On 2 May 2008, as this volume was being finalised, severe tropical Cyclone Nargis made landfall in Ayeyarwady Division at near peak intensity. Winds were measured at the height of the cyclone at 215 kilometres an hour. The cyclone passed just to the north of Yangon. Within the Ayeyarwady Delta, the storm caused a tidal surge of up to four metres, inundating paddy fields with sea water.

The death toll from the cyclone is staggering, with official figures of 130 000 dead and 2.4 million people affected. The United Nations believes it left 900 000 people homeless.[17] It seems clear that a large number of children and elderly Burmese are among the dead. The cyclone caused extensive damage to towns and villages in the delta as well as in Yangon and its peri-urban townships.

The cyclone developed on 27 April and Sri Lankan, Bangladesh and Burmese authorities issued warnings. The Bangladesh Government, for example, urged farmers to finish bringing in their rice harvest (Voice of America News, 29 April 2008). In Burma, the military regime issued warnings on 2 May that a severe cyclonic storm was over the Bay of Bengal. It concluded with the comment that ‘[w]eather is partly cloudy to cloudy in the Andaman Sea and elsewhere in the Bay of Bengal’ (New Light of Myanmar, 2 May 2008).

While the inadequacy of the government warnings became patently obvious when approximately 95 per cent of all structures within the delta were destroyed by Nargis, the regime’s response to the disaster received strong international condemnation. The British Prime Minister labelled the aftermath of the cyclone a ‘man-made catastrophe’ (The Irrawaddy, 21 May 2008) because of the regime’s refusal to allow international disaster-relief teams to provide emergency aid. The military regime blocked the access of crucial supplies, which probably caused the death and suffering of numerous people. The number of people who died in the aftermath of the cyclone because of the regime’s refusal of aid and its inability to reach survivors in time might never be known. It is clear, however, that the SPDC does not have disaster-relief planning capability or emergency supplies and that it deliberately withheld international aid to Cyclone Nargis survivors.

This chapter describes a withholding of the right to health from the Burmese people as a human rights abuse on an enormous scale. The charge of crimes against humanity must be proven over a sustained period as a deliberate policy. This chapter has sketched the outline of a comprehensive failure to provide for the health needs of the Burmese population and of 46 years of continuing human rights abuses perpetrated by the military regime and its paramilitary, militia and security forces and organisations. The military regime’s response to the loss of life and emergency humanitarian needs generated by Cyclone Nargis raises the spectre of a lack of a right to health in contemporary Burma as a continuing, sustained and often systematic form of a crime against humanity.

[17] See UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) web site for Situation Reports.