Disaster Math-Myanmar’s Improbable Tsunami Statistics and the Casualty Numbers Game

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From the moment of impact, the Dec. 26, 2004, 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