta.  It will, I’m sure, be of interest to many.

I was due to go to Yangon on the Sunday but was told by the Burmese friend I was going to meet there that they were expecting bad weather, but that it was all expected to be over by Saturday. With this warning in hand, I went to Bangkok on Wednesday evening to stand in the visa queue at the Burmese Embassy the next day but decided to keep a close eye on the weather forecasts, and, amazingly enough, on CNN they were already including warnings of an impending cyclone with increasing wind speeds (and a satellite image of it) with a landfall close to Yangon on their hourly weather forecasts. It was sufficiently bad-sounding to deter me from going to the Embassy but I watched regularly all the next day to see how things progressed in case there was still time to change my mind – and CNN continued their hourly reports. The reports continued to come through all day Thursday on CNN news/weather bulletins.

I asked <name deleted> to check repeatedly on the BBC Burmese website for their weather report and other Burmese sites during this time. Confusingly, there was nothing on them – the BBC five day forecast said ‘Fair’ (and remember, this was when CNN was giving hourly warnings). By Friday morning CNN was reporting wind speeds of up to 200km and they were trying to predict the landfall and it had become a main weather bulletin item. I decided to leave Bangkok and abandon the visit – but <name deleted> was actually telling me I was stupid not to go because there was nothing reported anywhere on the BBC Burmese site. I got back on Friday evening and the BBC Burmese weather site still had a 5 day forecast of FAIR and there was not a single reference to the weather which was being tracked as a storm on CNN’s satellite images on the BBC’s main pages.

By Friday night, as I continued to scour the web for some clarification of these really oddly contradictory messages, a couple of bloggers had started to pick up about the cyclone – but they were weather freaks rather than Burma watchers. Result for me – total confusion, which was sadly resolved by the events that subsequently did get reported by the BBC with, shockingly to me, shock.

My conclusion? Everyone was so obsessed with the referendum that they took their eye off every other ball bouncing around on the tennis court – and there are surely some serious lessons to be learned from this about the way that news is collated within the Burma-related media. If as big a news channel as CNN was reporting this hourly for two-three days beforehand, why did BBC weather and BBC Burmese at the very least not pick this up? As I said, I’m not mentioning this now to ‘blame’ people, and didn’t raise it at the time for fear that it might be seen in that way, but rather that it is something that the Burmese media needs to think through, I would have thought.