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Cyclone Nargis in Burma: Aid Analysis


On May 2nd 2008 a category 3 cyclone hit the Irrawaddy delta in Southern Myanmar. Nargis, as it was named, was the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history (TCG 2008). It ended up claiming the lives of almost 140,000 people in addition to displacing a further 800,000. The United Nations reported that overall the cyclone had disrupted the lives of nearly 2.4 million people (Crisis Group 2008).

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The Myanmar government, or the State Protection and Democracy Council (SPDC), had neither the resources nor the experience to deal with such an event and as a result, assistance from the international community was needed (Selth 2008). The purpose of this paper is to examine the aid delivered to Myanmar by various international government and civil society groups. In an attempt to do so the paper looks at the at delivery of the aid in light of the influence of international politics, the domestic policies adopted by the SPDC, international funding issues, the effectiveness of the human rights system, and issues related culture, environment and gender.

Influence of International Politics

One of the factors that had a significant impact on the delivery of aid to the cyclone victims was the influence international politics on the decision making process. This section of the paper takes a look at the manner in which politics determined the course of the humanitarian operation in Myanmar.

First of all, it is of importance to highlight the fact that for twenty years before Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar had been deprived of international aid. The international community hoped that by enforcing sanctions and trade embargos they would be able to force the military regime out of political power and bring in a more democratic government. The devastating consequence of cyclone Nargis, however, made the international governments and non government organizations realize that they had to suspend those polices temporarily in an attempt to provide the much needed humanitarian aid to the victims. (Crisis Group 2008)

Unfortunately, for several weeks the SPDC continued to hinder the international humanitarian operation. They insisted upon delivering aid themselves with as little help from overseas as possible. They blocked access to the affected region and refused to grant visas to international aid workers (Selth 2008). They also prevented French, UK and US aid vessels from entering Myanmar territory. Despite the fact that these ships were carrying supplies to feed and shelter the survivors, the junta feared that the humanitarian operation could be used as a pretense to overthrow their government. Consequently the aid vessels, which the SPDC viewed as warships, were left anchored in international waters for weeks awaiting permission to unload the much need supplies, before they went back. (Stover and Vinck 2008)

This pattern of events prompted several European countries to view the SPDC’s response to the disaster as a crime against humanity. They accused the SPDC of having had inadequate aid measures in place and its continued rejection of aid from abroad was considered to be a deliberate disregard for the citizens of Myanmar (Crisis Group 2008). Therefore, the French government, with the support of the British and US governments, requested the UN Security Council to authorize the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine for the purpose of delivering aid to the victims by force if necessary (Belanger and Horsey 2008). However, Chinese and Russian governments rejected the proposal based on the fact that the doctrine did not apply to natural disasters and as a result was not sanctioned by the Security Council (Selth 2008).

Eventually signs of cooperation between the SPDC and the international community began to emerge. First there was a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), where it was established that aid could be delivered to the region through ASEAN representatives. Next, at a meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Senior General Than Shwe in Naypyitaw it was agreed that the SPDC would allow international aid workers full access to the disaster sites. As an outcome of these two meetings the SPDC along with representative from the UN and ASEAN set up the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), as a means to coordinate the cooperative relief effort. (ALTSEAN 2008)

Domestic Policies

Even after granting visas to the aid workers, the SPDC implemented certain domestic policies that hindered the international relief effort. An example of such a deterring policy is the confinement of international aid workers to the immediate Yangon area. As a result of this policy, foreign staff members distributing relief materials and food donated by the international community could only work from Yangon region. They had to rely on the junta to distribute it outside the city borders. In addition, the junta also set up road blocks preventing access to the affected areas in an attempt to further restrict the movements of international aid workers. (ALTSEAN 2008)

