Burma's resolve

The Burmese people have shown astonishing resilience in the wake of cyclone Nargis, but the internat

It is a given that for every force there is an equal and an opposite reaction. So when the destructive force of cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta on the night of the 2 May this year, the question arising was: "how would the country respond?"

Although the cyclone left 140,000 people dead or missing, and seriously affected 2.4 million more, the answer was quick and definitive.

Within two days, monasteries, individuals, self help groups, staff of national charities, international non–governmental organisations and United Nations agencies (many of whom had families and homes affected by this disaster) had dusted themselves off and launched an incredible aid effort. They took food and essential relief items to absolutely isolated villages, by any means possible.

Although there was a tragic lack of readiness for this cyclone – an all too frequent event in this region – and although the government request for international assistance was delayed, there was, and remains a massive humanitarian response.

This disaster has shown that when the extraordinary resilience of a local population is backed up by international support, a powerful and constructive force for good can be unleashed.

The Delta is full of stories of courage; how people climbed trees and hung on for hours despite the lashing and stinging saline rain and howling winds; how friends pulled loved ones from the swollen rivers; how people sat out the cyclone on rooftops; how people went to extraordinary lengths to find missing members of their families to reunite in the rubble.

I heard from three brothers who survived a capsized ship by treading water and floating on logs for hours. They survived for three days by eating coconuts and drinking rain water and were finally reunited at a temporary camp 14 days later.

The international community, local government and national staff of non-governmental organisations have undoubtedly played largely successful roles in the aid effort through the provision of essential humanitarian aid in the days following the cyclone – distributing much needed tarpaulins for shelter, soap and cooking utensils, mosquito nets and jerry cans for fetching water to hundreds of thousands of people. This was all carried out across a vast geographical area typified by swamps and huge interconnecting rivers.

The job of the aid workers has been made easier by the incredible spirit of the local population. It was observed as early as July that in many areas, over 75% of people affected by the cyclone had rebuilt their homes.

Despite the chaos following the immediate days after the cyclone, rice was planted and in some areas a reasonable harvest is expected. Even in some of the most heavily affected and remote locations, such as Middle Island in the Western Delta which bore the full brunt of the storm, markets are springing back up again.

Tea rooms and restaurants are full of the bustle of daily life. I even stumbled upon a landowner who had managed to rig up a satelitte TV system and was showing English Premier League football – for a price of course - to a willing and animated crowd.

There is much more to be done in Burma and the reconstruction effort will be a long, painful and difficult road not helped by the fact that the United Nations appeal stands pitifully half-empty. This means that essential recovery and reconstruction work such as re-building roads, health services and schools will not take place on the scale necessary. Access to fresh clean water in the Delta is also going to be an issue as the dry season progresses, as is the availability of food in some areas.

Humanitarians will point to the fact that in neighbouring Bangladesh a similar cyclone this year killed far fewer people because of simple preparedness initiatives supported by the government. Basic lessons from Bangladesh can be used to improve future preparation in Burma and elsewhere.

But concentrating on the terrible loss of life in Burma does a disservice to the incredible acts of heroism and tenacity of the people who actually survived that night.

The people of Burma have shown that through resolve, enterprise and bravery in the face of adversity, a constructive force for good can be achieved that runs as powerful as the force of nature that caused this devastation in the first place. It is time for the international community to recognise this and to go that next step with further support.

David Hockaday is Emergencies Adviser Burma (Myanmar) for Save the Children UK

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide