Cyclone Nargis and Burma's Constitutional Referendum
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Cyclone Nargis struck the coast of Burma in the evening of May 2, 2008 and cut a path of
destruction across the southern portion of the country. The storm left in its wake an official death
toll of 84,537 and 53,836 more missing, and extensive damage to the nation’s premier agricultural
areas. Some have speculated that the final number of dead is actually more than 130,000. Vital
infrastructure was destroyed by the storm, severely limiting the ability to assess the loss of life
and provide assistance to the survivors for weeks following the cyclone. In addition, much of
Burma’s most productive agricultural land has been severely damaged; some experts expect that
it will take up to two years for Burma’s production of rice, seafood, pork and poultry to recover,
and that the nation may face chronic food shortages and the need for international assistance for
Burma’s ruling military junta quickly faced both domestic and international criticism for its
response to Cyclone Nargis, including accusations that it failed to provide adequate warning, its
slow emergency response, and its reluctance to allow international relief workers into the country.
The United States has offered so far contributed $40.17 million in relief aid.
Even before Cyclone Nargis struck, the junta was already facing a highly controversial
referendum on a proposed constitution scheduled for May 10, 2008, that could shape U.S. and
other countries’ policies toward Burma. As a consequence, the evolution and implications of the
humanitarian crisis became inextricably linked to Burma’s political situation and its relations with
the international community. In a widely criticized move, the military junta decided go ahead
with the vote, holding the constitutional referendum in most of Burma on May 10, 2008, and in
the more severely affected areas on May 24, 2008. The SPDC reported a heavy turnout on both
days and few voting irregularities. Opposition groups state that the turnout was light, and there
were many cases of voting fraud and voter intimidation. On May 29, 2008, the junta announced
the promulgation of the new constitution, on the basis of on its approval by 90.7% of the eligible
voters. According to the new constitution, elections to form a new government are to be held in
Some experts are speculating that Cyclone Nargis may precipitate major political change in
Burma, including the destabilization of Burma’s military regime. The junta has already faced
domestic and international pressure to cancel the constitutional referendum. Local dissatisfaction
with the speed and quality of the junta’s provision of emergency assistance may heighten
domestic opposition to the junta and its proposed constitution. Also, rising food prices and food
shortages may feed popular discontent, much like fuel price increases led to protests in Burma of
September 2007. In addition, two days before announcing the official results of the constitutional
referendum, the SPDC extended opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for the sixth
consecutive year. This report examines the scope of and response to the disaster, as well as its
links to Burma’s political situation and U.S. policy. The report will be updates as circumstances
Introduc tion ..................................................................................................................................... 1
The Effects of Cyclone Nargis........................................................................................................1
Estimated Numbers at a Glance................................................................................................1
Dama ge ..................................................................................................................................... 2
Criticism of the SPDC’s Response..................................................................................................3
Humanitarian Relief Operation.......................................................................................................5
Access ....................................................................................................................................... 5
Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA)...................................................................................7
Status of the Relief Operation...................................................................................................7
Responsibility to Protect...........................................................................................................9
Sources of International and U.S. Assistance................................................................................10
International Pledges of Aid and Assistance...........................................................................10
U.N. Consolidated Appeals Process..................................................................................10
ASEAN-U.N. International Pledging Conference.............................................................11
The U.S. Emergency Response Mechanism...........................................................................13
Immediate Response After Cyclone........................................................................................15
Backgr ound ............................................................................................................................. 15
Provisions of the Draft Constitution........................................................................................17
Outcome of the Constitutional Referendum............................................................................17
The SPDC’s Account........................................................................................................18
U.S. Policy towards Burma...........................................................................................................20
Burma-Related Legislation in the 110th Congress...................................................................21
Issues for Congress........................................................................................................................22
Relief Operation and Political Developments...................................................................22
Competing Aid and Budget Priorities...............................................................................23
Long-Term Food Shortages.....................................................................................................24
Potential Political Instability...................................................................................................24
Figure 1. Map Areas of Burma Flooded by Cyclone Nargis.........................................................27
Table 1. International Aid Pledges..................................................................................................11
Table 2. Official Results of Burma’s May 10 Constitutional Referendum....................................18
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................28
Around 6:30 p.m. (local time) on May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis, a category 3 cyclone,1 made
landfall in the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) Division of Burma, and then moved across the country
from southwest to northeast, cutting a huge path of destruction 100 miles wide and 200 miles
long, and striking Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, with winds of up to 190 kph (120 mph) (see 2
Figure 1). It caused major damage in the low-lying agricultural delta region, which also suffered
the impact of a storm surge. The disaster struck just a week before the Burmese people were to
vote on a proposed new constitution and just the day after President Bush announced an
Executive Order tightening trade and economic sanctions.
The scale of the disaster requires a major relief effort that has proved to be well beyond the
response capacity of the authorities in Burma. Several days after the cyclone, the State Peace and
Democracy Council (SPDC) indicated that it would accept offers of assistance from the
international community. Despite millions of dollars in aid pledges, many aid agencies and
organizations experienced problems in obtaining visas for their relief workers, essentially
hampering a full-scale, immediate relief effort. These factors—a devastating natural disaster and
lack of access by the international humanitarian community—combined with a controversy over
the recent constitutional referendum and the extension of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s
house arrest for the sixth consecutive year, have the potential to foster significant political change
within Burma. Congress faces several issues with respect to Burma in dealing with both the direct
impact of Cyclone Nargis and its potential indirect effects on Burmese politics.
Initial reports estimated the death toll at 351 people, but that number quickly rose to 4,000, then 3
the numbers had risen to 77,738 dead and 55,917 missing. Official Burmese figures have now 5
been revised to 84,537 dead and 53,836 missing. Most of the deaths were reportedly due to a 3.5
meter (11.5 feet) storm surge that swept across the affected areas after the eye of the cyclone
1 Tropical storms in the Indian Ocean are generally referred to as cyclones, whereas tropical storms in the western
Pacific Ocean are referred to as typhoons and in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, they are called
hurricanes. A category 3 cyclone has “very destructive” winds with gusts of 170-225 km/h (105-141 mph).
2 In July 1989, the then State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), now the SPDC, changed the country’s
name from Burma to Myanmar, as well as the names of many of its cities and districts. The United Nations (and others)
recognized the name change, while the United States, Australia, and some European countries did not. Many of
Burma’s opposition groups boycott the name change as a form of protest against the SPDC. This report will in general
use the names currently used by the U.S. government.
3 “Hundreds Killed by Burma Cyclone,” BBC, May 4, 2008; Aye Aye Win, “Nearly 4,000 People Dead; 3,000 People
Missing,” Associated Press, May 5, 2008; “Burmese Storm Toll ‘Tops 10,000,’” BBC, May 5, 2008; “Burma’s
Cyclone Death Toll Soars,” BBC, May 6, 2008, and Aung Hla Tun, “Myanmar Cyclone Toll Climbs to Nearly 22,500,”
Reuters, May 6, 2008.
4 “Latest Casualty Figures,” New Light of Myanmar, May 16, 2008, page 6.
5 “84,500 Confirmed Death from Cyclone Nargis,” Associated Press, June 24, 2008; and “Official: Myanmar Cyclone
Death Toll Mounts to 84,537,” Xinhua, June 24, 2008.
passed.6 With extensive damage to the nation’s transportation and communications systems,
however, information about the disaster has proved difficult to gather and confirm.
The numbers of dead, missing, and injured remain fluid and uncertain and a final death toll is 7
unlikely ever to be known. Unofficial estimates have exceeded the government’s figures. Early
on, Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win indicated at a press conference that the death toll could 8
rise as more information became available. An unnamed U.S. envoy in Burma told reporters on 9
May 7, 2008 that the death toll could reach 100,000. The United Nations cited figures closer to
More recently, experts have said the figures are likely to exceed 138,000 with some estimating 10
the total dead and missing at 200,000.
Many people who have been displaced, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, remain at risk.
The United Nations estimates the number of people affected to be 2.4 million.
Apart from Rangoon, sources in Burma reported significant damage to the Bago, Irrawaddy,
Karen, and Mon regions of Burma. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) quickly
announced a state of emergency in the five regions, but on May 6, 2008, lifted the state of
emergency for much of the area struck by the cyclone. As of May 7, 2008, only seven townships
in the Irrawaddy Division and 40 townships in Yangon Division were declared emergency 11
In addition to loss of life, injury, and massive displacement, the cyclone also caused extensive
damage to much of Burma. A significant percentage of the houses, hospitals and other buildings
in storm-affected regions were damaged or destroyed. Initial reports from U.N. aid officials 12
indicated that the storm left several hundred thousand people homeless. In the coastal islands
along the Irrawaddy River, entire villages were reportedly destroyed. Flooding was widespread.
Electricity was knocked out in Rangoon and much of the other four areas struck by the storm.
Most of the potable water and water treatment facilities in the affected areas were disrupted or
were not operational. Many of the roads and bridges along the cyclone’s path were damaged or
blocked by felled trees and debris. The nation’s telecommunications system—including telephone
and internet service—was disrupted. As many as 25 of the Burmese Navy’s estimated 144 ships 13
in service were sunk by the cyclone, along with an unknown number of naval personnel lost.