Additionally the SPDC was cautious of the types of materials they allowed to be brought in as aid. They prevented aid agencies from delivering any materials that could be used by the survivors to gain access to outside world. As a result, the SPDC banned the import and use of communication equipments unless purchased from the government, at a price of $1,500 per phone. Each agency was allowed purchase a maximum of ten phones. Furthermore, the SPDC did not allow aid agencies to import vehicles or machinery from abroad either. An offer by the British government to provide the SPDC with equipment capable of unloading planes faster was turned down. As a result, because of these policies adopted by the SPDC, the delivery of aid was not only slow and delayed but huge quantities of relief supplies ended up in Yangon warehouses as confiscated items instead of being delivered to the victims. (ALTSEAN 2008)

Another major criticism of SPDC domestic policies was the fact that they conducted the constitutional referendum despite the cyclone disaster. The purpose of the election was to legitimize the authority of the junta. As a result they went ahead with the elections amidst widespread disapproval. Even though, the junta postponed the referendum in the cyclone affected areas they went ahead with the elections the in other regions (Selth 2008). Consequently, the SPDC had to commit the limited resources it had to the referendum which diverted the much needed attention away from delivering aid to those affected by the cyclone. In addition the SPDC forcefully evicted many of the survivors from both government and unofficial shelters for the purpose of conducting the referendum. For example, the SPDC evicted around 90 people from a hall in Yangon so that the hall could be used as a polling station (Amnesty International 2008).

Therefore, international politics combined with domestic policies ensured that the delivery of aid for the victims of Nargis was not an easy matter. To complicate things further the international community faced certain funding issues as well. The next section of the paper takes a closer look at those issues.

International Funding Issues

Aside from the onsite hindrances of delivering aid the international aid agencies had issues related to raising adequate funds. During the initial emergency response the World Food Program (WFP) estimated that the daily aid delivered to the victims was only one third of the required amount (ALTSEAN 2008). A year later half a million people are still without proper housing and 350,000 people require food donations from the World Food Program (Solomon 2009).

The original Myanmar Cyclone Flash Appeal had requested for 187.3 million dollars for the rebuilding effort. However, after a more comprehensive assessment of the affected area and the victims a revised Flash Appeal requesting $481 million was launched (UN 2008). Unfortunately, during the emergency phase of the operation, international aid agencies were able to raise only 66 percent of that amount. Similarly, of the nearly $700 million required for the three years’ Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP), initiated by the SPDC in association with ASEAN and the UN, only $100 million had been pledged by donor countries (Mungpi 2009). The lack of adequate funding drastically reduced the rate at which aid was being delivered to those in need.

Despite the obvious need for additional funding, international aid agencies were unable to accumulate funding the way in which they did during the 2004 Asian Tsunami. One of the major reasons for this was the reluctance of governments to provide additional funding to military junta. They feared that their donations were being diverted away from the victims and were being used to strengthen the military regime instead. Such fears were reaffirmed by evidence of aid being stolen and redirected by the SPDC. For example, the first two WFP planes carrying food into Myanmar were seized by the government upon arrival. The WFP responded by suspending their flights to Myanmar, however, in light of the extent of the humanitarian crisis the WFP realized that they had to resume the flights and send aid irrespective of fact that it might get sized again. In addition there were reports of incidents where the victims being made to pay for the relief items. In some cases the government agents forced the survivors to vote “Yes” in the referendum before giving them their aid supplies. Survivors were also reportedly given rotten, low quality food instead of the nutrition-rich biscuits that the international donors had sent. Instead, these items ended up being sold in the markets along with the rice and oil donated by international organizations. To counter these accusations SPDC issued a warning to take legal action against anyone caught stealing relief supplies. However, the threat never materialized, and as a result reports of stolen and missing aid continued to appear, which further discouraged international donors and caused additional funding issues for the aid agencies. (ALTSEAN 2008)

The implementation of the human rights system

According to an international system of human rights, in the event of a natural disaster, every individual has the right to be given protection from natural hazards, evacuate if necessary and be given access to adequate quantities of food, shelter, and medicine. It is the national authority’s responsibility to provide these services; however, in cases where the authority is either unable or unwilling to provide these services the international community has a humanitarian obligation to deliver the aid instead (Caritas 2008). It was this system of human rights that was used by the international community to aid the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. Facing numerous previously mentioned SPDC created obstacles the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on June 18 condemning the continued violation of the rights of the cyclone survivors. The resolution demanded that the SPDC allow aid workers “immediate, full and unhindered access” to the Irrawaddy delta and stop forcing the survivors to return to their cyclone affected village homes where access to emergency relief was inadequate. (Akimoto 2008)

