Amanda Ripley


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The Myanmar Cyclone: An Unnatural Disaster

6th May 2008 posted in General

Earlier, Hillary Clinton said her heart goes out to the victims of “this horrible natural disaster,” which has claimed at least 22,000 lives in Myanmar. I’m sure her sentiment is genuine. But it’s time to stop referring to disasters like this as natural.

Cyclones are hurricanes. Had this same storm hit Florida, with the same resulting flooding and tidal wave, the death toll would have been far lower. Natural implies inevitable, which is simply not the case, as we learned the excruciating way from Hurricane Katrina.

On Friday, May 2, before the storm even hit Burma’s largest city, the Irrawaddy newspaper (which is put out by Myanmar dissidents in neighboring Thailand) published a story foreshadowing the decidedly manmade fiasco to come. “Announcements and warnings were broadcast on state-run MRTV television and radio but due to the lack of electricity, many Burmese in coastal areas, especially outside of cities, were unaware of the storm’s approach,” the paper detailed. It’s hard to evacuate a storm you don’t know is coming.

And the newspaper also predicted the manmade response: “The military government and international humanitarian organizations are not prepared to provide relief and assistance to people who suffer injuries or are left homeless, according to observers.”

Now some Burmese are combining the two narratives, wondering if the natural disaster is punishment for the government’s manmade failures. “Traditionally, Buddhist Burmese consider that if the country is ruled by a bad king, it is doomed to face natural disasters—floods, storms and fire. It’s a sign that the tyrant or inept ruler needs to be removed,” reads another Irrawaddy story today. That sounds about right, actually.