7 Thousands of victims remain unidentified. There does not appear to be a consistent approach to disposal of bodies—
in urban areas, the authorities collected and disposed of bodies; in villages it has been left to local townships and in
most cases, the priority has been emergency relief. The WHO has aid the corpses do not pose a significant health risk.
UNOCHA, “Thousands of Cyclone Victims Unidentified,” IRIN, June 17, 2008.
8 “Burmese Storm Toll ‘Tops 10,000,’” BBC, May 5, 2008.
9 “Aid Arriving in Cyclone-hit Burma,” BBC, May 7, 2008.
10 Reuters Alert Net, “Myanmar Cyclone: Worst Asian Cyclone Since 1991,” June 24, 2008.
11 Ed Cropley, “Myanmar Lifts Emergency in Some Cyclone-hit Areas,” Reuters, May 7, 2008.
12 Aung Hla Tun, “Myanmar Cyclone Toll Climbs to Nearly 22,500,” Reuters, May 6, 2008.
13 Min Lwin, “Burmese Navy Decimated in Cyclone,” Irrawaddy, May 12, 2008; and “Jane’s Sentinel Security
Assessment - Southeast Asia,” Jane’s Information Group, April 28, 2008.
There is some speculation that the damage done by the cyclone was worsened by the removal of 14
mangrove forests in the past along Burma’s coastal areas. In Burma, mangrove forests have
been destroyed to build shrimp and fish farms. According to research by the International Union
for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the preservation of Sri Lanka’s coastal mangrove forests 15
saved many lives when the 2004 tsunami struck. Based on the research in Sri Lanka, some
experts maintain that Cyclone Nargis would have done less damage in Burma if the mangrove
forests had not been removed.
The areas of Burma most severely damaged by the cyclone were also a major source of food for
the nation, particularly rice, seafood, pork, and poultry. According to the U.N. Food and
Agricultural Organization (FAO) the five states struck by Cyclone Nargis provided Burma with 16
the FAO completed a needs assessment for the areas affect by the cyclone an with a focus on 17
crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry. An expert specializing in Burma’s economy anticipates 18
“incredible [food] shortages in the next 18 to 24 months.”
In a break with past practices, several days after the cyclone, the SPDC indicated that it would
accept offers of assistance from the international community, though it was also reported that the
SPDC did not “officially endorse” international assistance and would prefer bilateral 19
arrangements. The SPDC said it would allocate $5 million for relief activities. Military and
police units reportedly began to conduct rescue and recovery operations, deploying helicopters,
boats, and trucks, but as the scale of the disaster became more evident, the relief effort required 20
was thought to be well beyond their capacity.
The government coordinated national efforts of the response through an Emergency Committee,
which put into operation a national disaster management plan, with the Ministry of Social
Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement heading up the relief response.
In addition, there reportedly was widespread criticism about how the military junta has managed
the disaster. According to the Burma Campaign-UK, the SPDC did not issue a warning to the 21
people living along the path of Cyclone Nargis that the storm was approaching. A back page
article that appeared in the junta-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, the day the cyclone
struck reported that a “severe cyclonic storm” was forecast to reach the coast of Burma within the
next 36 hours, and “under the influence of this storm, rain or thunderstorms will be
14 Mark Kinver, “Mangrove Loss ‘Left Burma Exposed,’” BBC, May 6, 2006
15 “Mangrove Forests Saved Lives in 2004 Tsunami Disaster,” IUCN, press release, December 19, 2005.
16 Michael Casey, “Burma’s Rice Region Decimated—Food Shortage Feared,” Irrawaddy, May 7, 2008.
17 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Myanmar: Emergency & Rehabilitation Programme,
Needs Assessment for the Cyclone Nargis Affected Areas, Agriculture, June 13, 2008.
19 United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC), “Cyclone Nargis - Latest Updates,” May 6, 2008; “Burmese Storm
Toll ‘Tops 10,000,’” BBC, May 5, 2008.
20 U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis OCHA Situation
Report No. 3,” May 6, 2008.
21 Wai Moe, “Cyclone Could Unleash Political Upheaval,” Irrawaddy, May 5, 2008.
widespread.”22 Meteorologists in India say that they gave Burma 48 hours warning before 23
Cyclone Nargis hit the country, including where and when landfall would occur. However,
SPDC-run television issued a statement that, “[t]imely weather reports were announced and aired 24
through television and radio in order to keep the people safe and secure nationwide.” Many
people in Burma reportedly maintain that the state media notices failed to indicate the severity of 25
the approaching storm or provide instructions on how to prepare for the cyclone’s arrival.
In the first few days after the cyclone struck, it appeared that the SPDC either underappreciated
the extent of the damage caused by the cyclone, or was intentionally underplaying the cyclone’s
impact. The first edition of The New Light of Myanmar released after the cyclone struck
contained a number of articles that implied that life in Rangoon was quickly returning to normal,
and that the cyclone’s impact in the Bago Division, the Kayin State, and the Mon State were
minimal. There were also reports that the SPDC focused its relief and rescue efforts to areas
where SPDC officials and military personnel lived and worked, and offered little or no assistance 26
to the general population. In addition, there were allegations that local officials stole relief 27
supplies for their own use or to sell on the black market.
There was also criticism of the SPDC’s failure to prevent disaster profiteering by merchants of
essential items, such as food and fuel. The pro-opposition news magazine, Irrawaddy, reported
that “many commodity prices—including vegetables and eggs—instantly increased 100 percent 28
following the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.... ” According to other reports, food prices had 29
reportedly risen three and four times what they were before the cyclone struck by May 6, 2008.
The SPDC was also being criticized for delaying the entrance of international relief organizations
into Burma. According to an article in the Irrawaddy, the SPDC views international relief 30
agencies as “neocolonialist tools.” In April 2008, for instance, the SPDC-run newspapers
accused the International Committee of the Red Cross of supporting rebel groups in Burma’s 31
Karen state. Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo also thinks the military junta did not
want large numbers of international aid workers entering Burma so close to the vote on the 32
22 “Storm News,” The New Light of Myanmar, May 5, 2008, p. 15.
23 “Deluged Burma Told to Expect 50,000 Dead,” Reuters and AFP, reprinted by the Hong Kong Standard, May 7,
24 Steve Jackson, “Was Burma’s Cyclone Predicted?,” BBC, May 6, 2008.
26 Aye Aye Win, “Nearly 4,000 People Dead; 3,000 People Missing,” Associated Press, May 5, 2008.
27 Violet Cho, “Burmese Officials Skimming Cyclone Aid,” Irrawaddy, May 12, 2008.
28 Saw Yan Naign, “Commodity Prices Rise in Devastated Rangoon, Irrawaddy, May 3, 2008.
29 Aung Hla Tun, “Myanmar cyclone toll climbs to nearly 22,500,” Reuters, May 6, 2008.
30 Wai Moe, “Cyclone Could Unleash Political Upheaval,” Irrawaddy, May 5, 2008.
Cyclone Nargis created devastation in its path: resulting challenges include a general lack of
transportation, blocked roads, poor communications systems, damaged infrastructure, and the
difficulty of reaching remote areas and isolated parts of the country. Lack of electricity and clean
water are a major problem. Fuel shortages also have been reported. The combined total
population in the affected townships is thought to have been 4.7 million people. The United
Nations estimates that up to 2.4 million people may have been affected by the disaster. According
to initial assessments, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance 33
(UNOCHA) reports that up to 2 million may be in need of prioritized assistance.
Although the critical need for food, clean water, and shelter remains, until recently in-depth
assessments, which are necessary to obtain a more detailed understanding of the situation on the
ground, could not be completed. Needs vary by area and impact of the cyclone or tidal surge that
followed. Immediate requirements included plastic sheeting, water purification equipment, 34
cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits, and food. The arrival of supplies has been
steady, but onward distribution is often difficult due to access problems in dealing with the
Burmese government and because of local destruction from the cyclone and aftermath.
According to the United Nations, the relief effort is expected to last at least six months, although
it is anticipated that recovery and reconstruction will begin as soon as possible in a parallel 35
effort. Some agencies have already begun to shift their focus towards long term needs. Concerns
remain about potential food shortages, particularly given the devastation of the rice plantations in
the Irrawaddy Delta.
The international relief effort began very quickly, but nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit
Burma, delays on visas, inadequate distribution of aid allowed into Burma, and insufficient access
to those most affected were still major obstacles to mounting a full-scale relief operation. The
military junta continued to say they could manage the relief effort and did not need experts.
Despite pledges of cash, supplies, and assistance from around the world, most aid agencies had
still not been granted visas to enter Burma and there was no word on when visas might be 36
33 UNOCHA, “Remarks of Sir John Homes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency
Relief Coordinator U.N. OCHA,” May 25, 2008; and Htay, Hla Hla, “Suu Kyi Detention will not Affect Myanmar
Cyclone Aid, Say Donors,” Agence France-Presse, May 28, 2008.
34 According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), the refugee camps along the border in Thailand were
not directly affected by the cyclone, although areas had some flooding.