However, a year later international relief workers still find it difficult to get visas for Myanmar. Those that do get the in are only allowed a limited period of time to work in the Irrawaddy delta (Solomon 2009). Furthermore, since declaring the end of the rescue and relief phase of the cyclone Nargis response on 20 May 2008 the SPDC ordered increasing number of traumatized cyclone victims to return to their homes despite the fact that they no to access to food, shelter or other aid supplies in those villages (Amnesty International 2008). Therefore, even though it was through the human rights system that the international community was able to provide assistance to the survivors, the domestic policies adopted by the military junta greatly diminished the effectiveness of its application.

Many of these domestic policies that hindered the delivery of aid to the victims of the cyclone resulted from certain cultural beliefs that the military junta has. The next section of the paper takes a look at some of these cultural issues that have made delivering aid difficult.

Cultural Issues

One of the major cultural issues that made the process of restoring the Irrawaddy delta immensely difficult is rooted in the isolationist principles of the military junta. Since the 1960s the government of Myanmar endorsed a self-reliance doctrine where they believed that their nation and citizens would do better if left on their own. Consequently they avoided accepting assistance from abroad even if caused more hardships (Belanger and Horsey 2008: 2). This belief was a major factor behind the initial denial of international assistance.

This tradition of self reliance also resulted in the survivors being prematurely sent back to their cyclone devastated homes. Just after a month after the cyclone, the government declared that the survivors had to return to their villages and resume their way of living. According to the SPDC, cyclone victims would otherwise become too dependent on relief from international donors and not be productive enough to support themselves. In some cases, the government forcibly evicted people from their shelters and sent them back to their villages by the use of force. In Yangon, for example, the military reportedly threatened to shoot those that would not return to their villages. (Shwe 2008)

Another major cultural issue within Myanmar stems from the fact it is a multi-ethnic country with several groups in conflict with one another. Even the delta region is home to a number of different ethnic groups with the Bamar being the dominant group in the region followed by the Karen and then the Rakhaing. As a result the international aid agencies had to ensure that no particular ethnic group was given preferential treatment or overlooked during the operation. Otherwise intergroup tensions worsened the already strained relations between the various ethnic groups. On the other hand aid through an equitable and non-sectarian delivery of aid the aid agencies were able to make different groups together. (TCG 2008)

Environmental Issues

Environmental issues also presented themselves as factors that needed to be considered by the aid agencies. Due to the damages caused by the cyclone the local environment in the Irrawaddy delta created severe health issues for the survivors. The contamination of the ponds and lakes, used by villagers as drinking water, with sea water and dead bodies spread dengue fever, diarrhea and dysentery across the region. Despite efforts by the government and international medical groups the damage done to the local environment, continued to create serious health concerns for the survivors. (Shwe 2008)

Aside from causing physical harm, environmental damages placed a severe strain on the economic wellbeing of an already impoverished society. The fact that the majority of the victims of Nargis belonged to rural societies they relied on agriculture as their main source of income. In addition the delta region also produced a major portion of the countries of food supply. Therefore, the destruction of the agricultural sector meant that not only were the residents of the Irrawaddy to suffer severe economic hardships, but the entire country would have food shortages for several years unless the aid agencies addressed the issue. Therefore, the rehabilitation of the region, expected to cost $11 billion, remains a top priority for aid agencies (TCG 2008)

A third environment related issue is associated with the loss of the mangrove forests in the region. The spread of shrimp farms and rice paddies for over a period of ten years resulted in the loss of significant portion of the mangrove covering. The presence of the mangrove forest would have reduced the extent of the damage caused by Nargis (TCG 2008). Consequently the IUCN suggested that once the emergency aid had been provided, the government and other organizations needed to restore the mangrove forest and other coastal ecosystem in order to avoid future devastations caused by cyclones. (IUCN 2008)

