I posted a couple of days ago to WorldChanging about the possible impact of the tsunami on Burma, and the difficulty of determining what that impact would be. The ensuing conversation has been fascinating, with a number of commenters proposing scenarios in which Burma might well have been spared the brunt of the impact of the tsunami, and others arguing that there must have been an impact and that the government is preventing that information from getting out.
As someone interested in the ways governments try to control information (and the way the media often assists in the process), I tend to lean towards the second interpretation. While I find compelling the argument that Thailand would be more impacted than Burma because of heavy tourist development on the coast, I believe the impact on Burma will turn out to be far beyond the dozens of deaths currently reported by Burmese authorities. Democratic Voice of Burma is reporting more than 200 deaths in various regions, with the strong caveat that there is very little information from the Coco and Pashu Islands off the southwest coast of Burma.
A UC Santa Cruz geophysicist, Steven Ward, also has a hard time believing that the tsunami hasn’t caused significant damage to southern Burma:
According to the model, southern Myanmar “should have been hit equally” as hard as southern Thailand, he said. “This earthquake was 1,000 kilometers long,” Ward added. “I see no scientific reason why a tsunami wouldn’t hit equally strong a few hundred kilometers north” of southern Thailand.
Looking at the NOAA’s animation of the tsunami helps me understand why scientists are skeptical that Burma has escaped substantial damage. The impact to the Southwestern coast of Burma looks to be equivalent to the enormous impacts to Thailand’s peninsular coast; the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, just south of Burma’s coast, suffered substantial damage.
Writing for the Telegraph in London, Damien McElroy is finding it very difficult to gain access to areas of the Burmese coast that might have been affected by the tsunami:
Conscript soldiers have been deployed on main roads leading out of the southern town of Kawthaung. They have orders to prevent foreign nationals from travelling more than two miles from the centre. The naval vessels are looking for boats that they do not recognise in order to prevent unauthorised missions landing along the ravaged coastline.
A government official intercepted our vehicle as we left Kawthaung with the aim of catching a glimpse of the damage wreaked on one of the world’s last dictatorships. “Go back now,” he told us. “I cannot give you permission to leave town and the army checkpoints will stop you. There is nothing to see. We are handling the situation in our own way.”
Unable to get to the affected areas by road, McElroy paid a fisherman to take him across a mile of the Andaman Sea to Palao Ton Ton, a coastal fishing village devestated by the tsunami. At least fifty people were swept to their death from a single collapsed bridge. Extrapolating from this story and the number of small villages located in coastal Burma, it becomes hard to believe the government’s reported death tolls.
McElroy points out that, even if the government were willing to share the true figures, it may be extremely difficult to quantify the impact of the tsunami in the islands in the Andaman Sea:
There are many remote islands that no one has yet reached. The fishermen who ply these waters and know them well tell of widespread devastation on the Coco Islands and the Mergui Archipelago. The vast island chains, which belong to Burma, lie in a swathe across the Andaman Sea, north of Thailand’s Phuket peninsula and south of India’s Nicobar island chain – both of which suffered heavy loss of life.
Aid workers in Rangoon have repeatedly pressed the government for permission to inspect the islands but have been rebuffed. Their population has never been surveyed and the tribes who live there are renowned for their amphibian way of life. Estimating the likely death toll would be very difficult.
“The government says that it is possible to go but say the local fisherman claim that the tides are particularly high, making sailing unsafe. But we cannot see any difference,” one aid worker said. “It is also impossible to fly over the area because it is a designated military zone.”
The Times of India points out that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – parts of India, just south of the Burmese Coco Islands, are radically different culturally and economically from their “parent” countries:
You just need one statistic to realise how far removed the tribes on the Andaman and Nicobar islands are from the developing economy that is India — 30% of the tribal population reported hunting and gathering as their occupation in a survey conducted a few years back. Only 38 of the 572 islands are populated, 26 in the Andamans and 12 in the Nicobars. The total population of the islands is 3,50,000, with a 12% tribal population. Almost 95% of the tribals live in the Nicobars, where they form more than 50% of the population.
Dr. V.R. Rao, quoted in Outlook India, argues that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle may have prevented “the tribals” living on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from significant harm.
“The tribals get wind of impending danger from biological warning signals like the cry of birds and change in the behavioural patterns of marine animals. They must have run to the forests for safety. No casualties have been reported among these five tribes,” ASI Director Dr V R Rao told PTI today.
One might argue that this is an unrealistic and romanticized view of what likely happened to these indigenous inhabitants – the Indian government has been carefully controlling access to the Andamans by relief teams, and the already substantial Andaman and Nicobar death tolls may rise as more indigenous people are reported dead.
Friends who work in the Burmese Democracy movement are noting with alarm that the Myanmar government continues to refuse international aid, with the exception of a small donation from China. One friend is collecting resources on “underground aid” to trusted NGOs in Burma who are working on tsunami relief – I’ll post that information here and on Worldchanging as soon as I have it.
ALTSEAN, the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a Thailand-based Burmese democracy group, has an excellent briefing on the Tsunami’s impact on Burma, possible reasons for government coverup, and speculation on earthquakes as an omen for regime change in Burma. The briefing was sent to me as a PDF and I can’t find it anywhere on the net, so I’m currently hosting it on one of my sites. (If anyone from ALTSEAN thinks that’s a bad idea, please let me know and I’ll take it down immediately.) If you’re interested in the impact of the tsunami on Burma, this document is a must-read.