American Elephants

Disaster relief here, there and elsewhere. Be very glad to be an American. by The Elephant's Child

Cyclone Nargis aftermath

When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar (Burma) on May 2 with winds up to 120 mph, the US Navy sailed to offer aid, as did the world’s major relief organizations. Estimates of the number of dead ranged from 77,000 to 110,000, with as many as 220,000 missing and 2.4 million severely affected. The inability of farmers to plant rice seeds in time for the growing season is a major concern. Losses of cattle and water buffalo suggest future famine. The military junta ruling Myanmar has been reluctant to accept any aid, provoking deep frustration from relief organizations.

Nearly a month after the cyclone hit, fewer than one in three victims of the storm had been reached with aid. There were reports of supplies confiscated by the government and re-labeled to show that they came from the Myanmar government. The government did allow a limited number of U.S. Air Force C-130s to fly in supplies from Thailand. They have allowed 116 flights of water and other relief supplies to Yangon. By June 10, the Government of Burma reported granting visas to 911 relief workers and authorizing 569 to work in affected areas, and issued guidelines to follow. Some organizations reported being turned away at police checkpoints, and lack of access continues to prevent needs-driven approaches to relief operations.

The junta is particularly sensitive to allowing U.S. helicopters, which would highlight the American effort in a country where the people have been taught that the U.S. is a hostile aggressor. Washington has been a leading critic of the junta for its poor human rights record. Stories deeply critical of that record seep out from many sources.

It’s worthwhile to think back to a January 2, 2005 report by a Dutch diplomat who traveled to Banda Aceh to see the reality on the ground following the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004.

The US military has arrived and is clearly establishing its presence everywhere in Banda Aceh. They completely have taken over the military hospital, which was a mess until yesterday but is now completely up and running. They brought big stocks of medicines, materials for the operation room, teams of doctors, water and food. Most of the patients who were lying in the hospital untreated for a week have undergone medical treatment by the US teams by this afternoon. US military have unloaded lots of heavy vehicles and organized the logistics with Indonesian military near the airport. A big camp is being set up at a major square in the town. Huge generators are ready to provide electricity. US helicopters fly to places which haven’t been reached for the whole week and drop food. The impression it makes on the people is also highly positive; finally something happens in the city of Banda Aceh and finally it seems some people are in control and are doing something. No talking but action. European countries are until now invisible on the ground. IOM staff (note; this is a USAID-funded organization) is very busy briefing the incoming Americans and Australians about the situation. (emphasis in original)

The US, Australia, Singapore and the Indonesian military have started a “Coalition Co-ordination Centre in Medan to organize all the incoming and outgoing military flights with aid. A sub-centre is established in Banda Aceh.

The US Navy finally sailed away from Myanmar on Thursday June 5th. leaving behind an offer of 22 helicopters and including an offer to allow Myanmar officials aboard all helicopters to monitor their routes and to unload relief supplies.

Yes, yes, I know. No culture is any better than any other. All must be considered equal.

ADDENDUM: The excerpt is from the account by the Chief Diplomad who observed the tsunami aftermath from Banda Aceh, and reported his daily observations at It is a wonderful website to browse around, in January of 2005, to get a glimpse of disaster relief and how it works or not.

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