If Cyclone Nargis demonstrated anything to the world apart from the destructive power of nature, it was the brutal indifference of Burma's military government to the welfare of its people. The international community and private Burmese citizens and organisations immediately mobilised to help victims, but Burma's rulers fiddled while the Irrawaddy Delta drowned.
A year ago yesterday, on the night of May 2, 2008, the most devastating cyclone in Burma's history ripped through the delta and the former capital, Rangoon, killing nearly 140,000 people and severely affecting 2.4 million more. In the crucial hours and days after Nargis hit an already desperately poor people, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) _ the Orwellian name adopted by Burma's military rulers _ initially refused some international relief supplies, while delaying others.
The SPDC denied visas to foreign disaster response experts and refused to allow US, British, and French warships waiting off the coast to offload their supplies. It also denied foreign and Burmese media access to the delta; it was only because of some brave and clandestine reporters that information about the scale of the disaster quickly leaked out.
We now know that thousands of aid workers and the predominantly Burmese staff of dozens of agencies gained access to the delta and did magnificent work, often ignoring or circumventing official obstacles. Buddhist monks and Christian churches took the lead in communities to bury the dead, ferry supplies, make shelters and take care of the injured, but not without hindrance. The government's road and river checkpoints and security forces hounded anyone who tried to help without official approval. This led to unnecessary suffering, though there is no reason to think that General Than Shwe or other senior leaders, isolated in the remote new capital at Naypyidaw, lost any sleep as a result.
One week after the cyclone struck, the SPDC diverted its time and resources to proceed with a scheduled constitutional referendum, the culmination of a drawn out, sham process of political reform. Having lost an election to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 1988, the military wasn't taking any chances. The new constitution was approved by 92% of voters, the government reported _ only months after widespread street protests led by monks that culminated in a bloody crackdown.
It was only after the referendum and a visit by the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, that the government agreed to an arrangement permitting greater access and a serious, coordinated relief effort. Three weeks after the cyclone, the Tripartite Core Group, a relief and reconstruction mechanism devised and jointly directed by the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Burmese government, was established. It has since played an important role in assisting cyclone survivors.
Many respectable international agencies now report that they have good access to the delta and have made progress in rebuilding destroyed infrastructure. Their efforts should be applauded, and the international community should continue to help to meet urgent needs for sanitation, shelter, food, security and livelihoods.
Yet hopes that whatever successes and openings have been created in the delta could be replicated in other parts of the country have not been realised. The government continues to keep aid workers and other foreigners on a tight leash in the rest of the country, making serious devel opment and humanitarian work difficult, and often impossible. Burma's poor and destitute continue to suffer and wait for a change in government policy.
But there is also a largely forgotten dimension to the post-Nargis reconstruction efforts, one that Thailand and other Asean members plus China, India and Japan have either hardly mentioned or ignored altogether. This is the plight of 21 community aid workers now languishing in Burma's squalid prisons for having the audacity to hope that they could help Nargis survivors.
They include Burma's most famous comedian, Zargana, who mobilised hundreds of supporters to organise and distribute relief supplies. Last June the government arrested him for criticising the government's response to the cyclone to the international media. In November, a Burmese court sentenced him to 59 years in prison on an absurd assortment of charges including causing ''public mischief''. Recently this sentence was reduced to 35 years.
Zargana is the most famous, but not the only, cyclone activist unjustly imprisoned.
As with Sichuan residents arrested for criticising the Chinese government after the March 2008 earthquake, the Burmese government has come down hard on Nargis critics. In November, a court sentenced a 24-year-old reporter, Eine Khaing Oo, to two years in prison for bringing cyclone survivors to UN offices in Rangoon to tell their stories. In June, authorities arrested U Nay Win, a doctor who has spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, and his 20-year-old daughter, Phyo Phyo Aung, for starting an ad-hoc organisation called ''The Group that Buries the Dead'', to bury cyclone victims in devastated villages after the government failed to mobilise to do so itself.
The SPDC has sent a clear message to civil society that only efforts stamped with the imprimatur of military rule are permitted, so that the regime can both monitor these efforts and take the credit.
With elections coming up next year, it is especially important to press the military government to free these and other political prisoners. Even the SPDC's friends will not be able to endorse elections if the political opposition is in prison.
These countries and Asean are in the best position to bring this message to Naypyidaw.
What are the lessons of the post-Nargis period? Much remains unclear, but two things have emerged. Coordinated international pressure, such as that placed on the SPDC by the UN, China, Asean, Japan, the US and EU in the weeks after Nargis can make the SPDC reverse its policies. To save lives, the world forced its way into Burma, albeit in an imperfect and constrained manner. But many Burmese are alive and better able to rebuild their lives than they would have been if the effort had not been made.
The second lesson is less positive. This is that Burma's friends in Beijing, Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo and elsewhere still haven't worked with more critical countries to put the welfare of the Burmese people before narrower interests. There is still no united plan to press for human rights improvements, no recognition that the reason that the world had to push its way into the delta was because of Burma's deeply repressive and selfish government.
It should not take a natural disaster for the SPDC's friends and supporters to evince any concern about some of the world's most benighted people.
Brad Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch.