In 2008, Myanmar suffered its worst natural disaster on record when Cyclone Nargis swept through.
Children in western Rakhine State walk along a debris-strewn road after 2010’s Cyclone Giri. | Photo: DPA
On May 2, 2008, Burma was struck by its worst natural disaster in modern history. On that day, Cyclone Nargis tore into Burma’s Irrawaddy delta, the country’s rice bowl and the home of millions of people, mostly small-scale farmers. Nearly 150,000 people died or remain missing. According to a joint assessment by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the UN, and the Burmese government, some 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone, out of an estimated 7.35 million living in the affected townships.
More than 40 percent of those affected were children—in a region where young people already suffered from malnutrition. Drinking water was in short supply as most sources had been contaminated by decomposing corpses. Entire villages were wiped out with hardly a building standing—except for the Buddhist temples and monasteries, usually built from stronger material than ordinary, wooden houses. Crops were destroyed by salt water seeping into the fields, which many at the time feared could have a devastating long-term impact on the country’s food supply.
While deaths mounted, Burma’s ruling generals were slow to react and flatly refused to accept foreign aid. In the beginning, almost all aid efforts came from Buddhist groups and organizations; Buddhist monks were the first to clear roads that had been blocked by fallen trees, to take care of the victims and offer the homeless shelter in monasteries. In Rangoon, a group of artists and entertainers—led by the famous comedian and social activist Maung Thura, who is better known under his stage name, Zargana—collected money, food, and supplies, and headed down to the delta in convoys of trucks that had been made available by private businessmen. More than 400 volunteers took care of the distribution of supplies to the cyclone victims. One of them was Ma Thida, a woman in her early forties:
We met at a Buddhist monastery in Rangoon every Saturday to organize the relief effort. Some volunteers had been sent down to the delta to look into the needs of the people and Zargana told us what to buy. It could be food, medicines, tents and building supplies. We made three trips down to the delta, on May 17, May 24, and June 2. On May 25, our five trucks were stopped by government soldiers and taken away. But we managed to get quite a lot through, and in the villages, the Buddhist monks helped us distribute the supplies fairly and equally. The homeless were staying in temples and monasteries. The government was nowhere to be seen.
Buddhist communities all over the world supported Zargana’s effort, and the IBMO was especially active in North America and Europe. Its Spiritual Director, U Pannya Vamsa, said in a statement issued in July 2008:
The role of the monasteries and monastics in Burma has always been essential. Besides spiritual support and teachings, they have run schools, orphanages, provided health care, and many other vital services over the years. Now they are leading the relief efforts for victims of Cyclone Nargis…IBMO has many brother-monks and nuns working both inside and outside of Burma, and particularly young energetic monks based in more than 20 countries in [the] spirit of Dharma. They are working to defend the freedom of faith, and bring peace and justice to Burma, which has been denied more than half a century.
One of the first volunteers to make it into the delta reported on May 10:
I can only feel utter disgust and despair and loathe a government that lets its people suffer and lets them die deliberately…On the way to Labutta [a town in the delta], private donors and NGOs are forced by soldiers to hand them half of the rice bags or other donations which are meant for the survivors of the cyclone only…Christian churches and Buddhist monks are trying hard to fill the gap which is left by the ruthless junta and its local authorities. But they cannot cope with the magnitude of this disaster; Buddhist monasteries and Christian churches are directly discouraged by the authorities to help the survivors and to give them shelter.
The monks who had been active in the September 2007 movement now also joined the relief efforts. According to U Kosalla in Mandalay:
Together with other monasteries, we collected money for the Nargis victims. Some of the senior monks made several trips down to the delta. Among other things, we collected money for tractors [small, Chinese-made hand tractors called to-la-che]. The soldiers didn’t try to stop them, but he heard that many homeless were driven back to their inundated villages.
U Igara told Human Rights Watch about his efforts:
We supported the Nargis victims. Our monastery collected 40 million kyats and sent supplies to villages in the affected areas. We had no problem doing this, because we went through local village chiefs and abbots.
U Eitthariya, who had been in hiding since the 2007 crackdown, told Human Rights Watch about the devastation to his home village near Rangoon: I had to organize the cremation of 150 bodies. It was a problem of disease, but also the sight made people depressed. People seemed depressed and helpless, just eating wild rice. I tried to encourage people to work, to clear the roads so that cars with aid could come. It was a bad situation; crime had risen because no one had food. We had to stop that by feeding people. We started to organize temporary shelters as well.