35 United Nations News Service, “At Donors’ Meeting, Ban Ki-Moon Says Myanmar Relief Effort to Last at Least Six
Months,” May 25, 2008.
36 According to the United Nations, the SPDC appointed a minister to review the visa applications of foreign aid
workers. And the visa issue was reportedly being raised at high levels within the United Nations. Aid agencies continue
to explore options for obtaining visas.
During this time, the United Nations and the broader aid community were assembling staff in
Bangkok, Thailand, and remained poised for deployment. Immediately following the cyclone, a
relatively small number of international aid workers were allowed in to Burma, and within weeks,
it was reported that 160 foreign aid workers (mostly from neighboring Asian countries, including
Bangladesh, China, India, and Thailand) would be allowed in also, but with little indication on
how far outside Rangoon they would be permitted to travel. It is believed aid workers from
Western nations that have isolated the SPDC were not being welcomed. Customs clearance of 37
relief materials, a potential problem in initial days, is apparently no longer an issue. The main
international airport in Rangoon reopened early on and the junta slowly but increasingly allowed 38
in international aid flights.
On May 23, during a visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the government of Burma
promised to allow some international aid relief staff, regardless of nationality, into the country,
including access to the Irrawaddy Delta area. U.S. and British ships with relief supplies on board
can enter the port of Rangoon to transfer supplies to small local boats, but military ships are not
Increased access has enabled a massive international relief effort to move ahead, albeit slowly.
According to the United Nations, more than 230 international staff have been granted visas and
are now in the country. More than 200 operation U.N. staff have traveled to the affected areas.
For those entering the delta, some report that access has not been a problem and that logistical
arrangements are improving, while other NGOs indicate that it remains a difficult and frustrating 39
situation. Some are concerned about lack of sustained access and report that the authorities 40
require two days’ notice and that access may be granted for only a 24-hour period. Visa
procedures were not discussed at the pledging conference on May 25 (discussed later in this
The role played by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an intermediary has
been significant in creating diplomatic links and access to Burma, which is also a member of
ASEAN. ASEAN took the lead in coordinating assistance offered by the international community,
with full support from the United Nations, and formed the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), which
includes high-level representatives from the government of Burma, the United Nations, and
ASEAN. ASEAN has been working closely with other international institutions, including the
United Nations and World Bank. For the first time, ASEAN deployed an Emergency Rapid
Assessment Team (ERAT) on June 1, 2008, to conduct field assessments. An ASEAN field office
has been set up in Rangoon to support the humanitarian operation of the ASEAN Humanitarian
Task Force for the Victims of Cyclone Nargis (Coalition of Mercy), which includes senior offices
as experts from ASEAN countries, and the TCG. Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr. Surn
Pitsuwan is chair of the Task Force. The coordination effort, facilitation, and monitoring of the
37 U.N. Department of Public Information, “Press Conference on Myanmar Humanitarian Situation,” May 6, 2008 and
“Press Conference on Myanmar Humanitarian Situation,” May 7, 2008; UNOCHA, “Myanmar: Offers of Help Face
Logistics and Visa Hurdles,” May 6, 2008; and United Kingdom, Department for International Development (DFID),
“Burma - What is the Current Situation?” May 8, 2008.
38 United Nations News Service, “Top U.N. Relief Official Says Funding Conference for Myanmar Cyclone a
‘success,’ May 27, 2008.
39 Htay, Hla Hla, “Suu Kyi Detention will not Affect Myanmar Cyclone Aid, Say Donors,” Agence France-Presse,
May 28, 2008.
40 UNOCHA - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Myanmar: Diarrhoeal Risk Increasing, But No
Outbreaks Yet,” May 27, 2008.
flow of international assistance into Burma appear to be working. ASEAN also offered aid under
the Disaster Management and Emergency Response to provide cash and in-kind aid supplies. In 41
addition, it established the ASEAN cooperation Fund for Disaster Assistance.
On June 10, Burma issued new operating guidelines or regulations for U.N. agencies and
international NGOs, which outlined procedures that aid agencies had to follow in providing
assistance to the cyclone victims. On June 20, the Burmese authorities agreed to revert back to the
old operating system under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and TCG. Travel authorizations will be
handled by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement. The backlog of visa and 42
travel authorization requests has now largely been processed.
It has also been reported that local authorities in the delta townships of Bogalay and Laputta want
to move thousands who have been displaced, either because they are on park land or because of
reconstruction efforts. Reports have also surfaced about restrictions on those fleeing survivors 43
who have fled to the Thai border.
The TCG is coordinating a multi-sector needs assessment, the most in-depth study of the cyclone
affected areas to date. From June 10-19, field surveys were conducted for the Post-Nargis Joint
Assessment (PONJA), with 350 personnel visiting approximately 30 townships. The assessment
focuses on humanitarian needs and how survivors are coping (Village Tract Assessment or VTA)
and damage components, such as economic and physical losses (Damage and Loss Assessment or 44
DaLA.) At a meeting of the ASEAN Roundtable for Response, Recovery and Reconstruction,
which convened on June 24, a progress report on the assessment was presented. Initial data
confirms that continued relief assistance is required. Food and water shortages, damage to
housing and poor shelter, and psychological stress were identified as some of the priority needs.
The findings of the PONJA Report are expected to be published in mid-July. The data will be also
be used by the United Nations in its revised Humanitarian Flash Appeal. A second pledging
conference may be held thereafter. Future discussions are also expected to focus on the most 45
appropriate mechanism to manage the transition to reconstruction.
While the operating environment for internationals remains constrained, initial estimates suggest
that through the efforts of the government, Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), international
41 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), “Chair of ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force Meets International
Organizations and Groups to Coordinate Humanitarian Operations for the Victims of Cyclone Nargis,” May 27, 2008. st
See also, ASEAN, “Myanmar: 1 Press Release of Tripartite Core Group,” June 24, 2008.
42 UNOCHA, “Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis OCHA Situation Report No. 34,” June 23, 2008; The Irrawaddy, “Burma
Drops New Operating Guidelines,” June 24, 2008.
43 The Irrawaddy, “Thousands in Delta Told to Relocate,” June 26, 2008; “Restrictions Tighten on Cyclone Refugees
Bound for Thailand,” June 24, 2008.
44 UNOCHA, “Myanmar Cyclone Nargis OCHA Situation Report No. 33,” June 19, 2008.
45 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), “SG Surin Assured of Smooth Aid Operations,” June 16, 2008;
UNOCHA, “Myanmar Cyclone Nargis OCHA Situation Report No. 34,” June 23, 2008; and ASEAN, “Myanmar: 1st
Press Release of Tripartite Core Group,” June 24, 2008; and UNOCHA, “Myanmar: Cyclone Assessment Reveals
Critical Food, Water Shortages,” June 25, 2008.
and local NGOs, 1.3 million people have been reached, in many cases with a single effort to get
something to the largest number of needy people. In severely affected areas, only about one third
of the population has been reached. Reports also indicate that many communities have mobilized
to support each other.
The United Nations Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and Humanitarian Country Team (which
includes U.N. agencies, international NGOs, national NGOs, and the IFRC and ICRC as
observers) are working with national counterparts and focusing on sectoral priorities. The United
Nations country team continues to work with government ministries, including the Ministry for
Foreign Affairs, on how best to provide assistance. The United Nations deployed a Disaster
Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC). According to UNOCHA, U.N. teams on the
ground—including the World Food Program (WFP), the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP)—
deployed assessment teams and are continuing to provide assistance. The WFP also began to
operate helicopters for food distribution. U.N. staff include local Burmese who are not subject to
travel restrictions. Initially drawing on stockpiles inside the country, WFP distributed relief
supplies and food stored in Rangoon. UNHCR also brought basic supplies and used shelter
materials from warehouses in Thailand.
Humanitarian relief sectors have been organized in clusters, including:46
• Agriculture (FAO)
• Child Protection (UNICEF)
• Early Recovery (UNDP)
• Emergency Education (UNICEF)
• Emergency Shelter (IFRC)
• Emergency Telecommunications (WFP)
• Food Assistance (WFP)
• Health (WHO)
• Logistics (WFP)
• Nutrition (UNICEF)
• Water/Sanitation (UNICEF)
During the first month following the cyclone, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it
was particularly concerned about potential health problems—such as malaria and cholera—that 47
could emerge in the aftermath of the cyclone’s flooding. The first case of cholera following the
46 The lead agency for each cluster is indicated in parentheses. The head of each cluster reports to the
Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and works in partnership with all relevant actors in that particular sector. This
enables the Humanitarian Country Team to coordinate partners, prioritize resources and facilitate planning. See Food
and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Myanmar: Emergency & Rehabilitation Programme, Needs
Assessment for the Cyclone Nargis Affected Areas, Agriculture, June 13, 2008. For more information on cluster
activities, see Humanitarian Information Centre (HIC) at http://myanmar.humanitarianinfo.org.
47 WHO Alert, “Cyclone Nargis Myanmar,” May 6, 2008.
cyclone was reported on May 9, 2008.48 Emergency health kits have been provided as part of a
wide-ranging health care response that includes immunization campaigns, and according to the
WHO, so far there are no major outbreaks of disease, although the threat remains extremely 49
serious. The VTA component of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment focused on five areas in the
health sector: disease prevalence, availability of drugs, health personnel available, health care 50
requirements, and sanitation.
