The Weathermen in Burma

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan famously sang about the tumultuous times that were America’s 1960s. This quote comes to mind now as I look to the current tragedy happening in Burma after Cyclone Nargis’s devastation. In a country whose state-controlled media provides a rosy contrast to the external reports of an exponentially rising death toll, the sky may indeed prove to be the most sincere information source.


Burma has traditionally been a superstitious country. Independence from the British had followed strict astrological dictate, occurring at exactly 4:20 a.m. on Jan. 4, 1948. The student-led uprising for democracy started on August 8, 1988 (8/8/88) as the number eight ensures good luck. And most recently, in 2005, Senior General Than Shwe announced the relocation of the country’s capital from Rangoon, allegedly at the advice of his astrologer. Within days of the declaration, the entire government (and their families) moved 200 miles North to Naypyidaw, on November 6 at 6:37 a.m. Widespread rumors allege a premonition that the former capital would face a natural disaster and social unrest.
Between the brutal crackdown on monks last September and October and the current devastation to the country’s South, their advice may have proven prescient. However, this reasoning can also help to explain the government’s refusal to take any foreign aid.
Many Burmese Buddhists believe that if the country suffers under the reign of a bad king, it is doomed to face natural disasters as omens of inept rule. The fact that Cyclone Nargis devastated the country at the same time as a public vote on a widely discredited state constitutional referendum may give more credence to this perspective. “The juxtaposition of the cyclone and the voting might cause many in Burma to feel this is an indication that the military should not be in power,” said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University in Washington. Could the disaster be taken to mean the current rulers have lost their self-proclaimed mandate from heaven?
The cyclone might be more of a wakeup call to people inside the country than the violent crackdown on the peaceful monk protests several months earlier. While widely reported overseas, most Burmese people inside the country still don’t know about the aggressive actions taken by the military against the peaceful demonstrations of the monks. At best, people with access to State media sources saw protesters portrayed as “fake monks” – instigators who were attempting to ruin the country. With over 30% of people living below the poverty line, few have access to any information. For those who do know about the unrest, this was for the most part what they came to believe.
The question is whether there will be any blowback against the government as people find themselves abandoned in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Traditional networks of communication have been fractured as people struggle to survive. While many victims of the storm took shelter at Monasteries, Primary Schools and Dhama Rone (public gathering places used for religious functions), they were later forced to leave these sites as the junta used them as polling booths. This also means increased pressure on the monks to act in accord with the regime to ensure a lack of renewed protests.
The regime has proven that it won’t listen to outside opinion. Aid is seen as a threat. Boxes of food aid stamped with American flags entering their soil are labeled as foreign propaganda. Burma’s xenophobic leaders believe that they’re strong enough to go it alone. Official data claimes that 92.4% of voters approved a constitutional referendum that occurred only days after the cyclone. This statistical improbability shows the junta to be a group willing to write their own destiny in the hopes that their reign will appear legitimate. Similar to actions taken by other dictatorships desperately seeking to retain power, their decisions are entirely rational. It is the logic that’s twisted.
Sadly, the earthquake tragedy in China reverberated in Burma. It has complicated the efforts of United Nations Security Council countries, and their people to pressure the regime’s neighbor to the North to force them to allow aid to enter. Instead, recovery efforts are under way there as well. Allowing the Burmese military to once again avoid appropriate consequences for their crimes against their own people.
While wars ravaged the 20th century, the 21st century has opened with fierce natural disasters threatening humanity. From Hurricane Katrina to Cyclone Nargis, so far, our responses to these tragedies have been inadequate. Perhaps we too should take this calamity as a sign of which way the wind blows.

This article originally appeared in Salon.com.

Emily Jacobi

Photo by: Emily Jacobi

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