- Myanmar in 2008:Weathering the Storm
The most significant events for Myanmar in the year 2008 were the devastating tropical Cyclone Nargis that wreaked havoc in the former capital Yangon and the Ayeyarwady Delta and the constitutional referendum that was conducted soon after the disaster. Both elicited strong emotional responses from the military government's detractors at home and abroad. In fact, the tragedy brought about by Nargis provoked a storm of protest and angry calls for humanitarian intervention from opposition groups, human rights advocates, and (mainly) Western politicians over the military government's seemingly lethargic response in the storm's aftermath and its attempts to control the flow of international aid as well as access to affected areas. At the same time, the timing of the referendum that was organized in two stages during the same month in which Nargis struck as well as the overwhelming (over 92 per cent) proportion of affirmative votes led to accusations of callousness and allegations of vote rigging on the government's part.
On the other hand, the extent of the devastation that required a sustained and massive relief and rehabilitation effort led to the active involvement of the United Nations (UN) —through the personal diplomacy of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon —and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in a tripartite arrangement with the Myanmar government to coordinate and oversee damage assessments as well as international assistance in personnel, money and material. Consequently, an opportunity was created for local civil society organizations (CSO), general public, and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) to take part in a monumental effort aimed at helping the victims of Nargis. To some observers, this augurs well for the development of civil society in Myanmar. [End Page 195]
Meanwhile, skeptics and critics continued to harp on the lack of progress in political dialogue between the government and the political opposition and the continued detention of opposition icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, allegations of forced labour, ill-treatment of political prisoners, internal displacement, and religious persecution persisted while the United Nations Secretary-General's special advisor Professor Ibrahim Gambari failed to garner concessions from the government on issues relating to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and 'political prisoners', political dialogue between the protagonists and an all 'inclusive' political process.
On the economic front, foreign trade continued to expand. With exports buoyed by natural gas sales to Thailand, Myanmar registered a huge trade surplus in spite of the fall in commodity prices in the last quarter of 2008. As a result, the foreign exchange reserves reached an all time high. Despite Western economic sanctions a substantial amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) proposed by investors from mainly regional states was approved. On the other hand, the growth of the domestic economy appeared to have slowed down though the full impact of the global economic crisis that exploded in the last quarter of the year had yet to manifest in Myanmar whose exposure to the global economy was perhaps the least among the ten ASEAN economies.
Nargis: More than a Storm?
The tropical cyclone, named Nargis, which formed in the Bay of Bengal took almost a week to reach Myanmar's shores. During the night of 2 May and the next morning, it battered the Ayeyarwady Delta with winds of up to 200 kilometres per hour and a 3.6 metre high storm surge that swept everything in its path across hundreds of kilometres inshore over flat plains inhabited mainly by families engaged in agriculture, fishing, and salt production. Though there were regular warnings issued by the state meteorological agency about the impending storm through radio, television and newspapers the significance of such warnings apparently went unheeded by the majority of the potential victims either because they had no means of receiving real time warnings or they remained unperturbed as they had never encountered such fury in their living memory and had weathered many lesser storms and tides. Given the extreme rarity of such an event the government also had little experience in taking preventive measures to minimize losses. Myanmar, unlike Bangladesh that usually bore the brunt of tropical storms, lacked a...