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Burma, the broken country

by David Burleigh

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN: The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma’s Military Regime, by Emma Larkin. Granta, 2010, 265 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Tropical storms are given names by meteorological offices around the world. In English we generally prefer to be anthropomorphic, using male and female names alternately, but elsewhere it may be different: Nargis, the cyclone that swept through Burma (Myanmar) in 2008 was named in India and means narcissus.

In her previous book about Burma (as she prefers to call it), Emma Larkin drew a parallel, from quiet confidential conversations, between the thought-controlled world of George Orwell’s novels such as “1984″ and that country now. Larkin writes under a pseudonym, but speaks Burmese and slips in and out of the country often, gathering what information she can. She builds a believable portrait of life under the military regime.

“Everything is Broken,” which has an epigraph from Bob Dylan, is her account of the destruction wreaked by the cyclone, and how little the government did to help.

Admittedly, the path of the cyclone was not easily predictable, and the low-lying delta region where it made landfall was difficult to escape from or protect. But what was most bewildering to the outside world was the way that the Burmese government refused, and obstructed, all offers of help from other countries in the immediate aftermath of a devastating storm. Even now, it is almost impossible to get an accurate assessment of the damage and the loss of life.

Visiting Burma soon after the storm, and restricted at first to the former capital of Rangoon, the author notes: “The destruction in the city was catastrophic, but it soon became apparent that what had happened in Rangoon was nothing compared to the devastation in the Irrawaddy Delta.”

Later, she manages to travel further out: observing for herself and, more importantly, listening to what the survivors have to say.

While international relief organizations urgently prepared assistance just after the disaster, the Burmese authorities steadfastly refused all this. Even after a visit from the Secretary General of the United Nations, and appeals from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, outside help from seasoned professionals was only grudgingly allowed.

Some reasons for the generals’ reluctance were suggested later by those on the ground: that they were ashamed to accept charity greater than they could give themselves; that the supply-filled ships anchored offshore in the Andaman Sea seemed to constitute a threat. Even so, it is difficult to comprehend a government that so obviously works against the welfare and interests of its people.

The book is divided into three parts, the middle of which fills in the background, and tells us what was happening before the storm, when the soldiers quelled a desperate protest movement by shooting Buddhist monks.

Interestingly, Larkin pays a visit to the new capital at Naypidaw, which sounds as bleak as North Korea must be. I didn’t realize that the unhealthy delta region had been settled and reclaimed in the 19th century — somewhat like the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh — under the British colonial administration.

It is unsettling to read how the storm swept in “killing a staggering 90 percent of the population” in the most exposed areas, when Japan has just suffered a similar disaster.

The “size and ferocity” of Cyclone Nargis was of an order never experienced before — rather like the recent tsunami in Japan — and could not perhaps have been prepared for. But help could have been given when the wind and waves receded, leaving the land salty and infertile.

Whatever the mindset of the reclusive generals, there can be little excuse for their failure to provide assistance to the tens of thousands of their own people affected by this terrible event. On this point, Emma Larkin’s moving account is absolutely clear.