Various international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were already operating in
Burma before the cyclone continue to respond to the crisis and have had some access to affected
areas. Reportedly hundreds of local staff are assisting with the relief effort. The former
international airport of Don Muang in Thailand has become the humanitarian staging area to
allow for extra warehousing, coordination, and consolidation of relief flights to Rangoon.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is working with
the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) to provide emergency shelter and clean water to the
cyclone survivors. Its initial allocation to the MRCS for the relief effort is 200,000 Swiss francs
($189,000) to distribute clean drinking water, plastic sheeting, clothing, bed netting, and kitchen
supplies. The IFRC has also launched a revised emergency appeal for Burma for $50.8 million.
The IFRC is coordinating efforts with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to
support the MRCS. As of June 20, 327,500 beneficiaries have received relief assistance.
France’s foreign minister reportedly suggested that the international community should deliver
aid without waiting for approval from Burma and do so under the U.N. resolution on the
Responsibility to Protect, which speaks to the obligations of a state to protect its own people and 51
the obligations of all states to do so when that fails. On the one hand, some observers are
arguing that the Burmese government is a threat to its own people and that Burma is violating its
responsibility to protect its own citizens in the wake of the current disaster. On the other hand,
others question whether forcing the Burmese government to accept international assistance
should fall under the Responsibility to Protect resolution. From this perspective, as sovereign
power, the SPDC, is in charge of the aid efforts and the United Nations (and others in the
international aid community) should work to support the SPDC aid effort as much as possible.
So far, the United Nations has said that it does not think approaching the Burmese government in
what could be seen as a confrontational manner would be helpful and that it might undermine the
start of more constructive discussions, particularly as progress, albeit small, has been made in
recent days. The U.N. Security Council has reportedly decided not to take up a discussion of the
48 “Burma: First Cases of Cholera,” Agenzia Italia, May 9, 2008.
49 Major health threats include Cholera, Dysentery, Diarrhoea, Malaria, Dengue, and snake bites. WHO, “WHO Rolls
Out Wid-Ranging Health Care Response in Myanmar,” May 13, 2008.
50 World Health Organization, “Myanmar: Health Cluster Situation Report No. 29,” June 26, 2008.
51 “France Suggests Helping Myanmar Without Govt Backing,” Reuters Foundation, May 7, 2008; At the 2005 U.N.
World Summit, the “Responsibility to Protect” resolution was approved, putting forward the idea that each state has a
responsibility to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and that
human rights violations committed in one state are the concern of all states. It is an agreement in principle that speaks
to the obligations of a state to protect its own people and the obligations of all states when that fails, but this U.N.
Resolution does not make action easy or even probable.
humanitarian crisis for the time being. In recent remarks, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-
Moon said, “ ... our immediate challenge is humanitarian ... we must think about people, just now, 52
According to media reports, on June 19, 2008, activist monks called for the European Union to
charge Burma’s junta leader, Than Shwe, who they accuse of blocking relief supplies to victims,
with committing crimes against humanity and to bring the case before the international criminal
court. In May, the European Parliament approved a non-binding resolution that indicated the 53
regime could face charges if it continued to obstruct aid delivery to cyclone victims in Burma.
So far, through governments and the private sector, the international community has pledged
millions of dollars in aid, materials, and technical support. Some donors have indicated they are
concerned about transparency and how the SPDC would use the money, and there have been
reports of misuse of relief aid meant for cyclone victims, but these are difficult to substantiate.
Under the Consolidated Appeals Process, the U.N. country team issued a Flash Appeal for
emergency financial assistance on May 9, 2008, in the amount of $187 million, “to enable
international partners (10 U.N. organizations and nine NGOs) to support the Government of 54
Myanmar in addressing the needs of more than1.5 million people affected by the cyclone.” This
amount was later increased to $202 million, and as of June 16, the appeal is 65% funded, with
$131 million in contributions directly to the appeal and $24 million in uncommitted pledges. A 55
total of $241 million has been contributed and $66 million pledged to the overall relief effort.
The U.N.’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) initially made available $10 million for 56
projects identified by the country team. This amount has now been increased to 22 million. A
revised flash appeal will be released on July 10 and will cover the period May 2008 through April 57
52 United Nations Secretary-General, “Focus on People, Not Politics, Says Secretary-General, Underscoring
Humanitarian Challenge in Address to International Pledging Conference for Myanmar,” May 27, 2008.
53 Agence France-Presse (AFP), “Myanmar Monks Urge EU to Bring Junta to War Crimes Court,” June 19, 2008.
54 UNOCHA, “Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Myanmar Tropical Cyclone Nargis Flash Appeal 2008,” May 9,
55 Charbonneau, Louise, “U.N. Says Raised 60 Pct of Targeted Myanmar Aid,” Reuters Foundation, May 27, 2008;
United Nations Secretary-General, “Focus on People, Not Politics, Says Secretary-General, Underscoring
Humanitarian Challenge in Address to International Pledging Conference for Myanmar,” May 27, 2008; and United
Nations News Service, “Top U.N. Relief Official Says Funding Conference for Myanmar Cyclone a ‘Success,’” May
56 United Nations Department of Public Information, “Press Conference on Myanmar Humanitarian Situation,” May 6,
2008; UNOCHA, “Private Sector Generously Supports Myanmar Cyclone Emergency Response,” June 19, 2008.
57 See http://www.reliefweb.int/fts for the status of contributions to the Consolidated Appeals Process.
On May 25, the ASEAN-UN co-sponsored donor conference convened in Rangoon with
representatives from 51 countries in attendance. Agreement was reached on the need for a rapid
increase in relief efforts, support for the work of ASEAN and the United Nations in coordinating
the response, and an assessment of rehabilitation and recovery needs in the long term. The
Burmese government said that $11 billion was needed for reconstruction and recovery efforts.
The conference was seen as an important step towards cooperation between the international 58
community and government of Burma. The private sector has made significant contributions of 59
Contributions and in-kind pledges are listed in the table below.
Table 1. International Aid Pledges
(In U.S. $ Equivalent, as of May 15, 2008)
Country Pledges In-Kind Pledge (estimated value) Recipient
Australia $2.8 aid agencies
Bangladesh 2 planes with supplies
5-member military team
Canada $1.98 United Nations, Red Cross
million Movement and World Food
China $4.8 tents, blankets, and biscuits ($500,000)
Czech Republic $230,000
France $320,000 Plane with food/other aid; navy ship with drugs, Red Cross and French aid
food, tents ordered to Thailand for unloading; agencies
denied access in Burma
Germany $1.5 German aid organizations
Greece $300,000 plane with supplies
India 2 naval ships with supplies
Indonesia $1 million food and other humanitarian aid
Japan $10.27 tents, power generators, other supplies
New Zealand $1.1 aid agencies/United Nations
Norway $2 million
58 ASEAN, “ASEAN-UN International Pledging Conference on Cyclone Nargis Yangon, Myanmar, 25 May 2008,”
May 25, 2008.
59 UNOCHA, “Private Sector Generously Supports Myanmar Cyclone Emergency Response,” June 19, 2008.
Country Pledges In-Kind Pledge (estimated value) Recipient
Singapore $200,000 rescue and medical teams
South Korea $2.1 aid materials
Spain $775,000 WFP
Sri Lanka $25,000 direct to Burmese government
Sweden generators/other equipment United Nations
Taiwan $200,000 8-member rescue team
Thailand transport plane with food and medicine
Turkey $1 million Red Crescent team
United $23.34 emergency field team plus close to $10 million in
Kingdom million initial emergency relief
United States $41.17 USAID Disaster Assistance Response Teams
airlifts of USAID and DOD-procured relief
European $3 million fast-track humanitarian aid
Source: Reuters Foundation, “Factbox - Almost $30 million in Aid for Cyclone-Ravaged Myanmar,” May 7,
2008; and “Factbox - Aid Offers for Myanmar,” May 15, 2008; and “Factbox - Aid Offers for Myanmar,” May 26,
The U.S. Embassy in Burma announced on May 5, 2008 that it had issued a disaster declaration 60
and authorized $250,000 in humanitarian assistance. This initial contribution was allocated to
implementing partners (UNICEF, WFP and UNHCR) for water and sanitation, emergency food
assistance, and shelter. The embassy also issued a travel warning, and authorized the departure of
non-emergency U.S. citizen embassy employees and eligible family members.
On May 6, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino announced that the Administration would
provide an additional $3 million in aid for Burma for a total pledge of $3.25 million, $1 million of
which would be allocated to the American Red Cross (ARC). U.S. assistance was later increased
by an additional $13 million for a total pledge of $16.25 million. The U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID) reports that total humanitarian funding provided to date is
$41.17 million, with funding from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for
Peace Program and DOD assistance. The DOD-operated U.S. government airbridge completed
185 airlifts and delivered relief commodities from USAID, DOD, the United Nations, NGOs and
the Government of Thailand. The airbridge ceased operations on June 22.
60 “Myanmar Death Toll ‘More than 10,000,’” CNN, May 5, 2008.
