In her book Behind the Teak Curtain, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung suggests that farmers in Myanmar often assign the causes of their suffering to local authorities rather than those higher up. Asked who is responsible for their problems, many are inclined to blame the nearby administrators who meddle in the details of their lives, whose excesses are known and measurable, rather than those far away. This tendency to attribute blame to lower rather than higher agents and agencies, Thawnghmung proposes, may be one of the reasons that the military has been able to stay in power for so long, keeping superficial distance between itself and the messy business of petty bureaucracy.
If she’s right, then the generals are in big trouble. They now have a mess, largely of their own making, that doesn’t leave any room for distance. They’ve denied and played down natural disasters in the past and even arrested people who have taken photographs or video of flood and fire affected areas. But those events were nothing compared with what has happened during the past week and a half. In fact nothing was anything when compared with what has happened this time around. There’s no denying Cyclone Nargis, its sheer size and brutal consequences. There’s no turning up to say, if only we at the top had known sooner, then we could have done something about it. They were in on it from the start.
Very few among the millions in Yangon, already embittered by last September, will be convinced by the propaganda images of armed forces’ largesse in the aftermath of the storm. They need not go anywhere to distinguish fantasy from reality. The city remains virtually at a standstill, without water and electricity in most parts; prices are skyrocketing, relief goods are allegedly being sold in shops and markets. On the outskirts, private citizens and welfare groups trying to assist affected people are being harried and threatened. Homeless survivors have been forced out of schools and other public buildings and told to go back to houses that they no longer have. But few in the delta will have seen the propaganda at all, let alone given it any thought. The lives of hundreds of thousands there that have not been lost, yet, have been shattered. The true extent of what has been wrought upon them has not yet been fathomed, the efforts to bring aid into the region continuously restricted, sometimes obstructed.
And people in the rest of the country are not, contrary to the misunderstanding of some writers abroad, ignorant of happenings elsewhere in its borders. Keeping up with news by word of mouth, spreading stories and rumors, is a part of daily life in Myanmar. The government may have a monopoly on the official version of events but it does not have one on how things are interpreted and communicated from person to person and place to place. Many are trying to contact family and friends in the affected areas and learn more about what is really going on. Others are getting news from relatives working abroad who have uninhibited access to the Internet and television. Monasteries and welfare groups as far away as Mandalay have been collecting money, clothes and food for victims, which some intend to take to the recipients in person. And townsfolk and villagers here and there are tuning in to short wave radio news broadcasts from the BBC, VOA and RFA, and recounting what they’ve heard for the benefit of their neighbors.
So is the military government finally done for? Has it mishandled the cyclone so badly, going ahead with its constitutional referendum rather than concentrating on relief efforts, playing games with international agencies and even appropriating what has been sent, that it is finally at the beginning of the end?
While it is tempting to say that it might be, and there are some who have been tempted in recent days to say that it is, the generals have had their obituaries written many times before. Last September was only the most recent case in point. Pundits, experts and intellectuals have for years lambasted them as incompetent, uneducated and isolated, unable to administer or understand the intricacies of modern statesmanship, yet they, not their critics, have always had the final say.
Still, this government is probably in a tighter spot now than at any time in the last two decades. The effects of the cyclone on the country’s agricultural and fishing sectors are likely to be severe, yet it is insisting upon meeting export contracts, pushing rice out one way while it gets flown in from another. Industrial zones like Hlaingthayar and Shwepyithar were also badly hit and the lack of effective disaster management is unlikely to do anything other than scare the few foreign investors already there. Rising prices triggered by last August’s fuel hikes, which stimulated the protests of the following month, are now speeding away from the average shopper’s budget. And as more and more people learn that the government was warned about the possible size and route of the cyclone but failed to pass on the message, hostility and resentment are sure to increase.
If the army’s peak leadership fears for the future, it’s not showing it, coming onto television not for the sake of cyclone victims but in order to cast ballots on May 10, ensuring that its subordinates too kept campaigning right up to the vote, rather than expending their energies on cyclone recovery efforts. Radio Free Asia reported that at one rally in a suburb of Yangon, a man who had lost his house in the storm yelled out that he would never support the military government. He was hit in front of the crowd. When his wife protested, she also was hit. If with this cyclone the generals have lost their superficial distance, then it might just as well have been one of them doing the hitting. Whether or not this makes enough of a difference to threaten their authority depends largely on those getting hit.