Gender Issues

According to a report published by the TCG, 61 percent of those that died in the cyclone were women, with the number being even higher in certain villages. Furthermore, the majority of the women that died were aged between the 18-60 years, the age group that is the most the productive and reproductive. Therefore, the cyclone created a gender imbalance in the delta region which in turn created several issues for the aid agencies (TCG 2008). This section of the paper takes a look at some of the gender issues created by Nargis, particularly the ones related to division of labor, migration of women into cities and the overall difference in needs of men and women in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

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First of all Nargis caused a shift in the division of labor among men and women. The death of the female members of the household meant that the men had to take on responsibilities that were traditionally reserved for women, such as cooking and childcare. Similarly, in families where the men died women had to take on the responsibility of earning money in addition to their previous roles. As a result it created additional burden for the widows and widowers and prevented them from performing other duties and as such had to be treated as among the most vulnerable groups in the community (TCG 2009)

Another gender related issue created by the cyclone involves women migrating from the rural sectors to the urban regions. The devastation to the region that Nargis caused left unmarried women with very limited opportunities to earn a living. As a result many were prompted to leave their villages and look for work in the city. Once in the city, these women, with no experience of life outside their village, became easy targets for exploitation, forced labor, prostitution and trafficking. (TCG 2008)

Finally aid agencies had to implement different aid mechanisms for the men and women of the delta region who experienced the natural disaster in different ways and as such needed to be looked upon as separate interest groups with specific needs, limitations and abilities. Due to cultural and social restrictions women, comparatively, have fewer opportunities to improve their conditions on their own. As a result the aid agencies, helping women recover, needed to provide services that allowed women to improve their ability to participate in activities and decision making processes. (TCG 2008)


Therefore, it can be seen from this paper that the delivery of aid to a country devastated by a natural disaster requires the consideration of a variety of factors. In the case of Nargis wrecking the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar, the international community had to deal with a military government intent on hindering the aid effort. After having convinced the SPDC to let international aid workers enter Myanmar the aid agencies faced additional difficulties due to the domestic policies. Moreover, with the junta diverting and stealing aid the availability of international funds became an issue as well.

Despite, having had used the international system of human rights to initiate the delivery of aid to the affected groups, the overall international response was not as effective in preventing the violation of the survivors’ human rights. Cultural, environmental and gender issues inside the Irrawaddy delta complicated matters further; illustrating the complexity of the delivering aid to an isolated developing country struggling to cope with a natural disaster.


Akimoto, Y. (2008) “Post Nargis Analysis: The other side of the Story” [http://www.dhf.uu.se/pdffiler/burma_post_nargi_analysis.pdf]

ALTSEAN (2008) SPDC turns disaster into catastrophe [http://www.altsean.org/Docs/PDF%20Format/Thematic%20Briefers/SPDC%20turns%20disaster%20into%20catastrophe.pdf]

Amnesty International (2008) Myanmar Briefing: Human rights concerns a month after Cyclone Nargis [http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA16/013/2008/en/8592e938-32e5-11dd-863f-e9cd398f74da/asa160132008eng.html]

Belanger, J. and R. Horsey (2008), “Negotiating humanitarian access to cyclone-affected areas of Myanmar: a review” Humanitarian Exchange 41

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Selth, A. (2008) “˜Burma and the Threat of Invasion: Regime Fantasy or Strategic Reality?’, Griffith Asia Institute’s Regional Outlook Paper 17

Shwe, K. (2008) An Alternative Assessment of the Humanitarian Assistance in the Irrawaddy Delta Situation after 60 days [http://www.cohre.org/store/attachments/Cyclone%20Nargis%20-%20Alternative%20assessment.pdf]

Solomon (2009) “A year on, Nargis victims still lack adequate support” Mizzima [http://www.mizzima.com/nargis-impact/one-year-after-nargis/2042-a-year-on-nargis-victims-still-lack-adequate-support.html]

Stover, E. and P. Vinck (2008) “Cyclone Nargis and the Politics of Relief and Reconstruction Aid in Burma (Myanmar)” JAMA 30(6): 729-731

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