Monday, June 1, 2009

Under a Stormy Sky

Thousands of Cyclone Nargis survivors are still living in tents and
temporary shelters. (Photo: Minn Minn/IPS Asia-Pacific)

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

One year after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta, there’s a sense of accomplishment, but also a realization that recovery remains a distant goal for those without homes, land and livelihoods

AT a military top brass meeting on May 4 in Naypyidaw, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s ruling junta, declared unequivocally that the country has almost tripled its rice production in the past two decades and now enjoyed a surplus.

“There is no need to worry about food, even when the nation’s population reaches 100 million,” he stated boldly.

But, like so many of the aging dictator’s claims, the statement bears little resemblance to the realities of life in a country where 51 million people have been struggling and suffering under military rule for nearly five decades.

In a makeshift hut in Outkwin Village, near Pyapon Town, one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3 last year, a 32-year-old mother of six, Than Myint, said she feels completely foregotten by the country’s ruling elite.

Since December, she has not received any food aid from either humanitarian agencies or the government. She constantly faces a severe shortage of rice and there have been times her family has had to skip a meal.

“I often have to go around the village to borrow rice. Sometimes, I have to exchange some of our clothes for food,” she said.

Prior to the cyclone, Than Myint’s family never found it difficult to make ends meet. Her husband worked as a fisherman and her eldest son as a day laborer in the paddy fields surrounding their village. But, since the cyclone struck, Than Myint’s husband and son have barely had a chance to earn any money whatsoever.

There are thousands of families like Than Myint’s in the cyclone-affected townships of Rangoon and Irrawaddy divisions—living in swampy makeshift shelters nailed together from tarpaulin, bamboo and corrugated metal; families with no homes, no land and no livelihoods.

The cyclone and its subsequent tidal wave shattered the agricultural, fishing and small-scale business sectors—the main livelihoods of the delta people—leaving the majority of cyclone-affected people solely dependent on food aid.

On the weekend of May 2-3 this year, Burma’s military leaders coldly ignored the first anniversary of the storm that killed some 140,000 people. There were no ceremonies to mark the country’s worst ever disaster and no mention of events commemorating the dead in the state-run media. Any reports mentioning the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis in Rangoon’s privately owned journals were severely censored by the regime’s notorious censorship board.

The silence was an eerie reminder of the junta’s reaction to the storm one year ago when it stubbornly refused to allow aid to enter the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy delta. To date, no official explanation for the government’s incompetence and callousness during this period has been offered.

Bending to sustained pressure from the international community, the Burmese authorities eventually gave a green light to something approaching a full-scale relief effort, but it continued to assert control in a heavy-handed manner. Military authorities hampered the delivery of aid to the delta, and relief workers faced harassment and arrest if they failed to play by the regime’s rules.

Traumatized villagers whose houses and farms had been destroyed were forced to leave temporary shelters by security forces and return to work in their ravaged fields.

Junta-controlled newspapers carried editorials reprimanding the international community for being tightfisted with its aid. To add insult to injury—and without a hint of irony—they then claimed that Burma did not need help from the rest of the world, because people in the delta could easily survive on fish and frogs from nearby rivers.

The good news was that, despite all the constraints imposed upon them by the authorities, many Burmese did everything in their power to help deal with the horror wrought by the cyclone.

Private relief groups, formed by monks, students, celebrities, medical groups, businessmen, charitable organizations and other like-minded people, are still very active in the cyclone relief effort, laying the groundwork not only for rehabilitation in the delta, but also cultivating hope for the country’s prospects of achieving justice, pluralism and, ultimately, democracy.

“Even UN agencies and INGOs cannot access the delta and run their humanitarian projects ... without the dedication and enthusiasm of local Burmese staff,” said a foreign observer, who has spent nearly 20 years in the region.

The survivors of Cyclone Nargis have certainly been extremely resilient in the face of a dismal situation. But the recovery process has been achingly slow, with recent data showing that some 500,000 people still have no permanent place to live, 200,000 lack access to fresh water and 350,000 are still receiving food aid from the World Food Program.

Access to clean water is still one of the biggest everyday concerns for people in the delta. Wells and ponds were inundated by the inflow of seawater by the cyclone’s horrific tidal wave. Since then, ponds have been repeatedly cleaned but residents claim that the amount of saltwater leakage into groundwater has increased.

Hunger also remains a serious threat. Even farmers who own dozens of acres of rice paddies are unable to feed themselves. According to the British charity Oxfam, thousands of farmers in the delta region lost rice crops to the cyclone, leaving them unable to pay back loans or purchase seeds, water buffaloes and equipment needed to cultivate crops.

U Nyo, a 52-year-old farmer, told The Irrawaddy he grew 15 acres of paddy in the previous rice-planting season. However, this year he only harvested around five acres. The rest failed. “I had to sell all the rice just to pay off the debt that I took during the rice-planting season last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, large amounts of infrastructure—everything from schools, monasteries and churches to clinics, bridges and jetties—remain in ruins. The Burmese government’s promises to build disaster shelters in the delta have proved hollow, with only 20 communal shelters currently standing. “We have no idea where we will run to if there is another cyclone,” a survivor in Bogalay said.

These days, many frightened villagers tune in to the radio just for the weather forecasts. When the regime’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology warned in April of the approach of Cyclone Bijli, panic broke out in the delta.

People packed up their belongings and immediately headed toward the nearest city. In many villages, families were advised to send elderly folk and children to stay with relatives in Rangoon and other cities far from the Irrawaddy delta seaboard.

According to a recovery plan launched in February by the United Nations, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the Burmese government, almost a quarter of households in the cyclone-hit areas have reported signs of psychosocial distress, but only 11 percent have received help. The UN estimates that more than 2,400 primary teachers have been trained to give psychosocial support.

Meanwhile, Burma’s undeveloped, broken healthcare system has little capacity for handling trauma victims, so aid groups are trying to fill the gaps.

Too often the gaps in the system are simply too large and fragmented. Take the case of Khin Yee, a 43-year-old “cyclone widow,” who was too traumatized to return home and moved with her three children into a makeshift hut along the roadside close to the town of Mhawbi in Rangoon Division.

She was initially promised a house by volunteers from humanitarian agencies. Then it became clear that only those with land could be allotted homes. Left landless and widowed by the cyclone, Khin Yee has to continue living in a shelter she constructed by hand, mainly from bamboo and sheets of tarpaulin. She said her family has nothing to go back to, and there is nowhere she can get access to daily food.

Khin Yee’s family, like others, has no other option than to wait—for aid, for food and for land.

She shook her head in despair when asked about the upcoming rainy season.

“I’m afraid our hut will just get washed away as soon as the heavy rains come and cause flooding,” she said, her tearful eyes staring out across the swamp in front of her shelter.

Irrawaddy correspondents Wai Sann, Aung Thet Wine and Kyi Wai contributed to this article

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too