In the Wake of Another Major Disaster and Heading into Elections, Myanmar is Put to the Test

This week I’ll be traveling to Myanmar where widespread flooding and landslides brought on by severe rain and a tropical cyclone have resulted in the worst disaster since Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. Of the country’s 14 States, 12 have been severely affected. More than 1.6 million people lost their homes and more than 1.4 million acres of farmlands were inundated. The extensive damage to crops and arable land disrupted the planting season and now poses a risk to long-term food security for hundreds of thousands of people. While the water has receded in many areas, the extensive damage to roads and bridges has made reaching many of the worst-affected areas enormously challenging, especially in mountainous areas like Chin State, which is also one of the poorest regions. Worse yet, the risk of more flooding and landslides will continue until the end of the monsoon season in mid-October, compounded by potential cyclones which are most frequent in October and November.

Although the emergency is far from over, already there are indications that much has changed in the seven years since Cyclone Nargis hit. Immediately after Nargis slammed into the country’s densely populated, low-lying delta region, the country’s military government–despite being completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the disaster–was slow to accept the international community’s offer of assistance. The official death toll was 138,000, although it was widely believed that many times that amount died in the disaster. Although the government eventually bowed to international pressure and allowed access to international humanitarian organizations, the result of the delay was that hundreds of thousands of people were denied access to life-saving assistance. 

How well Myanmar will weather the most
recent storm remains to be seen.

In sharp contrast to its response to Cyclone Nargis, in the wake of the most recent disaster, the government did not hesitate to accept international aid and instituted procedures to expedite visas for humanitarian workers, in most areas of the countries. Humanitarian and development partners are now supporting the government in addressing the immediate humanitarian needs of 580,000 people and supporting the recovery of flood-affected communities. In addition, there are reports that disaster preparedness measures implemented by the government–including early warnings, evacuations, and timely delivery of emergency relief–were by-and-large effective. 

How well Myanmar will weather the most recent storm remains to be seen. Poverty and underdevelopment mean that flood-affected communities in many parts of the country remain extremely vulnerable. Ensuring that hundreds of thousands of rural poor who lost what little they had are able to recover, and overcoming secondary disasters like widespread food insecurity and disease, will be a challenge. Given the country’s ongoing economic woes, including high inflation and a 20 percent decline in the currency, there is significant concern of the longer-term impact of the floods on Myanmar’s rice exports and other agricultural products. 

Moreover, the disaster comes at a time when the country is preparing for national elections to be held on November 8, the first general elections since a nominally civilian government came into power in 2011 and ended decades of military rule. Many have expressed concern that the administration’s preoccupation with the election will undermine recovery efforts.  

Over the next three weeks, I will be traveling to flood-affected parts of the country to evaluate the response by the national government and the international community and identify ongoing challenges as the country moves toward recovery. One specific concern will by the prioritization and protection of vulnerable groups such as the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority long persecuted and denied citizenship by the government, who were among the worst affected by the floods. In addition, I hope to gather impressions of how the international community’s response to the crisis affected its relationship with the government and flood-affected communities, and the extent to which opportunities to build trust and open up access for international humanitarian and development actors were seized upon. I’ll also be documenting progress by the government, UN agencies, international and local civil society groups, and communities themselves in terms of improvements in disaster preparedness and response since Cyclone Nargis, including what worked well and what didn’t work well. 

While we know the upcoming election will not be completely democratic–no Muslim candidates were allowed to run for office–the next few months are likely to be crucial in determining whether Myanmar is willing to take the next steps in its transition to a more democratic and stable country.