It often takes a major event to catalyze change. Whether violent conflict or a major storm, seeing the worst often pushes us to make difficult decisions for the better.
While we wait to see what lasting impact—if any—Hurricane Sandy has on environmental policy in the U.S., it is helpful to look to Asia and reflect on a storm that literally pushed cloistered Burma toward reform.
Cyclone Nargis, which quickly overwhelmed the least developed Southeast Asian state on May 2nd, 2008, provided the necessary spark for a politically troubled government’s reforms to take place.
At that time, participatory politics and stronger institutions were desperately needed in Burma to more effectively deal with the threat of increasingly intense tropical cyclones in Asia.
I happened to be in Yangon at the time of Nargis, a storm that would result, in conservative estimates, 138,000 people killed or missing. Millions more were left without housing or clean water, and the livelihoods of thousands of families were destroyed. The low-lying, and heavily irrigated Irrawaddy Delta region, south of the country’s capital, was especially badly hit.
As information began to trickle out of the country, widely held views in the international community of the country’s repressive policies and opacity were confirmed. The storm evidenced the ill-equipped nature of the government and its lack of capacity in recovering from such a significant catastrophe.
Worried about western-led pro-democracy plots to usurp its power, Burma’s government waited for days before allowing any outside assistance.
The day Cyclone Nargis hit, the New Light of Myanmar, a government-controlled English language daily, focused heavily on the impending constitutional referendum, aimed at solidifying the military’s role in government. The banner headline read, “To approve the State Constitution is a national duty of the entire people today.” Mention of the impending Cyclone Nargis could only be found buried in a weather report that called for “Some rain and thundershowers.”
On May 10th, eight short days after the storm hit, the government proceeded with its vote. It determined that 92% of eligible voters were in favor of the new constitution in elections considered by international and domestic observers to be fraudulent. Just six months before Nargis, monks took to the streets as part of the Saffron Revolution, calling for political reform. Burma’s ruling generals were keen to further assert their strength in the face of lingering domestic unrest.