It was initially reported that the release of U.S. assistance was conditional on the SPDC allowing 61
a U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) into the country. This was later denied by 62
Scott Marciel, U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs. According to a State Department
spokesperson, the funds would be allocated to implementing partners and used for emergency 63
materials (such as shelter, food, water and other basic assistance). President Bush also indicated
that the United States was prepared to use U.S. Navy personnel for search and rescue and other
logistical assistance. Although an initial U.S. aid flight was cancelled on May 8, since then, as of
May 15, U.S. airlifts of relief materials have been flown from Thailand to Rangoon. A ten-person 64
USAID-DART has been assembled in Bangkok and Utapeo, Thailand.
For the time being, U.S. personnel and military equipment will remain in Thailand with
additional U.S. naval assets on stand by in international waters off the Burmese coast.
On May 6, 2008, the Office of Foreign Asset Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury
issued General License No. 14 to allow certain financial transactions in support of humanitarian 65
or religious activities by non-governmental organizations in Burma. Under current U.S. federal
law, it is illegal to export financial services, including the transfer of funds, to Burma. Under
General License No. 14, the U.S. government and humanitarian organizations may transfer funds
legally to Burma to provide cyclone disaster relief.
The United States is generally a leader and major contributor to relief efforts in response to
humanitarian disasters. The President has broad authority to provide emergency assistance for
foreign disasters and the U.S. government provides disaster assistance through several U.S.
agencies. The very nature of humanitarian disasters—the need to respond quickly in order to save
lives and provide relief—has resulted in a rather unrestricted definition of what this type of
assistance consists of at both a policy and an operational level. While humanitarian assistance is
assumed to provide for urgent food, shelter, and medical needs, the agencies within the U.S.
government providing this support typically expand or contract the definition in response to
circumstances. Funds may be used for U.S. agencies to deliver services or to provide grants to
international organizations (IOs), international governmental and non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), and private or religious voluntary organizations (PVOs). USAID is the U.S. government
agency charged with coordinating U.S. government and private sector assistance. It also
coordinates with international organizations, the governments of countries suffering disasters, and
61 “U.S. Provides $3.25 Million to Aid Burma Cyclone Victims: Bush Says the United States Could Do More if Burma
Government Permits,” May 6, 2008.
62 “Interview with Veronica Pedrosa of Al-Jazeera English,” May 7, 2008.
63 USAID, “Burma: Cyclone Fact Sheet #8 (FY) 2008,” May 15, 2008.
64 Interaction, the umbrella coalition of more than 150 humanitarian organizations providing humanitarian assistance
and sustainable development programs worldwide, has also developed a list of agencies responding to this disaster
(InterAction, “Interaction Members Respond to Cyclone in Burma,” May 6, 2008. See http://www.interaction.org/
65 Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury, General License No. 14, May 6, 2008; available
online at http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs/burma/gls/burmagl14.pdf.
The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian
Response provides immediate relief materials and personnel, many of whom are already abroad
on mission. It is responsible for providing non-food humanitarian assistance and can quickly
assemble DARTs to assess conditions. OFDA has wide authority to borrow funds, equipment, and
personnel from other parts of USAID and other federal agencies. USAID has two other offices
that administer U.S. humanitarian aid: Food For Peace (FFP) and the Office of Transition
Initiatives (OTI). USAID administers emergency food aid under FFP (Title II of P.L. 480) and
provides relief and development food aid that does not have to be repaid. OTI provides post-
disaster transition assistance, which includes mainly short-term peace and democratization
projects with some attention to humanitarian elements but not emergency relief.
The Department of Defense (DoD) Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster and Civic Aid (OHDACA)
funds three DoD humanitarian programs: the Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP),
Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) Program, and Foreign Disaster Relief and Emergency
Response (FDR/ER). OHDACA provides humanitarian support to stabilize emergency situations
and deals with a range of tasks including providing food, shelter and supplies, and medical
evacuations. In addition the President has the authority to draw down defense equipment and
direct military personnel to respond to disasters. The President may also use the Denton program
to provide space-available transportation on military aircraft and ships to private donors who wish 66
to transport humanitarian goods and equipment in response to a disaster.
Generally, OFDA provides emergency assistance for 30 to 90 days after a disaster. The same is
true for Department of Defense humanitarian assistance. After the initial emergency is over,
assistance is provided through other channels, such as the regular country development programs
The State Department also administers programs for humanitarian relief with a focus on refugees
and the displaced. The Emergency Refugee and Migration Account (ERMA) is a contingency
fund that provides wide latitude to the President in responding to refugee emergencies. Assistance
to address emergencies lasting more than a year comes out of the regular Migration and Refugee
Account (MRA) through the Population, Migration and Refugees (PRM) bureau. PRM assists
refugees worldwide, conflict victims, and populations of concern to the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), often extended to include internally displaced people
(IDPs). Humanitarian assistance includes a range of services from basic needs to community
The cyclone struck one week before the people of Burma were to vote on a new constitution that
potentially is the most significant political development in Burma since the military seized power
in 1988. In the first few days following the natural disaster, the SPDC said it would proceed with
the vote as scheduled on May 10, 2008. However, on May 6, 2008, the SPDC announced that the
vote on the proposed constitution would proceed as planned in most of Burma, but that the vote
66 Section 402 of Title 10, named after former Senator Jeremiah Denton, authorizes shipment of privately donated
humanitarian goods on U.S. military aircraft provided there is space and they are certified as appropriate for the disaster
by USAID/OFDA. The goods can be bumped from the transport if other U.S. government aid must be transported.
would be delayed until May 24, 2008 for most of the townships around Rangoon and in seven of 67
the townships in the Irrawaddy region.
There are conflicting accounts about the conduct and outcome of the election. The SPDC reported
a heavy turnout on both dates, with few voting irregularities. Opposition groups say the turnout
was comparatively light, with many reported cases of voting irregularities, such a pre-marked
ballots, voter intimidation, and other techniques to influence the outcome of the referendum. On
May 29, 2008, the SPDC issued Announcement No. 7/2008, reporting that 98.12% of the
the constitution. On the basis of these official results, the SPDC declared that the new
constitution had been ratified.
After Cyclone Nargis caused widespread flooding and destruction in Burma, opposition to
holding the referendum as scheduled arose from many sources. A May 5 editorial in the
Irrawaddy stated, “The response by the Burmese regime to this weekend’s cyclone disaster shows 69
that the junta is incapable of running the country, let alone helping the victims.” The editorial
called for the postponement of the referendum as did other voices within the Burmese opposition
movement. A representative of the opposition-run media group, the Democratic Voice of Burma,
said, “They [the SPDC] would be very stupid to go ahead with the it. Thousands of people are 70
dying or missing. It is very difficult to get around or get food and water. How can people vote?”
On May 7, 2008, one of Burma’s leading opposition groups, the National League for Democracy
(NLD), issued a statement demanding that “the referendum be held simultaneously in all parts of 71
the country once the conditions in the country have improved.”
On February 9, 2008, the SPDC issued an announcement stating, “in accordance with the fourth
step of the seven-step Road Map, the approval of the Constitution draft will be sought in a 72
National Referendum to be held in May 2008.” On the same date, the SPDC released a second
announcement, which states, “In accordance with the forthcoming State Constitution, the multi-73
party democracy [sic] general elections will be held in 2010.”
67 Jocelyn Gecker, “Vote Delayed in a Few Worst Cyclone-hit Areas but the Rest Will Go Ahead,” Associated Press,
May 6, 2008.
68 “Myanmar Ratifies and Promulgates Constitution,” New Light of Myanmar, May 30, 2008.
69 “Referendum Must Take Second Place Now in Regime Priorities,” Irrawaddy, May 5, 2008.
70 “Myanmar Death Toll ‘More than 10,000,’” CNN, May 5, 2008.
71 “Statement of National League for Democracy,” May 7, 2008 (unofficial translation).
72 State Peace and Development Council, Announcement No. 1/2008, February 9, 2008, available at
http://www. me washingtond c. co m/
73 State Peace and Development Council, Announcement No. 2/2008, February 9, 2008, available at
http://www. me washingtond c. co m/
In order to pass the new constitution at least 50% of Burma’s eligible voters must vote, with a
simple majority voting in favor of adoption of the constitution. According to the SPDC, there are 74
over 27 million eligible voters in Burma.
On February 26, 2008, the SPDC released a new law governing “the approval of the draft 75
constitutional.” Chapter V, Section 11(d) of the law barred the following people from voting:
members of religious orders; people of unsound mind; persons in prison or convicted of a crime;
people illegally abroad; and foreigners. Chapter VII, section 20(a) allows the postponement or
dissolution of a vote “if [a] free and fair referendum may not be held stably due to natural disaster
or situation affecting the security, or any other disaster.” Chapter XX prohibited “lecturing,
distributing papers, using posters, or disturbing the voting in any other manner.... ” Some
opposition groups were concerned that this provision would be used to suppress the anti-76
According to the SPDC Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s military did not “crave 77
for power,” and that its “ultimate aim is to hand over the state power to the people.” As Than rd
explained in his speech on Myanmar’s 63 Armed Forces Day on March 27, 2008, the military 78
was “compelled” to assume state responsibilities due to “unavoidable circumstances.” Than also
indicated that the referendum on the draft constitution was consistent with the SPDC’s “seven-79
step roadmap” for the return of civilian rule.
