- Burma - cyclone - military junta
Following in the example set by its Chinese ally, Burma’s military junta finally called three days of national mourning on Tuesday to pay homage to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country’s southeast between May 2 and 3.
According to the latest official reports, Nargis has left at least 133,600 people either dead or missing, making it the third worst cyclone to hit the Asian continent in the last fifty years.
UN agencies suggest some 2.4 million people have been left stranded, adding further weight to the catastrophe.
Denied access to foreign help, Burma’s stricken population strives to face up to the desperate situation and shows extraordinary mobilisation and resilience, reports Anaïs Boussat, FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Irrawaddy, the country’s worst hit region.
“We have seen a traumatised population do its utmost to survive, as people give all they have to the worst-off among them,” she said.
Mourning amid confusion
As the three-day national mourning commenced on Tuesday, a degree of confusion reigned in the streets of Rangoon and Burma’s other main cities. In a country used to disasters and bloody events, the national flag flying at half-mast remains an unusual sight.
Many appeared unaware that national mourning had been called. “We did not know,” confessed the owner of a flower store, who was forced to seek shelter in a school after her house was washed away.
One taxi driver said he learnt about it through hearsay on Tuesday morning. “No one told me how I should express my grief,” he said with a worried look. State radio and television usually echo the junta’s every word. Yet, this time, they remained silent.
The ceremonial inaugurating this period of public grief was reduced to the bare minimum. Contrary to habit and to Monday’s events in China, Burma did not observe a minute of silence and public ceremonies were remarkably absent.
The regime’s unexpected decision was all the more unsettling for the population in that it occurred 18 days after the deadly cyclone swept over the country. “We get the impression that the junta is taking example from Chinese authorities,” suggested one Western diplomat who wished to remain unnamed.
Signs of opening up
As Burma enters an uncomfortable mourning, pressure from the international community is starting to bear fruit. On Monday, the junta finally resigned itself to see foreigners direct rescue operations.
In an unprecedented event for one of the world’s most secretive nations, the country’s ruthless military regime has agreed to let the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) coordinate the foreign aid effort.
Authorities also acquiesced to the organisation of an international conference in Rangoon on Sunday, in a further sign that Burma’s beleaguered regime may be opening up, if only a little, to the wider world. Sponsored by the United Nations and ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, the conference is designed to speed up efforts to collect funds for the victims of Nargis.
“The conference will focus on the needs of the people affected by the cyclone and will seek to secure support from the international community as well as financial backing to meet both urgent needs and the requirements of long-term reconstruction,” said a common statement by the UN and ASEAN. Speaking to his ASEAN partners at a meeting in Singapore on Monday, Burma’s foreign affairs minister set an estimate of 10 billion dollars for the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis.