Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Burma’s Own Potemkin Village

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON — Nearly half the inhabitants of the village of Thayet Thone Bin died in Cyclone Nargis, but lucky survivors had double reason to thank their own good fortune. Burma’s Energy Minister, Brig-Gen Lun Thi, was born there—and his patronage appears to have guaranteed the village special attention in the post-cyclone relief and reconstruction effort.

Twenty new houses, a school and a library were built amid the ruins. Five mechanical plows, four fishing boats, water-purification equipment, two pumps and a community TV set were delivered to the village.

Relief teams were accompanied by TV crews, who created a propaganda success story reminiscent of the fake Potemkin settlements reputedly built to fool the Russian empress Catherine II during a visit to the Crimea in 1787.

Thayet Thone Bin, in Kunchankone Township, became such a showpiece that it served as the background for other TV reports about the success of the cyclone relief effort. Road signs at the entrance to the village were replaced by others bearing other names in a bid to show that villages throughout the region were also recovering well.

"Our village has become a kind of film studio,” said one woman. “People filmed for the TV reports are given new clothes to wear in front of the cameras. Soldiers are based here and are filmed helping us in the fields. We’re even filmed reading at the new library and watching the community TV.”

Apart from infrastructure assistance, the people of Thayet Thone Bin have received only basic relief items and are living on handouts of rice.

Daw Mya Mya has received two blankets, a mosquito net, a set of cooking utensils, a rain-water container and some other items. She has no money and says she might have to sell her relief supplies at the local market in order to raise cash for the merit-making ceremonies so important to Burma’s Buddhists.

The ceremonies involve making donations to local monasteries and monks to ensure peace for the souls of departed family members. The tradition is so strong that families often make severe financial sacrifices in order to make merit for dead loved ones.

One 60-year-old who goes by the name of Grandpa Nyo is so short of money that he is asking friends to contribute to his merit-making ceremonies on the first anniversary of the cyclone deaths of his two sons.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for their funerals, so I’d like now to make some offering to the monks on the first anniversary of their deaths,” he said.

His two sons, aged 30 and 14, died when their fishing boat sank in the cyclone.

Grandpa Nyo’s 50-year-old wife explained that merit-making ceremonies were necessary to assure the souls of their dead sons peace and a return to a better life.

The couple’s home was flattened by the cyclone and they live now under the tarpaulin roof of a makeshift hut in Rangoon Division’s Kun Chan Kone Township. Their daughter supports them with the income she receives from selling lottery tickets.

Ko Kyaw Khin and Ma Pyone Pyone Yi, who live in the Irrawaddy delta’s Dadeye Township are also saving money for merit-making ceremonies for their mother and daughter, victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Their family lost their fishing boat and its nets in the cyclone. Relief agencies gave them a replacement boat but no nets. Now they fish in cooperation with a family owning nets, but the meager income has to be shared. Their predicament is reportedly a common problem in fishing communities struggling to recover from the effects of the cyclone.

The importance of making merit on the first anniversary of the cyclone and the death of family members is forcing many survivors to overcome their resistance to returning to their devastated villages,

Ko Zaw Zaw left Padauk Kone village in Labutta Township for Rangoon after the cyclone destroyed his livelihood in the fishing industry. His father died in the cyclone, and he is forcing himself to face the pain of returning home in order to make merit.

“My younger brother, who still lives in the village, believes my father’s spirit cannot be released until we have made merit,” he said. “We couldn't do it after three months, nor after six months. But I will definitely do it on the first anniversary of his death.”

His determination to make merit, whatever the cost, is shared by a farmer who lost his sister in the cyclone. Most of his land was spoilt by sea water, reducing paddy yields by 75 percent, and he owes money to the bank. Nevertheless, he is putting money aside for merit-making.

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