Ever since the SPDC announced that a referendum on the proposed constitution would be held, it
has run an extensive pro-constitution multi-media campaign. The SPDC has regularly run slogans
in its newspapers, such as, “To approve the State Constitution is a national duty of the entire 80
people today. Let us all cast ‘Yes’ vote in the national interest.” The May 5, 2008 edition of the
SPDC-run newspaper, the Myanma Ahlin, stated, “It’s only a few days left before the coming 81
referendum and people are eager to cast their vote.”
At the same time, the SPDC has actively tried to suppress the anti-constitution campaign. Human
Rights Watch reports, “Political opposition activists face constant harassment, state-sponsored
violence, vicious slandering in the state-controlled press (where they are routinely described as
the ‘internal stooges’ of ‘external destabilizing elements’), arbitrary arrest and detention, and 82
long-term imprisonment.” There have also been reports of “unidentified assailants” assaulting
opposition leaders and anti-constitution campaigners in the weeks before the election; the 83
Burmese police reportedly refused to investigate the alleged assaults.
74 “Myanmar Ratifies and Promulgates Constitution,” New Light of Myanmar, May 30, 2008.
75 “The Referendum Law for the Approval of the Draft Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” official
translation published in The New Light of Myanmar, February 28, 2008, pages 8-11.
76 Min Lwin, “Stiff Penalties for Resistance to Constitutional Referendum,” Irrawaddy, February 27, 2008.
77 Thein Linn, “Our Ultimate Aim is to Hand Over the State Power to the People,” The Myanmar Times, March 31-
April 6, 2008.
79 For more information on “seven-step roadmap” see the homepage of the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in
Washington, DC, http://www.mewashingtondc.com/Road_Map_Process.htm.
80 The New Light of Myanmar, April 24, 2008.
81 Aye Aye Win, “Nearly 4,000 People Dead; 3,000 People Missing,” Associated Press, May 5, 2008.
82 Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma, Human Rights Watch, May 2008.
83 “Myanmar Opposition Party Says Opponents of Military-backed Constitution Assaulted, Associated Press, April 25,
Access to the actual text of the draft constitution was at first limited. Photocopies and electronic 84
copies were secretly circulated among journalists, senior government officials, and diplomats. A
copy of the draft constitution, in Burmese, was available on the web page of Burma Digest, “a 85
magazine specializing in human rights affairs in Burma.” The SPDC began providing copies of
the 194-page draft constitution to the public on April 9, 2008 at a cost of 1,000 kyat ($1.50)—two 86
months after announcing that a referendum would take place in May 2008. At the same time, the
military junta announced the date for the referendum—May 10, 2008.
The draft constitution creates a parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) with two chambers—the Union
Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the National Assembly (Amyotha Hluttaw)—and sets aside a 87
quarter of the seats in each chamber for the military. The draft constitution also permits a 88
military takeover “in the event of an emergency.” A provision in the draft constitution also bars
a person who has dual citizenship, or has a close relative who is a foreign national from holding
public office, effectively preventing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for office 89
because she was married to a British citizen and has two sons who are British nationals.
Burma’s various opposition groups were initially uncertain how to respond to the SPDC’s
announcement of a referendum on a draft constitution. According to a leader of the 88 Generation
Students Group, Tun Myint Aung, “The only real choice is, should we vote ‘no’ or just 90
boycott?” However, Dr. Nay Win Maung, a member of the “Third Force Group,” a group that
advocates engagement with the military junta and opposes sanctions, recommends that the 91
opposition groups endorse the draft constitution and focus on the 2010 elections. On April 2,
people of Burma to vote “no” on the constitutional referendum. On May 1, 2008, the United
Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD), an umbrella group of political parties representing 93
Burma’s ethnic minorities, called for complete boycott of the referendum.
There are conflicting accounts coming out of Burma about the conduct and outcome of the May
10 and May 24 votes. According to the junta-operated media, the constitutional referendum was
done in a free and fair fashion with international observers. According to various pro-opposition
84 “Burmese Electorate Still Wait to See Constitution Text,” Irrawaddy, April 2, 2008.
86 “New Burma Constitution Published,” BBC News, April 9, 2008.
87 “Burmese Electorate Still Wait to See Constitution Text,” Irrawaddy, April 2, 2008.
89 “Draft Constitution Surfaces, Stirring More Debate,” Irrawaddy, March 31, 2008.
90 Kyan Zwa Moe, “Constitutional Conundrum,” Irrawaddy Magazine, April 2008.
92 Wai Moe, “Burma’s NLD Calls for a Referendum ‘No’ Vote,” Irrawaddy, April 2, 2008.
93 Saw Yan Niang, “UNLD Calls for Referendum Boycott,” Irrawaddy, May 1, 2008.
sources and much of the international media, there were a significant number of cases of voting
irregularities to bring the validity of the outcome into question. Also, there were varying views of
the percentage of voters who actually went to the voting booths.
A post-referendum issue of The New Light of Myanmar contained several stories on the voting on
May 10, 2008, covering the situation at polling stations in various townships in various districts 94
or states across Burma. In every story, mention was made of the presence of a representative of
a foreign embassy or consulate observing the voting process, including officials from Bangladesh,
Chad, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, 95
Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. Although none of the stories included comments or
quotes from the foreign officials, the implication was that the vote was monitored by international
A story in The New Light of Myanmar the day after the vote stated, “The referendum was held 96
successfully ... with massive turnout of citizens.” However, the article provided no estimate of
the percentage of voters who participated in the referendum or the results of the May 10 vote.
On May 14, 2008, the military junta announced the official results of the May 10 vote (see Table
10 ballot cast their vote, with 92.4% voting in favor of the new constitution. If these figures are
correct, over 20 million people voted in favor of the constitution on May 10—enough votes to
approve the new constitution, even though there were approximately five million eligible voters
scheduled to go to the polls on May 24. The official results were higher than the rumored
percentages being circulated in parts of Burma. It was being said before the vote that the SPDC
had already determined the results of the referendum, and would announce that 84.6% voted in 98
favor of the new constitution.
Table 2. Official Results of Burma’s May 10 Constitutional Referendum
Category Number Percentage
Eligible voters in Burma 27,369,937
Voters eligible to vote on May 10 22,708,434 75.7%
Voters who cast vote on May 10 22,496,660 99.1%
Voters who voted in favor of new constitution 20,786,596 92.4%
Voters who voted against the new constitution 1,375,480 6.1%
Cancelled votes 334,584 1.5%
Source: The New Light of Myanmar, May 16, 2008, p. 1.
94 The New Light of Myanmar, May 12, 2008, pages 6 and 7.
95 Communications with the U.S. Embassy in Burma confirmed that someone from their Political/Economic Section
visited polling stations in Myeik township on May 10, 2008 to observe the conduct of the referendum.
96 The New Light of Myanmar, May 11, 2008, page 6.
97 “Over 92 Per Cent say ‘Yes’ to Referendum,” The New Light of Myanmar, May 16, 2008, page 1.
98 “Slow Start to Referendum,” Associated Press, May 10, 2008.
Page 9 of the May 25 edition of the New Light of Myanmar was devoted to stories covering the
vote in the more severely affected townships of Irrawaddy and Rangoon. In contrast to the
coverage of the May 10 vote, the stories did not mention the presence of international observers
or describe the voter turnout. Instead, the focus was on the number of polling stations and the
On May 29, 2008, the SPDC announced the final vote count for the constitutional referendum, 99
which was published the next day in the New Light of Myanmar. According to the official
results, between May 14 and May 29, the number of eligible voters had declined by 81,110
people. Of the 27,288,827 eligible voters, a reported 98.12% had cast ballots, of which 92.48%
had voted in favor of the new constitution.
Burma’s various voices of opposition paint a very different image of the conduct and outcome of 100
plebiscite. According to Irrawaddy, turnout on May 10 was “very low.” The NLD compiled a
list of voting irregularities on the day of the vote that included the following:
• The distribution of pre-marked ballots, already checked in favor of the
constitution, to voters at polling stations;
• Election officials watching voters as they marked their ballots;
• Intimidation and threats to voters;
• The confiscation of identity cards of voters who voted against the constitution;
• Reports that voters were told that ballots had already been submitted in their
name by local government officials;
• Refusing to allow eligible voters to vote;
• Pressuring people to vote yes, and to vote yes for relatives not at the polling
• The arrest of people distributing anti-constitution literature at polling stations;
• Denying NLD and other opposition members access to the polling stations to 101
observe the referendum.
There were also reports that some polling stations closed early and people who tried to vote were 102
told that ballots in favor of the constitution had already been submitted in their name.
On the same day the SPDC announced the official results of the May 10 vote, the NLD released a
statement condemning the junta’s decision to go ahead with the constitutional referendum in the 103
areas of Burma most severely damaged by Cyclone Nargis. According to the NLD’s statement,
99 “Myanmar Ratifies and Promulgates Constitution,” New Light of Myanmar, May 30, 2008.
