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What if there were a tsunami and nobody knew?
Ethan Zuckerman, 28 Dec 04

The front page of every newspaper in the world today was dominated by news of the catastrophic tsunami that has claimed at least 57,000 lives in southeast Asia and east Africa. And the New Light of Myanmar is no different: 16 of the 28 headlines on the New Light website focused on the earthquake and tsunami. Some sample headlines:

"Senior General Than Shwe sends message of sympathy to India"

"Vice-Senior General Maung Aye sends message of sympathy to Indonesia"

"Foreign Minister sends message of sympathy to Sri Lanka"

Far down the page is the article: "Massive earthquake claims lives and property", which quotes a Reuters report, listing death tolls in the region, though none in Myanmar. At the very bottom of the page, just above "Meeting of Beans and Pulses and Sesame Merchants Association on 30 Dec", is the article Strong earthquake hits some regions in Myanmar, which acknowleged the destruction of 17 villages, 34 people killed and 200 people homeless.

There's two possible explanations for this story. One is that Myanmar, with 1930 kilometers of coastline, numerous fishing villages and huts on stilts along the coast, and a common border with Thailand - where over 1500 are reported dead - miraculously escaped the effect of the tsunami.

The other explanation is that Myanmar's famously secretive military government hasn't wanted to reveal the extent of the tsunami damage to the outside world... and especially to their own citizens. (As in many represive regimes, it's easier to to get news from outside the country than news from within it.)

AFP is reporting "at least 90 deaths" in Myanmar, based on accounts from UNICEF, who in turn cite "reliable sources". Radio Free Asia quotes an aid official, speaking to AFP, as saying, "Given the trajectory of the tsunami after the earthquake we would have to assume the death toll is far greater." According to AFP, UNICEF has offered food and medical assistance, but "no assistance has been requested at this juncture".

RFA observes that it may be impossible to know the true extent of the damage in Myanmar:

"The official said there was concern about fishing communities and the ethnic Salone and Moken, commonly referred to as sea gypsies. 'They live on the ocean, often with no documentation and they are especially vulnerable, and we may never know to what degree they have been affected,' he said."

Democratic Voice of Burma, a Burmese dissident news service based in Norway, reports earthquake damage to a college building and a historical pagoda in the Irriwaddy region, as well tsunami damage to the Coco Islands, located south of the mainland in the Indian Ocean, just north of India's Andaman Islands, where at least 5,000 are reported dead.

Roughly 1,000 people lived on Coco Island in 1990. How many died and how many survived Sunday's tragedy? We may never know. And if the generals in Rangoon know, they're not telling.

(Thanks to Jeff Ooi for his lead on this story.)

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Excellent reporting. The mainstream media has made passing references to the impact of this disaster on the conflict zones in Aceh and Sri Lanka, including grim images of land mines being wrenched up by the water. One wonders if any more limbs will be lost to those mines. I am deeply concerned that much of the aid flooding into the region will be spent on rebuilding tourism and other luxuries for those from the global North. The priority must be on rebuilding people's lives.

Posted by: Mike McCallister on 28 Dec 04

I know of Burma sutdents in UK who are saying there is a massive problem in Burma with tsumani and earthquake but governemtn will nto seek response.

Posted by: A towers on 29 Dec 04

"we did not have major damage at all in Myanmar and just only a bit shake around the country"

So the whole coastline of the region was nearly destroyed, but it didn't "cause anything to Myanmar, it just effected to the Indonesia, Bengladish, Myalaysia cost, Thailand islands."

Strange that, compare the epicentre of the map on this page and the map on this one:

Posted by: Zielgruppe on 29 Dec 04

Thanks for linking to this on the Winds of Change article. Unfortunately, most of the Burmese tsunami distaster will remain unknown to us, turning a natural tragedy into a human farce.

Posted by: Marcus Cicero on 29 Dec 04

Just adding a data point: The 1881 7.9 magnitude quake near Nicobar (epicentre closer to Burma than this quake) barely registered anywhere in Burma, although it was widely felt in India, and as far NW as Kathmandu, Nepal. The accompanying Tsunami propagated throughout the Bay of Bengal, and registered in tide gauges at Pamban, Nagapattinam, Madras, Vishakapatnam, False Point and Diamond Harbour. However, no measurable trace of the Tsunami showed up on the tide gauges in Burma in the Irrawady delta (Rangoon, Moulmein and Amherst) at that time.

