On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in The Irrawaddy Delta. It is now six years since at least 138,000 people were killed by the cyclone and the government’s response, which denying aid to storm-hit areas. This article, first published by The Irrawaddy on May 12, 2008, discusses the impact the event had on Burma’s military rulers, coming just before the country voted to approve the 2008 military-drafted Constitution.
Whenever Burma faces a political or humanitarian crisis, Burmese and foreign observers monitor the reclusive military leaders from a distance, trying to gauge their reactions, guessing what shapes their decisions and where possible conflicts within the leadership lie. The question Burma watchers are quietly asking this time is—did the cyclone shake fear into Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his hard-core military cronies? Are they trembling or are they hanging firm?
It is easy to imagine the pampered generals running from the storm, boarding themselves into their collective bunker and curling up in terror as the cyclone whipped through the southwest of the country. In the wake of the storm, the ordinary people of Burma braved the elements and started putting their lives back together. Meanwhile, the cowering junta was oblivious to the calls to help the survivors and allow aid into the affected areas.
Despite the junta’s long history of perfidy and brutality, many observers were taken aback by the regime’s refusal to allow international aid and foreign aid workers to tend to the cyclone victims in and around the Irrawaddy Delta.
Then, over the last week, cracks of dissent within the leadership were detected. Than Shwe and his deputy, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, reportedly have been at loggerheads since troops opened fire on Buddhist monks and activists on the streets last September.
Now rumors have surfaced that Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein has drawn the ire of the top general for showing a soft side after witnessing the tragedy firsthand while overseeing the delivery of aid to cyclone victims from a helicopter. Apparently distressed by what he saw, Thein Sein urged his boss to permit international aid into the area as quickly as possible.
Reportedly, Thein Sein filed a situation report and was immediately stonewalled. At an emergency meeting in Naypyidaw, Than Shwe is said to have told council members that the country’s armed forces could handle the humanitarian crisis and that he would rather concentrate on the referendum.
Thein Sein backed off and returned quietly to Rangoon to oversee the relief effort, which was already falling apart—ill-prepared, ill-equipped and mismanaged. To his and everyone else’s frustration the doors to large-scale international aid remained closed.
The prime minister reportedly began suffering from stress and told his subordinates that he was looking forward to retiring soon.
This time round, sources in Rangoon say Than Shwe and Maung Aye are hanging tight together. They both were seen on TV at polling stations casting their votes on Saturday.
With Than Shwe determined to focus on the national referendum, calls from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to postpone the referendum, and pleas from the international community to allow aid into the delta fell on deaf ears.
Then, a rumor started circulating among dissidents in exile that Gen Thura Shwe Mann, who is being groomed to take over the armed forces, supports the line of Thein Sein.
Sources say Shwe Mann wanted aid flown in immediately. However, he was apparently unwilling to confront the commander in chief, Than Shwe.
Shwe Mann may be acting out of personal concerns. Two of his sons run Ayer Shwe Wah Company, selling fertilizer to farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta. They also own a rice mill.
One of the Burmese businesses on the United States’ sanctions list, the Ayer Shwe Wah Company has approximately 30,000 acres of rice fields in the Irrawaddy Delta and is a leading exporter of rice.
Reports from Naypyidaw suggest that Than Shwe doesn’t want to hear about the death toll and missing persons in the delta. Some senior officials in the capital have let it leak that Than Shwe’s subordinates are afraid to brief him on the horrific figures.
It’s a sad irony that it took a disaster of such proportions to unmask the true depth of the inhumanity and darkness that lives inside of Than Shwe. Perhaps the military leaders closest to him will look into his heart of darkness and see the truth for themselves.