Disaster Math

Myanmar's improbable tsunami statistics and the casualty numbers game

From the moment of impact, the 12/26 earthquake and tsunami was a story about numbers. Despite the arresting images of destruction and personal stories of loss, numbers were splashed across banner headlines and used to communicate the extent of the devastation. They began with climbing body counts, shifted to a paltry donation figures, and moved to dark projections of more deaths to come.

But the numbers, especially body counts, convey a false certainty. Remote regions remain impenetrable, and the dead on thousands of small islands will probably never be accounted for. In Sri Lanka, the military, police and National Disaster Management Center have offered completely different body counts. Indonesia is a developing country that has not had a census in 12 years; no one knows how many bodies there are supposed to be. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told leaders last week they would never know the "exact magnitude" of the disaster, but the reality, based on reports from volunteers burying bodies, is they'll never have a clue.

Myanmar, a country run by a crackpot military regime, is a particularly stark vacuum of information. During the first days after the tsunami, we heard nothing of Myanmar, although hundreds of miles of Burmese coastline lay not far from the quake's epicenter. There it was on the map (and in the case of BBC's map, misspelled), but the first reports didn't even mention the name. On January 2, the government coughed up a questionable body count of 59, and UNICEF Myanmar head Carroll Long followed with a slightly more believable 90. Later, the World Food Program asked for food aid for 30,000 people—a sign that the destruction had been more significant than the military was willing to admit. In a country where foreign journalists are banned, in coastal regions with little infrastructure, the real numbers will likely stay buried.

I spent last year working with a weekly newspaper in Myanmar, where I attempted to cover some of the worst floods to hit the country in 30 years. Getting people to talk about the flooding, which left thousands homeless last August, was tantamount to asking them to denounce the dictatorship. Government officials hung up when my translator asked for specifics (except for one who helpfully explained, "it's not our culture to talk to the public.") The government's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology would not reveal the water levels or would simply lie. The local Red Cross representatives claimed they couldn't tell me about the floods because the branch office in that area was, in fact, flooded. Major International NGOs like WorldVision were afraid their operations would be halted if they so much as revealed how many blankets they were distributing. After much hand-wringing, WorldVision representatives gave me the story, at which point a government censor perused the piece and expunged all reference to death and destruction.

Fellow reporters, who hadn't even bothered pursuing the story, already knew the local weather would be a heavily-guarded state secret. In the country's belief system, a superstition-infused Buddhism, natural disasters imply that nirvana is unhappy with the leadership. A cyclone, a storm, a tsunami, perhaps, may be a celestial mandate for the democratic opposition. Under the delusion that he has a reputation to uphold, Senior General Than Shwe doesn't divulge inauspicious weather patterns. (Just to be safe, the state-run daily paper reports only yesterday's weather.) Than Shwe has just sponsored a government purge, which has seen the Prime Minister and thousands of government operatives imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Anxiety-ridden local officials, already worried about their livelihoods, will not be eager to report deaths to the United Nations or Red Cross. The United Nations, ever cautious with Myanmar's capricious rulers, is unlikely to risk its enormous ongoing aid operations by probing too deeply.

While the numbers in Myanmar are intentionally kept low, body counts elsewhere are simply too large to tabulate accurately. AP has reported that the Indonesian Red Cross is estimating 400 bodies for every mass grave, while bureaucrats guess at the population of affected villages, count survivors and subtract. The "official" count for the entire region now hovers around 160,000 dead, but the UN has thrown out estimates of up to 2 million missing persons.

Natural disaster assessments are only one example of how fluid statistics often are in the undeveloped regions of Southeast Asia. Numbers are born out of a need to express the magnitude of a problem and find donors to help, but the places where those problems are gravest often have no statistical information to draw from. UNAIDs estimates Myanmar has 330,000 adult HIV/AIDs victims, a number with all the scientific weight of a ouija board. The US government claims that over 200,000 women and children are trafficked in Southeast Asia every year, a statistic UNESCO's trafficking specialist simply calls "made-up." With everything from preventable malaria deaths to border skirmish body counts, baseless guesstimates become widely cited and accepted. Donors demand them, NGOs and UN agencies produce them, and much-needed money changes hands.

In the void of information following December 26, governments and organisations will see opportunities to claim a larger piece of the $4 billion coming toward southeast Asia. Judging from Indonesia's abysmal corruption record and the proclivity of aid organisations to engage in turf wars, the lack of information may become increasingly problematic. For now, the statistics, however inaccurate, are simply a proxy for the unfathomable magnitude of destruction. Whether too large or small, questionable estimates are prompting an unprecedented outpouring of aid. They're not real numbers, but necessary ones, for a tragedy that defies description.

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