Ref: Ortiz & Bilham, "The 1881 Nicobar Earthquake and Tsunami", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 108, No. B4, 2215, Apr 2003.

It *is* entirely physically possible that the impact on Burma of the present quake is much smaller than on Thailand. The alignment of the subduction fault on which both the 1881 and 2004 quakes have occurred is North-South, and most of the energy in these quakes is focussed perpendicular to the fault axis, i.e. East-West. Burma, being located to the NE, could have escaped with smaller damage, similar to 1881 (notice also that the damage to Bangladesh from the 2004 quake is comparatively small).

Posted by: Siva Chander on 29 Dec 04

Thanks for posting this article. It is a tragedy that the world will never know the true extent of this disaster in Burma, all due to this one inhumane military "government".

Posted by: Phyo A. on 29 Dec 04

Its more likely that those in charge in Burma just don't know what the damage is. As Americans it is easy to look at witheld information as something evil, but in actuality its more likely to be just general incompetence.

Posted by: Josh on 29 Dec 04

I was one of the first to ask the BBC if they had any news from Burma ( see under: Lawrence, Belgium) as I tried to contact friends I have in Rangoon and the Irrawady delta, but failed. All the telephone connections to Rangoon failed, I tried for about 12hrs. They told me they had attempted to relay with local correspondents but that their efforts were in vein too.

So far, I know of only one witness account coming out of Burma directly. It's coming from Rangoon, and it's obvious that the tsunami hit the capital quite seriously. So we must conclude that it has hit the lower lying areas for sure:

"On the 26th, Sunday, about 7:45am, my family was sleeping soundly and I felt my body was floating then I heard the sound of crushing glasses on the refrigerator, the water in the tank flew out and I knew that was an earthquake. I also heard the loud shouting of my neighbours. All the members of my family woke up and we all ran to the ground floor as our eight-storey building was shaking. My poor grandmother could not run and she was in great fear. We haven't had any experience of earthquakes. After a few minutes the ground stopped shaking. On the TV news, the quake's centre was near Indonesia, I was so worried for my mother working in Singapore. But as I saw there were no deaths in Singapore so I was relieved. I felt very sorry for the people in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and India. One of my neighbour's sons is a sailor and they have not heard any news about him and they are so worried.
Ye Tun, Rangoon, Burma"

We will probably never know how many casualties the disaster took in Burma. It's one of the dirty consequences of having a dictatorial regime in power.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 29 Dec 04

> I know of only one witness account coming out of Burma directly. It's coming from Rangoon, and it's obvious that the tsunami hit the capital quite seriously.

The BBC eyewitness account is obviously talking about the main quake, which would have been at 7:58 AM (Bangkok time). The Tsunami would have hit about 90 to 120 minutes later.

There's no ground shaking or building swaying associated with a Tsunami; this was the body wave (P-wave) from the main quake itself, which would have reached Rangoon in a little over 3 minutes after the main quake:

Since Rangoon is a little inland in the Irrawady delta, it's possible that the Tsunami just manifested itself like an unusually large swell, without serious damage (the actual lunar tide was low, and the Irrawady obviously experiences monsoon flooding - so it's likely that there aren't many low-lying permanent habitations in the delta that were vulnerable to damage - this is exactly what has saved the Gangetic delta in Bangladesh this time).

Hence, significant damage is likely to be confined to the less-densely populated Andaman Sea coastal regions of Burma (down to the Thai coast), with its numerous fishing hamlets and settlements - it's still a major calamity with some natural mitigating factors.

Posted by: Siva Chander on 30 Dec 04

Siva, thanks for that explanation.
But let's not forget that if it hit the Andamans so badly, it must have hit Mergui, and there are several settlements on this archipelago. The entire southeastern coastal strip must have been hit.

I still haven't found more witness accounts from Burma.

If anyone has some pointers, please link them in here. Thanks.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 30 Dec 04

It "is not" entirely physically possible that the impact on Burma was much smaller than on Thailand. The Gulf of Martaban is almost due north and aproximately 600 miles from the epicenter. I would conjecture that the eastern sides of the gulf could have worst damage than Thailand because the shock waves may have bounced around more. I would be willing to accept the premise that Rangoon escaped major flooding because of its location in the Irrawaddy delta.

I have a more sinister view on the lack of reported deaths in Burma, especially on the eastern side bordering Thailand. This area has never been a government friendly area, so a bit of strained resources and lack of access and communication for a week would clear up a lot of problems.

I would not be surprised to hear that Aung San Suu Kyi was drowned in the Tsunami, along with a a dozen government security guards, during a supervised trip to the beach.

Hallett Douville

Posted by: Hallett Douville on 30 Dec 04

My epicenter distance correction on my last post. USGS 3.16N 95.885E.

So the mouth of the Gulf of Martaban would be about 800 miles north and about 60 miles east of the epicenter.

In addition, using an 1881 7.9 magnitude earhtquake as a reference is stretching it to say the least, the Richter scale was developed in the 1930's . In additon , the Richter scale measures overall magnitude but it does not account for varrying local intensity.

Hallett Douville

Posted by: Hallett Douville on 30 Dec 04

>In addition, using an 1881 7.9 magnitude earhtquake as a reference is stretching it to say the least, the Richter scale was developed in the 1930's.

The Mw 7.9 figure is the back-calculated moment-magnitude for the 1881 quake, from the actual data, including the Tsunami amplitudes recorded on the tidal gauges at various locations in the Bay of Bengal in 1881. So it's not stretching it - it's actually more accurate than the initial Mw 8.0 USGS estimate for the Dec 24 event (which was revised later as more data became available).

> In additon , the Richter scale measures overall magnitude but it does not account for varrying local intensity.

The Richter scale doesn't enter the picture here - the 1881 quake was about 30 times weaker than the 2004 quake (in total energy), but it was located considerably closer to Burma. Other factors were more or less the same, except the tide, which was slightly higher (and decreasing) on Dec 31st 1881 when the Tsunami hit Port Blair.

> I have a more sinister view on the lack of reported deaths in Burma, especially on the eastern side bordering Thailand. This area has never been a government friendly area, so a bit of strained resources and lack of access and communication for a week would clear up a lot of problems.

I'd agree that the impact on the Eastern coastal zone down to the Thai border would have been significant, but I'd tend to attribute the lack of information to plain incompetence, not intentional malice.

The Thai numbers are overwhelming, in part due to a well-developed tourism industry with a beach-side focus, thus putting a lot of tourists as well as service industries in harm's way, close to the beaches. Had it been a subsistence fishing economy similar to half-century ago, the fatalities would have been in the low hundreds or less, similar to the reported numbers for Burma.

A settlement just 200 yards inland on high ground would have been safe, as would have been a fishing boat in just 100 feet of water depth. The "death zone" is limited to shallow water and the adjoining low-elevation land shelf.

Posted by: Siva Chander on 31 Dec 04

Does anyone know how to go about obtaining before and after satellite photos of Myanmar's coastline like the ones of Aceh which were screened on TV?

This could pretty much give us an idea how much damage is done and probably an estimate how many people were affected.

Posted by: Paul FC on 31 Dec 04

I found the comment below on the New Zealand Herald website -( )
Thought you might be interested.

"I run a dive expedition boat off the coast of Myanmar (Burma). We were at sea when it hit, but aside from experiencing insane surges of up to 6 metres and unpredictable, extremely strong currents there really isn't much to tell from my end. I didn't realise the severity of it all until we sailed into Kawthaung this morning. - Hamish Thorpe"

Posted by: Lily Cann on 1 Jan 05

Siva Chander,

I am not trying to cross swords with you , it is obvious that you are a geologist or something, are you connected with or acting as a consultant to the Burmese government??

I think it is important that you reveal where you are operating from!

I spent 3 months in Burma in 2000 and traveled the South East coast as far as I was allowed. So I am a little bit familiar with this area.

There are not any major tourist destination resourts in this area, but local people are definitely living on and making a living from the sea.

There is no Way that Myeik /Mergui and Dawei/Tavoy escaped major damage and loss of life., not to mention the rest of the coast.

Your statement" A settlement just 200 yards inland on high ground would have been safe , as would have been a fishing boat in just 100 feet of water. The death zone is limited to shallow water and the adjoing low elevation land shelf".

Local fishing boats do not anchor in 100 feet of water, nor does anyone else except commercial vessels. In a fishing community you either anchor your boat just off the beach or you pull it ashore. Being 200 yards inland is meaningless if ther is no dramatic increase in elevation . All of the fishing communities live and anchor their boats within the tsumani zone!!