U Eitthariya took the lead in organizing emergency relief supplies, in the near absence of government assistance:
I went back to Rangoon to find donors. I was lucky I found a good independent donor who started to send food to the village. We also got donations from Burmese monks in other countries to help with school fees [for the children and the newly reconstructed school]. The government and USDA didn’t do anything, so we 15 monks [in the village] and the community did it ourselves. There was nothing from the government. Nothing.
For several weeks after the cyclone had struck, the US amphibious assault ship USS Essex was moored 60 nautical miles off Burma’s southern coast, while the French naval vessel ship Le Mistral waited in the same waters. These ships sailed to the area on a humanitarian mission. Tens of thousands of gallons of drinking water, ambulances, heavy trucks and medical teams could have reached Burma within hours by helicopters and landing craft from the Essex. Le Mistral carried a cargo of 1,000 tons of food, enough to feed at least 100,000 people for two weeks, as well as thousands of shelters for the homeless.
But the Burmese authorities refused to let them in, and, eventually, the Essex and Le Mistral returned to Thailand. On June 4, Special Branch police apprehended Zargana and confiscated his computer and money that had been donated for the cyclone victims. No private—or foreign—aid efforts were tolerated and only later did the government give in and allow some outside help to reach the survivors in the delta.
The Burmese generals’ refusal to accept foreign aid in the face of international outrage was not, as many at the time believed, prompted primarily by xenophobia or misunderstandings about relief aid. Burma’s partners in ASEAN—who were the first to be allowed to send in medical teams—were seen as no threat. Rather the government feared that if foreign troops from the US or Europe—which would have to oversee local distribution of the supplies from those countries if such direct assistance was permitted—were to enter Burma, it could have potentially triggered another anti-government uprising. Ordinary Burmese were already angered because of the brutal crackdown on the monks’ movement about half a year earlier. Some in the regime may have believed there was a possibility that a foreign humanitarian intervention could have triggered a broader anti-SPDC uprising, counting on the support of foreign troops on Burmese soil.
Sympathy for Burma’s military junta had dwindled even further in the wake of the cyclone, and the generals must have been fully aware of this. Hence, even the presence of small numbers of soldiers from countries critical of the government’s human rights record had to be kept out of the country at all cost, no matter how much food and medicine they could have been able to supply.
From the government’s perspective, the Buddhist clergy also had to be prevented from participating in the relief efforts out of fear of a renewed alliance between the monks and the population at large. Social activism by monks was seen as a threat to the government, and had to be curtailed. As a result, monasteries all over the country were kept under strict surveillance to make sure that there was no repetition of what happened in September 2007. Yet the good works of the Sangha during the crisis increased their prestige among lay people, especially the emerging civil society networks inside Burma that responded so well with humanitarian relief aid. According to one Burmese relief worker:
We worked through the monks and the monasteries to deliver aid. We did so because Buddhist monasteries are very influential in every place. Through them you can control your work and get good assessments to organize distribution. Our base was always the monastery and we communicated through them. Our relationships with the Buddhist monks have been strengthened as a result of Cyclone Nargis.
 “Nargis” is Urdu for “daffodil.” Names of cyclones in the region are contributed in alphabetical order by the nine countries whose coastlines border the north Indian Ocean—Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Myanmar (Burma), Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand—and each name is used only once. The name Nargis was contributed by Pakistan.
 “Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, A Report Prepared by the Tripartite Core Group comprised of the Government of the Union of Burma, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations with the Support of the Humanitarian and Development Community,” July 2008, p. 1.
 “Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters,” The New York Times, May 31, 2008.
 Human Rights Watch interview with Ma Thida, Bangkok, July 2, 2008.
 “Disaster and Despair: Report on the Humanitarian Crisis in Burma,” International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), New York, July 2008.
 E-mail from Burmese humanitarian volunteer, May 10, 2008. On file with Human Rights Watch.
 Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Mandalay, July 2008.
 Human Rights Watch interview with “U Igara,” Burma, July 2008.
 Human Rights Watch interview with U Eitthariya, Mae Sot, October 28, 2008.
 “Burma: Free Celebrity Activist Critical of Aid Response,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 12, 2008 (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/06/12/burma-free-celebrity-activist-critical-aid-response).
 Andrew Selth, “Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Cyclone Nargis and Myanmar’s Fears of Invasion,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol.30, no.3, (2008), pp.379-402.
 Bertil Lintner, “Crisis and Response—Part II,” YaleGlobal Online, May 21, 2008, and Bertil Lintner, “Winds of Change in Cyclone’s Wake?” India and GlobalAffairs (IGA) Magazine, July-September 2008.
 Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Listening to Voices From Inside: Myanmar Civil Society Response to Cyclone Nargis, Phnom Penh: CPCS, April 2009, pp.170-71.