The news trickled in slowly, and the world watched with horror as the death toll mounted quickly. At first, a few hundred; then, a few thousand; and soon, well over 60,000 people feared dead after a monster cyclone swamped low-lying portions of Myanmar's fertile southwestern coastline. A 12-foot storm surge raced through thatch huts and rice paddies in the middle of the night, leaving as many as 1 million people homeless.
Despite the scale of the suffering, there was an eerie silence in the days after the disaster. The military junta has so isolated the nation (formerly known as Burma) that there were few outsiders around to relay the stories of suffering. For days, victims' voices were still missing. And so were the usual armies of humanitarian workers because the authoritarian regime was either completely paralyzed or simply unwilling to react. Myanmar's ruling generals made United Nations officials and other aid workers wait for entry visas before they could begin even a damage assessment. "This regime is extremely paranoid and isolated and xenophobic," says Derek Mitchell at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The prospect of having all kinds of people from all over the world doing work they cannot really control or even monitor is troubling to them." Indeed, the only relief flights allowed in at first were from "friendly" countries like India.
This meant that aid workers lost precious days in the race to provide clean water and food. Aid groups were reluctant to openly criticize the regime, fearful of losing what little access they had. But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was aggravated enough to suggest that the United Nations should force the generals to accept aid deliveries. The bungled response by Myanmar's military rulers—who did not hesitate to brutally suppress monks leading democracy protests last fall—wasn't much of a surprise. They recently ensconced themselves in a new Stalinist-like capital city, protectively isolated from most of the population and their suffering. For them, the damage was apparently out of sight and out of mind.