I think your whole premise on "a possible low death toll" is flawed to say the least , I am begining to think that you are an apologist for the Generals. I hope you prove me wrong.

Your statement" plain incompetence,not intentional malice" is exactly what the Generals would like everyone to assume. What I would like you and everyone else reading this "post" to Know is that the controversial "Yadana Natural Gas pipeling" is running thru this area . Check out "Doe V. Unocal" and the compensation and culpability that the Oil companies are agreeing to: Forced labor, rape etc...The usual stuff..

Again, if this area were decimated by a tsumani it would be very convenient for the Generals to admit to "INCOMPETENCY", in their relief effort.

My 3 months in Burma in 2000 does not make me an expert on this country , but I read a lot and have kept up with events in Burma and I am a firm beliver the the government is being "INCOMPETENT" in the southeastern region because the tsunami will take care of a lot of government problems in this area.

Anyone who does not believe that the Generals running Burma/Myanmar are capable of this are uninformed or naive. There are of course, the government apologist who will try to create a smoke screen.

Hallett Douville

Posted by: Hallett Douville on 1 Jan 05

> it is obvious that you are a geologist or something

Actually, no; I'm just an amateur scientist - but I do have advanced degrees in technology.

> are you connected with or acting as a consultant to the Burmese government??...I am begining to think that you are an apologist for the Generals.

Heaven forbid! No, I don't have any such conflict of interest - I'd like the military to vanish from the scene in Burma, too. I reside at Madras (Chennai), on the other side of the Bay of Bengal. I haven't ever visited Burma, though all my (Indian) grandparents have resided there at various times during the first half of the 20th century.

My only take on this is that there are natural mitigating factors that might have left most of Burma (and Bangladesh) relatively less impacted by the Tsunami than the more "developed" service economies like Thailand. These are:

1) North-South fault axis;
2) Low tide at the time of Tsunami;
3) Familiarity with flooding in the riverine deltas, hence settlements on higher ground or on stilts;
4) Population concentrated in the deltas, less concentrated in non-riverine coastal area;
5) Subsistence fishing economy - possibility that a portion of the population was out in deeper waters, and not on the beach;
6) Historical Tsunami data from 1881 shows no record of Tsunami in Irrawady delta.


Posted by: Siva Chander on 1 Jan 05

Whatever the true situation it is inexcusable of the news community not to even MENTION Burma. I have been watching at least 7 TV channels constantly and heard only one reference to this country. Journalists point to giant maps and just SKIP over the country, like it doesn't exist. At least they could say "we havn't heard what the figures/devastation is there", and discuss whether our donations will reach there - and if not, why not - and in so doing bring attention to the political situation there. By "blanking" Burma, the news correspondents play into the General's hands. How does any of this help the people there?

Posted by: Tammy on 2 Jan 05

Siva chander,

I am glad you clairified who you are and that you do not have a hidden agenda.

As I mentioned before, I agree with you about the Irrawaddy delta area and the western area of Burma. You are also correct about the major affects being west and east, mostly west and not so much north and south. Thus Bangladesh experienced very little of the Tsumani.

Have you looked at the Tsumani annimation projecions at the NOAA site which gives an excellent picture of the east-west ,North-south component of the event. South East coast of Burma is effected drastically.

I still stand by my sinister view of the incompetency of the "Generals", in dealing with the crisis along the South East coast.

It is unfortunate that Hamish Thorpe did not elaborate on what he saw upon returning to Kawthaung.

Hallett Douville

Posted by: Hallett Douville on 2 Jan 05

I thought I was alone worrying about the Burmese people. I have read all your comments. I to am shocked that the Media STILL have not mentioned Burma. I emailed two of our main news channels here in UK. No reply and Still No Comment made. Are the people of Burma ever to be respected and freed. Even if only a part of the coast were hit thats still reason enough to get Aid in their. I donated money to the Aid and I would want the money to go to those survivors indiginous to the WHOLE region.

Posted by: Jules Pearl on 3 Jan 05

Hi. I too find it perplexing and suspicious that there is too little coverage on the fate of Burma's costal communities. I called Australia's ABC and the dude was not really interested as obviously they had enough stuff relevant to their viewers interests (rather than investigating the silence of the Burma) which was quite disappointing to note.

