Myanmar and the politics of disaster

Two men navigate rising waters in Kalay, Sagaing Region  Myanmar. Photo by Ministry of Information.

Two men navigate rising waters in Kalay, Sagaing Region,
Myanmar. Photo by Myanmar Ministry of Information.


This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 10 August 2015

Myanmar has endured more than its fair share of human-made disasters. Almost everywhere you look there is evidence of the long-term consequences of official mismanagement, civil disorder and economic malaise.

Those who suffered through the difficult decades of military rule remember the suffocation that comes with poverty of opportunity and lack of hope. The vast majority of people in Myanmar, even those who currently enjoy more comfortable lives, have direct personal experience of doing it tough.

This means that at times of crisis there is great empathy for those who are hardest hit. With this year’s floods recognised as the country’s worst natural disaster since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, a big humanitarian response is under way.

The lesson that many people have already drawn is that they will be left to their own devices, with little chance that the government or anyone else can devote adequate resources to the immediate crisis.

The fact is that even the wealthiest and best-prepared societies struggle in the face of great natural calamity. Nowadays the talk in disaster-management circles tends to focus on building community resilience and cohesion in the face of what are judged inevitably disruptive events. Floods, fires, storms, earthquakes and volcanoes: They all stretch human capacities in different ways.

In Myanmar there is annual flooding, and yet some years are particularly hard to manage. This year has proved to be more difficult than usual, with the loss of life and damage to property requiring a major recovery effort.

This recovery will not happen in a vacuum. As we learned in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, there can be very serious political consequences in the wake of such traumatic events.

Part of what motivated Myanmar’s recent economic and political transformation was awareness at the highest levels that military rule had greatly weakened local capacity to respond to a major disaster. For ardent nationalists this was hard to accept and suggested that further isolation could not be sustained.

After Cyclone Nargis – in the months and years of active recovery and rehabilitation efforts – those nationalists also learned to trust the broader international community. United Nations agencies, long deemed unreliable partners, showed themselves to be working hard in the best interests of Myanmar’s people. This seems to have made quite an impact on a rising generation of officials who came to value their international collaborations.

It also meant that by 2011, when the government of President U Thein Sein was looking to implement its first phase of major changes, a level of common understanding and comfort had emerged. From the heartbreaking tragedy of Cyclone Nargis something good followed.

Even for the president himself, Nargis marked a turning point and presented a new mission: rebuilding a society that had suffered far too much.

In August 2015, only three months from the next election, the Myanmar people are forced to deal with another natural disaster. Right now the clear priority is to get food and potable water to all those who need it, and to ensure that any further flooding is managed as effectively as possible. The preservation of lives and property must be job number one.

Thankfully, Myanmar society has its own ways of dealing with sporadic large-scale flood events and people will do their best to help each other survive. Yet such responses will also need to be put in their broader political and social context.

One of the difficulties of politics is that it is never conducted on an even surface. The election will now be contested in the sodden ground left behind after the floodwaters recede. All sides will be looking to maximise popular appreciation for their disaster-response efforts.

This is why when we read on Facebook and in the newspapers about the politicisation of aid by this group and that one, we should hardly be surprised. The disaster offers political players an unrivalled opportunity for distributing resources to potential voters. The hope, like anywhere else in the world, is that voters will think fondly of those who came to them in their time of need.

This equation has its risks, particularly for the current government. With a huge civil service and military at its disposal, the Myanmar people have certain expectations of what the authorities based in Nay Pyi Taw should provide. It is, however, during times of calamity that such expectations are often left unmet.

This means it is nimble, local groups that tend to have the best chance of reinforcing their strong positions. We saw this after Cyclone Nargis when small groups of motivated people went about the quiet work of disaster recovery well before the government or the UN could get organised.

This time an election looms just over the horizon. At a moment of great human need, we cannot forget that the Myanmar people are still waiting to have their say about who runs the country.

Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre and co-founder of New Mandala.