May 07, 2008

Typhoon in Burma

By now most of our esteemed readers will have read about the horrific typhoon in Burma, leaving more than 20,000 dead:

A powerful cyclone that destroyed a vast swath of coastal Myanmar and left many thousands of people dead prompted the country’s military leaders to allow some foreign aid groups to deliver relief supplies on Tuesday. But the ruling junta came under increasing pressure to further open its doors — and even relax its tight political grip — to grapple with the growing disaster.

When Charlie heard about the scope of the disaster (initial estimates were for 10,000 dead), she thought that this was a classic example of an (exogenous) event event that sparks a regime crisis. She's not alone:

The postponement of the [constitutional] vote, a centerpiece of government policy, along with an appeal for foreign disaster aid, were difficult concessions by an insular military junta that portrays itself as all-powerful and self-sufficient, political analysts said.

This of course all comes on the heels of last fall's brutal crackdown on the peaceful mass protest by Burma's Buddhist monks (beautifully written about by George Packer, complete with Hannah Arendt commentary). None of which is to say that this will eventually topple the odious regime in Rangoon. But natural disasters provide 2 things that are relevant to the sport of protest and revolution: 1) space to challenge both the legitimacy and efficacy of the existing government, and 2) opportunities for opposition groups and other non-state actors to deepen their civil society networks and slowly become the second locus in Charles Tilly's "dual sovereignty," ie, an effective and viable alternative to current regime.

(The example that most readily comes to mind here is the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the 1992 earthquake, but there are many fact, leave your favorites in the comments.)

All of which is to say: stay tuned.

PS If there are any veteran Burma watchers lurking amidst our readers, please chime in (you, too, Packer). Your faithful bloggers are woefully lacking in SE Asia expertise.

Update: Charlie asks, George answers:

It now appears that as many as a hundred thousand Burmese might have perished in last weekend’s cyclone. The worst of the destruction is in the Irrawaddy River delta, the country’s rice bowl, and this year’s planting and harvest are in jeopardy.


An event of this magnitude reveals the nature of a regime....But it’s not surprising to anyone who studies Burma that the military regime is actively preventing aid workers from entering the country. The junta wants the money and supplies, but it doesn’t want the foreigners with their helicopters and expertise, for the same reason that it doesn’t allow journalists to enter Burma: the regime survives by smothering the truth, from its own people and from the outside world. Its sense of threat from the population is so great that the military is refusing to allow monks to shelter refugees in monasteries, fearing a repetition of last September’s peaceful demonstrations. Residents of Rangoon complain bitterly that the troops who were so evident in the capital’s streets during those events, and so ready to beat and kill their countrymen, are nowhere to be found now that millions of people are in desperate circumstances. And yet most of the soldiers have few options and are themselves dirt-poor.