Posted by: Tom on 3 Jan 05

Glad to see others feeling as I do. The really neglectful individuals in all this are the high ranking officials of the various relief organizations who have failed to even acknowledge the existance of people who obviously exist directly in harms way. These groups reach out to people and not governments and should be investigating and offering assistance to the people of Myanmar or at the very least assessing that no need exists.

Posted by: Stephen Machan on 4 Jan 05

Perhaps the aid agencies should investigate. However, it would appear to me that they must be incredibly strained as it is trying to provide aid to areas where there is clear acknowledged damage and displaced peoples and a government working with the agencies to explain what they can do and what they need help with. It is unfortunate that where a government, such as in Burma/Myanmar follows dubious courses of action they do not work for their people in the best ways. However, this is a matter for the global community and directly, those who provide support to the regime to consider,and I believe should be dealt with on a political level. It is rather difficult for aid agencies to shift resources from areas they can help constructively to fish tentatively in areas where they have been expressly told 'you are not required'.
Hopefully, if there is extensive damage and people in need of assistance in the country, further reports will come out, and in that situation, lead the world to consider whether a governing power that denies aid to its people is an appropriate case for forcible removal from power.
I agree with the comments about the media. I would have thought it would make good investigative reporting. However, it is Christmas, and in the Christian world, most people wind down. A lot of agencies seem to have been caught out by this, and they are grabbing stories where they can get them ie. 'The Baxter's from Rotherham'. Hurrah for the world wide web where debates on seismic activity can run alongside human anger and despair

Posted by: Graham on 4 Jan 05

Thanks to everyone for the amazing conversation that's taking place here. I think it's very worthwhile to simultanously question anything the Myanmar government says or doesn't say, while simultaneously acknowledging that the modeling of natural events like tsunamis is, at best, an inexact process.

I've been collecting more links and stories about the impact of the earthquake and tsunamis in Burma and am fairly convinced that the death toll will end up being much higher than currently reported. I've posted some of those sources on my blog, and will be posting information on NGOs (ones independent from the government) providing assistance in Burma - if Alex thinks it's a good idea, I'll probably cross-post some version of that piece here as well.

Posted by: Ethan Zuckerman on 4 Jan 05

I've also been watching for news about Myanmar (and Bangladesh, for that matter). I can't accept the low "official" death figures.
Go to for a good description of the tsunami process, as well as several "animated" screens. One shows the progression of the main tsunami wave from the Sumatran epicenter. Indeed, much of the force does not appear to hit the Burmese coast, but enough of it does that one must assume great damage and significant loss of life. I would doubt that buildings on stilts could withstand the forces of even a weakened tsunami. But natural forces and luck are often surprising bedfellows.

Posted by: dovogt on 4 Jan 05

I also noticed that no one spoke of Myanmar. Thus, I found this post, quite interesting comments and useful links. It seems like Mayanmar is always "invisible" from the world scope, you rarely hear anything from it. I just found it very weird that no one spoke of this obscure country.
Thanks again,

Posted by: Steph Malette on 6 Jan 05

It is with great distress that i searched for news on burma I find it disgusting that the 'people' running the myanmar goverment will not recognise disaster on this scale. What kind of world do we live in these guys must have so much to hide thay can't afford to be human.
But, there again, the United Nations are also not interested - or maybe I have missed something!!! I have not heard this country mentioned once on the world media or by the reps of the UN.
Is it that the people of this country don't matter at all - cos that is how it seems to me - maybe someone could clarify this to me. Or is it that this country is allowed to do as it wants because of the dictatorship that it is run by. We between the UK and US went in and sorted out Iraq how are we ignoring this situation which is now so much in our face. These are my thoughts on this please someone come in and let me know if I am thinking straight. Thanks - our hearts in Scotland goes out to all who have been touched by this disaster but most of all to the people who have not been even mentioned. After all we are a small worled at the mercy of the elements...

Posted by: bob wallace scotland on 6 Jan 05

How could a Tsunami hit and take these peoples lives like this.

Posted by: Demetria on 7 Jan 05

It is a shame the media is not making any speculations about the possible loss of life and suffering in Burma. It seems obvious that there would be signifigant damage to the coastal communities and islands. Are there any relief agencies that would be permitted into this country to assess the damage? The UN is definitely dropping the ball on this one. I too would be interested in seeing before and after satellite pictures of these coastal areas. More of us should be asking "what about Burma?". It really does seem like it is being "skipped over" in the news.

Posted by: Lisa on 8 Jan 05



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