100 Yeni and Min Lwin, “Massive Cheating Reported from Referendum Polling Stations,” Irrawaddy, May 10, 2008.
101 “Irregularities in the May 10 Referendum,” Burma Digest, May 10, 2008.
102 Yeni and Min Lwin, “Massive Cheating Reported from Referendum Polling Stations,” Irrawaddy, May 10, 2008.
103 Wai Moe, “NLD Slams Plan for May 24 Referendum Vote, Irrawaddy, May 14, 2008.
“It is not the right time to hold the referendum in the cyclone-hit region because people are dying
and still struggling.” The statement called on the SPDC to concentrate its efforts on humanitarian
work and postpone the May 24 vote.
According to an Irrawaddy news report, the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG)
published a report, “Burmese Constitutional Referendum: Neither Free nor Fair,” on May 26, 104
2008, sharply criticizing the conduct of the plebiscite. According to the PILPG, “The
referendum was not free or fair, as it was not conducted in accordance with international law or 105
basic democratic standards.” The Irrawaddy article states that the PILPG report outlines how
the conduct of Burma’s constitutional referendum violated eight conditions for a free and fair
election, including the right to vote; secret ballots; freedom of opinion; freedom from coercion;
the right to information; freedom of the media; electoral monitoring; and independent electoral
Two days before Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, President Bush issued an executive order 107
expanding U.S. trade and economic sanctions effective May 1, 2008. U.S. foreign policy
towards Burma in general is currently delineated by the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of
Executive Orders. These laws and Executive Orders:
• Prohibit the import into the United States products from Burma;
• Ban the export or re-export of financial services to Burma by U.S. persons;
• Prohibit a U.S. person or company from approving, aiding, or supporting a
foreign party’s investment in Burma;
• Prohibit U.S. persons from purchasing shares in a third-country company if the
company’s profits are predominantly derived from the company’s development
of resources in Burma;
• Authorize the President to impose a freeze on funds or assets in the United States
of the Burmese Government and individuals who hold senior positions in that
• Freeze all property and interests in property held in the United States or that
come to the United States of the Myanmar Gem Enterprise, the Myanmar Timber
Enterprise, the Myanmar Pearl Enterprise, and any person determined by the
Secretary of Treasury, after consultation with the Secretary of State, to be either
104 Wai Moe, “Experts Denounce Referendum on ‘Neither Free nor Fair,’” Irrawaddy, May 30, 2008.
106 For more detailed information about U.S. relations with Burma, see CRS Report RL33479, Burma-U.S. Relations,
by Larry A. Niksch.
107 Executive Order 13464, “Blocking Property and Prohibiting Certain Transactions Related to Burma,” Federal
Register, May 2, 2008 (Volume 73, Number 86), pp. 24489-24493.
108 Executive Order 13310, Executive Order 13448, and Executive Order 13464. For more specific information, see
CRS Report RS22737, Burma: Economic Sanctions, by Larry A. Niksch and Martin A. Weiss.
directly or indirectly owned or controlled by the SPDC or supportive of the
• Require U.S. representatives in international financial institutions to vote against
the extension of any financial assistance to Burma.
Under the Bush Administration, the U.S. policy has been to minimize contact with the SPDC and
to isolate the military junta. The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon has no ambassador. In addition, as
indicated above, the United States actively supports the efforts of international organizations
(such as the UN) to place pressure on the SPDC to improve human rights in Burma and return the
government to civilian rule. The U.S. State Department issued a statement on February 11, 2008,
that called the proposed constitutional referendum “evidence of its [the SPDC’s] refusal to pursue
a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with Burma’s democratic and ethnic minority 109
representatives.” In its 2008 annual human rights report, the State Department cited Burma for
a wide range of human rights abuses including arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life; torture
and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary arrest or detention;
denial of fair public trial; the detention of political prisoners; forced relocations; restriction of the
freedom of speech and press; restriction of the freedom of peaceful assembly and association; 110
repression of religion; and human trafficking.
On May 7, 2008, the Senate passed by unanimous consent S.Res. 554 expressing the Senate’s
“deep sympathy to and strong support for the people of Burma, who have endured tremendous
hardships over many years and face especially dire humanitarian conditions in the aftermath of
Cyclone Nargis.” The resolution also expressed the Senate’s support for President Bush’s decision
to provide humanitarian aid and indicated a willingness “to appropriate additional funds, beyond
existing emergency international disaster assistance resources, if necessary to help address dire
humanitarian conditions throughout Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and beyond.” On
May 13, 2008, the House passed H.Res. 1181 by a vote of 410 yeas to one nay, expressing its
sympathy and condolences to the people of Burma, and demanding that “the referendum to
entrench military rule be called off, allowing all resources to be focused on disaster relief to ease
the pain and suffering of the Burmese people.”
In December 2007, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of H.R.
3890. The bill—“The Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2007” in
the House and “The Burma Democracy Promotion Act of 2007” in the Senate—would ban both
the direct and indirect import of gemstones mined or extracted from Burma. The House version
would also prohibit “direct or indirect payments of any tax, cancellation penalty, or any other
amount to the Burmese Government, including amounts paid or incurred with respect to any joint
production agreement relating to the Yadana or Shwe gas fields or pipeline—an apparent
provision to force Chevron to divest from its business activities in Burma. The Senate version
does not contain prohibition on tax payments to the Burmese government, but does ban the direct
or indirect import of products containing teak or other hardwood timber from Burma.
109 “Burmese Regime Announces Sham Referendum,” Press statement by Sean McCormack, U.S. Department of State,
February 11, 2008.
110 State Department, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, March 11, 2008.
Consultations between the House and Senate have not yet reconciled the differences between the
two versions of H.R. 3890.
On March 14, 2008, Representative Rush D. Holt introduced H.Con.Res. 317 “Condemning the
Burmese regime’s undemocratic constitution and scheduled referendum.” The resolution
“denounces the one-sided, undemocratic, and illegitimate act by the State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC) to legalize military rule with the constitution” and urges the President to work
through the UN Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to
“end junta political intransigence and promote meaningful political dialogue” in Burma. On May
On November 16, 2007, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to S.Con.Res. 56 that
“encourages ASEAN to take more substantial steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy
in Burma.” On December 4, 2007, the House of Representatives referred the resolution to the
House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Legislation was also introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to award the 111
Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi. The House of Representatives passed its
version of the bill on December 17, 2007 by a vote of 400 yeas and zero nays. On April 24, 2008,
the Senate passed H.R. 4286 without amendment by unanimous consent. The legislation was
presented to the President on May 1, 2008, and signed into law on May 6, 2008.
The concurrence of the tightening of U.S. sanctions on Burma and the arrival of Cyclone Nargis
just one week before the nation was to vote on a proposed new constitution has compounded the
political pressure on the ruling military junta. Many of the people of Burma need humanitarian
aid and are dissatisfied with the SPDC’s initial response to the crisis. The current situation
presents Congress with at least four key issues: humanitarian assistance; the constitutional
referendum; a possible long-term food shortage; and potential political instability in Burma.
Humanitarian emergencies usually stem from two overall types of disasters: natural or conflict-
related. U.S. and international humanitarian assistance have an important impact not only on the
relief operation itself, but on broader foreign policy issues. Natural disasters (like the 2004
tsunami in the Indian Ocean, 2005 earthquake in South Asia, and 2007 cyclone in Bangladesh)
may affect millions of people each year who require prolonged urgent assistance. Responses are
typically multilateral, often have a relief operation end date, and are less likely to be hindered by
the politics of the situation. By contrast, in many conflicts—terrorist attacks, war between states,
or where groups within a country are fighting and in the absence of a political solution—the
response cannot be separated from broader foreign policy developments and the overall strategy
(including determining an exit point) may be much less clear.
111 H.R. 4286 and S. 2631.
In the case of Burma, the response to the natural disaster is closely linked to political
developments both within the country and in its relationships with the international community.
The circumstances and difficulties of mobilizing a relief operation were hampered in part by the
politics of the situation. Some are saying that the provision of humanitarian assistance and an
increase in the international presence in Burma could represent an opportunity to change the
authoritarian system in Burma. This may be what the SPDC fears, not only with the constitutional
referendum at stake, but in the long term as well, with the result that it has not allowed most
offers of international humanitarian experts.
Humanitarian assistance generally receives strong bipartisan congressional support and the
United States is typically a leader and major contributor to relief efforts in humanitarian 112
disasters. When disasters require immediate emergency relief, the Administration may fund
pledges by depleting its disaster accounts intended for worldwide use throughout a fiscal year. In
order to respond to future humanitarian crises, however, these resources would need to be
replenished or it could curtail U.S. capacity to respond to other emergencies. These accounts are
typically restored through supplemental appropriations. Amid efforts to tackle rising budget
deficits by, among other measures, slowing or reducing discretionary spending, finding the
resources to sustain U.S. aid pledges may present some challenges, depending upon the resources
required and competing aid priorities at hand.
The Senate passed S.Res. 554 on May 7, 2008, calling for Congress “to stand ready to appropriate
additional funds, beyond existing emergency international disaster assistance resources, if
necessary to help address dire humanitarian conditions throughout Burma in the aftermath of
Cyclone Nargis and beyond.”
