Cyclone Giri and Echoes of Nargis in Myanmar/Burma

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that more than 70,700 people are homeless and at least 175,000 people are affected by Cyclone Giri, which pummeled Burma/Myanmar this week.

The cyclone hit the western Burma, the homeland of the long marginalized Rohingya ethnic group.  When it made landfall, the storm was actually stronger than Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 100,000 people in Burma in 2008. According to OCHA, large scale loss of life has so far been avoided this time around, in part because the Red Cross helped organize the evacuation of people living along the coast.

There are, though, some political ramifications of the storm.  On November 7, Burma/Myanmar’s will hold its first national elections in 20 years.  These elections are shaping up to be a sham. The junta is keeping most foreign journalists and election monitors out of the country and has detained its most popular opposition figure in house arrest.

There is no question that the elections will reinforce the ruling regime’s grip on power. But, the fact that the elections are just around the corner may actually give the junta reason to not be too obstinate about accepting foreign humanitarian assistance.  After Nargis, the military regime came under heavy international criticism for refusing entry to aid workers. It was not until Ban Ki Moon intervened personally with Than Shwe about two weeks after Nargis hit that Burma began to issue visas for humanitarian workers.

This time around, early indications are that the Junta is being more cooperative. That could be that the regime does not want to come under criticism right before the election. In particular,  Asian leaders are meeting for the ASEAN summit in Vietnam tomorrow. The regime has so far been able to keep its appalling human rights record off the agenda, despite American and European insistance. Presumably, the junta would like to keep any such discussion to a minimum as they seek the patina of legitimacy that these elections would confer.

In the meantime, the United States has offered assistance.  “I hope that the Burmese government will accept our offer to provide humanitarian assistance, said John Kerry in a statement released yesterday.  “We saw in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that with some cooperation from the Burmese government, assistance from the international community can reach those in need and help speed recovery. ”

Secretary Clinton will travel to the region later this week and attend the ASEAN summit. It will be interesting to see the extent to which she can work with some of Burma’s allies to get aid to the affected populations.