Cyclone Nargis was the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar. Although the true death toll may never be known, it is estimated that nearly 140,000 people died according to Reuters. Cyclone Nargis presents an interesting case because it occurred before Myanmar transitioned from a tightly controlled military government to a civilian democracy. As a result, the coverage is very inaccurate and most of it is extremely critical of the Burmese government.
The cyclone made landfall on May 2, 2008. The first article released by the Guardian was on May 4th stating “Over 300 Dead in Burmese Cyclone.” The first article published by the New York Times was on May 5th with the title “Cyclone Kills More Than 350 in Myanmar.” Both of these reports are massive understatements for the actual death and destruction that took place. The inaccurate information and time delay represents how closed the nation of Myanmar was at the time.
Nearly all the articles I read paint a picture of a country reeling from this natural disaster with their government unwilling to open its door to international aid groups. There are few facts and figures about the actual amount of destruction that took place in the country, the death toll estimate rises each day but most media coverage is about how uncooperative the junta is.
On May 9th, 2008 the Guardian published an article stating that the United States and France have called for international aid to be delivered to Myanmar without the permission of the Junta if the military government continues to block foreign aid workers. Even China, Burma’s closest ally, took the unprecedented move of urging Burma to accept foreign aid. The article stresses that during the time of such an enormous humanitarian crisis, now is not the time to be political.
The single story of Cyclone Nargis is how uncooperative the Junta was in warning its people of the coming storm and helping them in the aftermath. A former minister for integration and democracy in Sweden, Jens Orback, was in Yangon at the time. He was quoted by the NYT saying, “What struck us also was in the first daylight, nobody form the police, military or firemen was out working with the devastation but people privately were there with knives and machetes and hand saws.”