On June 30, 2008, President Bush signed into law P.L. 110-252, which provides FY2008 and
FY2009 supplemental appropriations for overseas military operations, international affairs, and 113
some domestic programs. The law provides funding for urgent humanitarian assistance
worldwide, including support for critical needs in Burma. It also states, “As the Peace and
Development Council (SPDC) has compounded the humanitarian crisis in Burma by failing to
respond to the needs of the Burmese people in the wake of Cyclone Nargis and by refusing offers
of assistance from the international community, the Department of State and USAID should seek 114
to avoid providing assistance to or through the SPDC.”
Prior to the arrival of Cyclone Nargis, several Members of Congress had indicated their
opposition to Burma’s planned constitutional referendum. After the cyclone struck, on May 6,
2008, the House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res. 317 “condemning” the constitutional
112 For background information see CRS Report RL33769, International Crises and Disasters: U.S. Humanitarian
Assistance, Budget Trends, and Issues for Congress, by Rhoda Margesson.
113 For more information, see CRS Report RL34451, FY2008 Spring Supplemental Appropriations and FY2009 Bridge
Appropriations for Military Operations, International Affairs, and Other Purposes (P.L. 110-252), by Stephen Daggett
114 Page 17 of “Further House Amendment Relating to Supplemental Appropriations for Fiscal Years 2008 and 2009,”
available online at http://www.rules.house.gov/110/text/110_supp_pp_jes.pdf.
referendum and calling on the SPDC to enter into “meaningful political dialogue” with Burma’s
opposition groups. Since the SPDC announced its plan to hold the plebiscite, the Senate has not
passed any legislation relating directly to the constitutional referendum.
Even after the immediate post-cyclone emergency has passed, experts expect the country to face a
potentially severe food shortage for up to two years. The areas struck by Cyclone Nargis were
important sources of rice, seafood, pork, and chicken for Burma; it is unlikely that the rest of the
country will be able to step up food production to replace the lost output of the cyclone-
devastated regions. It is also uncertain if Burma will be able import enough food to replace its lost
domestic output because of damage to its transportation infrastructure and a shortage of foreign
exchange. As a result, Burma may require food assistance for many months and possibly years.
In addition, in the first few days after Cyclone Nargis, food prices in Burma reportedly increased
by 100% or more. While this spike in food prices is likely to subside to some extent in the coming
weeks, it is also likely that prices will not return to their pre-cyclone levels. In addition to the
challenge of recovering from the destruction caused by the cyclone, the people of Burma will
probably face higher—and possibly rising—food prices for many months. Given that most
households in Burma were living in poverty before the arrival of Nargis, the higher food prices
will place more strain on the Burmese people. It is noteworthy to recall that widespread protests
in Burma in September 2007 began as a demonstration against an unannounced increase in fuel
Burma’s potential long-term need for food assistance presents two possible concerns to Congress.
First, Congress may be asked to appropriate funds to provide long-term food and agricultural
assistance to Burma. Second, these recent developments may also prompt changes in the current
laws governing sanctions on Burma.
The possible combined effects of public dissatisfaction with the SPDC’s response to the cyclone
disaster, a potential rejection of the junta’s proposed constitution, and widespread food shortages
and food price inflation could combine to pose a threat to the political survival of Burma’s ruling
military junta. In addition, the announced “official results” of the constitutional plebiscite are
widely viewed as obviously fraudulent by Burma’s opposition groups and much of the general
population. These factors have increased the prospects for public demonstrations against the
Political tensions—both domestic and international—were also heightened by the SPDC’s
decision on May 27, 2008, to extend the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for a sixth consecutive 115
year, as well as the arrest of several NLD members. The detention decision was announced just
a few days after United Nation Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had raised the issue with the
leaders of the SPDC. It also came on the same day that NLD members rallied at Aung San Suu
Kyi’s home in remembrance of their election victory in 1990.
115 “Myanmar Extends Suu Kyi’s House Arrest, Detains Activists,” AFP, May 27, 2008.
After the announcement of the detention’s extension, Secretary-General Ban expressed his regret
about the junta’s decision and called for an end to all such “restrictions” of “political figures” in 116
Burma. In an official statement, President Bush indicated that he was “deeply troubled” by the
decision and called upon the SPDC “to release all political prisoners in Burma and begin a
genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, and other 117
democratic and ethnic minority groups on a transition to democracy.”
One question Congress may move to consider is whether current circumstances warrant a further
tightening or easing of political pressure on the SPDC. Given Burma’s current and anticipated
future need for humanitarian assistance, as well as the apparent heightened dissatisfaction with
the SPDC, some are likely to argue that the current situation is an opportune moment to ramp up
U.S. sanctions and seek greater action from the United Nations and other multilateral
organizations. For example, resolution of the differences between the House and Senate versions
of H.R. 3890 and subsequently forwarding the legislation to the President would build upon
Executive Order 13464. However, new congressional sanctions would possibly eliminate any
possibility of the SPDC admitting U.S. aid or relief workers in the future and could potentially be
used by the military junta to rally support based on patriotic or nationalist appeals to opposition to
A key factor that will impact the effectiveness of any changes in U.S. sanctions on Burma will be
the perceived ability of the SPDC to weather any political storm. One critical element in the post-
Nargis period will be the strength of the SPDC’s support among rank-and-file soldiers. Burma’s
military has grown from 180,000 to around 400,000 troops over the last 20 years.
The SPDC will also rely on its paramilitary support group, the Union Solidarity and Development
Association (USDA), to remain in power. Formed in 1993, the USDA is ostensibly a social
organization that claims nearly 23 million members, but has a reputation for violent acts against
opposition groups in Burma. In recent years, the USDA has organized “people’s militias” that
have reportedly been involved in attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders in 118
Burma. Burma’s soldiers have already demonstrated a readiness to open fire on civilian
protests and the USDA have similarly demonstrated a willingness to be a weapon of oppression
for the SPDC. Whether of not the soldiers and the USDA members will continue to support the
military junta during any post-Nargis civil unrest remains to be seen.
There are some indications of significant political changes within the SPDC since Cyclone Nargis
and the constitutional referendum. On June 20, 2008, the SPDC released Orders 2/2008 and
Population, and making Vice Admiral Soe Thien his replacement as Minister for Industry-2.
According to one report, unnamed military sources said that Soe Thien’s replacement as the 120
navy’s commander in chief will be Major General Nyan Tun. Another report claims that five
116 “Secretary-general Regrets Extension of Myanmar Opposition Leader’s House Arrest,”United Nation’s Department
of Public Information, SG/SM/11598, May 27, 2008.
117 “President Bush Disappointed by Burmese Regime’s Extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s House Arrest,” Office of the
Press Secretary, White House, May 27, 2008.
118 For more information about the USDA, see The White Shirts: How the USDA Will Become the New Face of
Burma’s Dictatorship, Network for Democracy and Development, May 2006.
119 New Light of Myanmar, June 21, 2008, page 1.
120 Min Lwin, “Junta Reshuffles Cabinet, Top Military Posts,” Irrawaddy, June 20, 2008.
top SPDC lieutenant generals were asked to retire and several junior officers were promoted as 121
part of a restructuring of the SPDC.
There are differing interpretations of the significance of the replacement of ministers and
retirement of generals. Some observers speculate that there is a power struggle within the SPDC
for the successor of Than Shwe between General Shwe Mann and Lieutenant General Myint Swe.
While Shwe Mann is purportedly the “number three man in the armed forces,” Myint Swe 122
supposedly is very loyal to Than Shwe. Other analysts are interpreting the recent changes in the
SPDC as the punishing of people who failed to take action after the cyclone and replace them
with loyal and trusted officers. In particular, Soe Thien was allegedly removed from his position
as the head of the navy because of his failure to deploy ships to counter the U.S. and French naval 123
vessels of the coast of Burma.
Another important issue will be the image of Burma’s Buddhist monks and nuns—and their
actions—in the weeks ahead. Various accounts indicate that the monks and nuns have been key
figures at the local level in organizing and coordinating disaster relief efforts. Although the SPDC
has attempted to prevent the monks and nuns from involvement in disaster assistance—and
reportedly have tried to take credit for work done by the monks and nuns—Burma’s “members of
religious orders” may have strengthened their popularity since the arrival of Cyclone Nargis.
Having been barred from voting on the constitutional referendum, Burma’s Buddhist monks and
nuns may choose to leverage their stronger popular support into renewed political action against
the Burma’s oppressive military junta.
121 Min Lwin, “Junta Reshuffles Key Military Positions,” Irrawaddy, June 25, 2008.
122 Min Lwin, “Reshuffle Could Signal Change at the Top,” Irrawaddy, June 23, 2008.
123 Aung Zaw, “The Tatmadaw Exposed,” Irrawaddy, June 23, 2008.
Figure 1. Map Areas of Burma Flooded by Cyclone Nargis
Source: Humanitarian Information Unit of the U.S. State Department
Note: Names and boundary representations are not necessarily authoritative.
Michael F. Martin Rhoda Margesson
Analyst in Asian Trade and Finance Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy
firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-2199 email@example.com, 7-0425