U Tun Lwin, Who Warned of Deadly Myanmar Cyclone, Dies at 71
MANDALAY, Myanmar — In the spring of 2008, U Tun Lwin, Myanmar’s top weather official, noticed that a tropical cyclone was barreling toward the country from the Indian Ocean.
But the generals who ruled the country were unable — critics say unwilling — to take preventive action before the storm, Cyclone Nargis, which ended up killing at least 140,000 people. It would prove to be among the deadliest storms in recorded history.
“I didn’t have the authority to evacuate people,” Dr. Tun Lwin said years later in an interview with the magazine Frontier Myanmar. “I didn’t have the authority to give orders. That is some other department’s work. Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything.”
Dr. Tun Lwin, an American-educated meteorologist who was widely known as the “people’s weatherman” and who spent his last years sounding the alarm about climate change, died on Monday at a hospital in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He was 71.
His death, from a heart attack, was announced on Dr. Tun Lwin’s Facebook page. He had suffered from diabetes as well as heart and kidney ailments for about 10 years, Aw Pi Kyeh, a cartoonist and friend, said.
Burma, as the country was called until 1989, had been ruled for decades by generals. When Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy River Delta, the military junta in power praised its own response. But critics say the generals deliberately played down the cyclone’s approach and then its impact because they were focused on a forthcoming referendum on a constitution drafted by the military.
Dr. Tun Lwin, who would spend years wrestling with the cyclone’s emotional legacy, resigned from the government in 2009 out of frustration with the junta, said Ko Ahr Mahn, the editor in chief of 7Day News Journal, one of the largest newspapers in Yangon, the country’s main city.
In a 2015 memoir, “Nargis and Me,” Dr. Tun Lwin said he had spoken to reporters as the cyclone approached and made more than 300 phone calls to government officials, business leaders and United Nations offices. But those efforts were undercut, he said, by a lack of 24-hour television coverage, an absence of storm shelters and an emergency response network that did not reach the entire country.
He said it was essential to learn from those mistakes to prevent another such calamity.
“I tried my best to save those coastal communities,” he wrote in the book. “But there were many weaknesses during Nargis, particularly our inability to relocate people in time. In fact, the infrastructure itself was the weakness.”
U Tun Lwin was born on Jan. 17, 1948 — less than two weeks after the country declared its independence from British colonial rule — to middle-class parents in Kalar, a village in central Burma.
He attended elementary and high school in the city of Mandalay, and at 17 began working as a clerk at the local weather department. He attended Florida State University on a scholarship, majoring in meteorology.
He returned to Myanmar after graduation and began working as a forecaster at a television station, according to accounts of his life in local newspapers. After another round of meteorological studies — a master’s at Florida State and a doctorate at Yangon University — he joined the country’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.
When Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008, Dr. Tun Lwin was the department’s director general. In his memoir he said forecasting the storm’s power had been difficult in part because the country had no surveillance radar.
As a substitute, he analyzed satellite imagery that he received every 30 minutes from a meteorological center in Singapore, then used a ruler and a compass to calculate the storm’s intensity, according to an account in The Irrawaddy, an online news organization.
As Nargis approached, “I spent my days and nights at the office to follow the storm,” he wrote in the book. “I rarely slept, apart from some naps.”
The storm knocked out the electricity, internet and phone lines around his office, leaving him sitting in the dark unable to monitor the disaster in real time.
After the storm, the military junta spent weeks refusing to let foreign naval ships enter the country, worsening what was already a humanitarian disaster.
Mr. Ahr Mahn, the newspaper editor, said that while the junta had told officials not to speak to reporters about the cyclone’s aftermath, Dr. Tun Lwin did so anyway. “He was being pressured not to talk, but he didn’t care,” he said.
Dr. Tun Lwin retired after resigning from the government in 2009, six years before the junta allowed Myanmar’s first free elections in a quarter century. But he kept busy, making regular forecasts through his Facebook page and consulting for the Myanmar Red Cross Society and several nonprofits.
He spent much of his retirement warning that natural disasters linked to climate change were the biggest threat to the country’s development. In 2010, he created a website, Myanmar Climate Change Watch, to monitor erratic weather.
He is survived by his wife, Daw Mu Mu Than; a son, Zwe Mahn Tun Lwin; two daughters, Dr. Myat Su Tun Lwin and Swan Yay Tun Lwin; and three grandchildren.
Dr. Tun Lwin’s last days were documented by the Myanmar news media. and videos of him in the hospital received hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook. Some showed him reciting weather forecasts while he appeared to be sleeping.
His death left some people concerned for their safety.
“I never met him in person, but he feels like family, because I can sense his benevolence for our country,” U Kyaw Soe, a river delta farmer, said by phone. “Now who will warn us about storms and climate change?”
Saw Nang reported from Mandalay, Myanmar, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.