Friday, February 26, 2010

Posts From The Past: Myanmar Eyewitness Report

With national elections "promised" by Myanmar's government for an unspecified date in 2010, I thought it would be interesting to revisit an Eyewitness Report from a Burmese citizen who traveled back to his home in the wake of Cyclone Nargis last year. Originally posted in two parts in July 2008, the entire article is consolidated here into a single report.

We haven't been hearing much about Myanmar recently. Its tragedy has been replaced by other – more recent – news: the electoral sham in Zimbabwe, China's preparation for the 2008 Olympics, world food shortages, and escalating petroleum prices.

But lack of media attention doesn't equate to an absence of news – or mean that Myanmar's problems have disappeared in some magical way. The status quo is still very much in place.

The difficulties encountered by the United Nations, international aid organizations, and foreign governments who wanted to assist survivors of Cyclone Nargis have been reported in great detail. The military junta, which rules Myanmar, first denied needing outside help, then welcomed foreign aid supplies, but insisted on distributing the aid itself.

In spite of predictions of a public health disaster – published elsewhere as well as on this blog – major outbreaks of dysentery and cholera appear to have been averted. Or, any spike in illnesses following the Cyclone might have been masked by the normal level of diarrheal disease in that region.

But some of the credit for staving off sickness and starvation must go to the citizens of Myanmar who banded together – in the face of government disapproval and obstruction – to assemble and deliver aid to their compatriots in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta. These volunteers returned from their visits to the Delta with tales of homeless storm victims, rotten rice, and confiscated aid supplies.

The Myanmar government has denied all of the reports of mismanagement and malfeasance that have emanated from the cyclone-stricken area, saying in one article that "...the rumours are invented and spread by certain Western countries with negative attitude towards our country."

This statement, however, is belied by eyewitness reports from aid workers and others who have visited the Ayeyarwaddy Delta and seen the misery that remains. I have been corresponding with one such eyewitness, whom I shall call "U" – a Myanmar honorific, which is roughly equivalent to the Japanese "San".

U recently returned from a three-week visit to Myanmar. He has consented to sharing his observations with eFoodAlert readers. His report is dated 6/12/2008. I have deleted all references that might identify him or his family, some of whom still live in Myanmar. My deletions are shown in red.

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, first attacking the southern part of Irrawaddy Division, then passing through Rangoon (Yangon) and the delta areas. In its wake, the cyclone left 133,000 people dead or missing. According to the United Nations, 2.4 million people required emergency aid, but five weeks after the storm, there are still one million people who have yet to receive any help at all.

Fortunately for me, I was living in [deleted], working for [deleted]. My family in Rangoon was not so fortunate, and they had to endure several hours of intense rain and wind as the storm made its way across Burma. As it was, I was out of [deleted] at a conference, and I wasn’t even aware that a cyclone had hit Burma until the morning of May 4th, when I received many phone calls from my friends in the United States, all enquiring about my family. I was shocked to hear the news and it took me a while to absorb the fact that my family could be in danger.

Even in normal times, communications between the U.S. and Burma can be difficult, with email and telephone calls not easy to get through. This time, it took two days, until May 6th, with the help of the [deleted] Embassy and the [deleted] Embassy in Rangoon, I finally received the news that my family had survived and our house suffered only minor damage to the roof, but it had been quickly repaired. While many were equally fortunate, a great number more suffered far worse conditions and had nothing left but the clothes on their backs. Some did not even have that: the storm blew them off while they clung to trees for survival as the cyclone tore away their homes and their families.
The Burmese government’s response to the storm has left a lot to be desired and can be described as neglect. Their reaction afterwards was even worse. The first to help those who had suffered, to clear roads and debris so that people who needed help could be reached, and to provide shelter for those in need, was not the government, but those living in the cyclone-hit regions who were fortunate enough to have something left to help others.
Many aid workers and experts with the experience, knowledge and skills necessary to help rebuild the lives of the victims and prevent the death toll from rising higher and higher were subject to bureaucratic delays or denied access altogether. The longer aid supplies and relief workers were kept waiting, the higher the chance that the death toll would continue to climb. While people were suffering and at risk of disease and death, the junta chose to give priority to the referendum it wished to see passed. While the world debated what to do about the situation, the government continued to value its own political goals over the needs of the victims.
While I was relieved to know that my own family was safe, I could not just stay in [deleted] while people were suffering in Burma. The government banned visas to many foreign aid workers who wanted to help the victims of the cyclone. Only Westerners with Burmese citizenship were allowed into the country. As a Burmese citizen, I was able to take that advantage and go back to Burma with two suitcases full of water purification tablets, other medical supplies and some donations from friends.
I spent three weeks in Burma and it was an unforgettable experience. Together with my neighbors, we went to seven villages and distributed about 1400 food bags/supplies to victims of the cyclone. We were not alone: in the absence of an organized relief effort by the government, many Burmese volunteers organized their own deliveries to the delta to help people who had not received any aid.
Life is slowly returning to normal in Rangoon. The streets, once filled with beautiful, green trees, today are littered with torn and twisted tree limbs, but most of the fallen trunks have been pushed to one side, so traffic is flowing. Some shops and offices are open again.
In the Irrawaddy delta, half a day's journey from Rangoon, life is far from normal. This is a desperately poor region where hundreds of thousands of people live in tiny settlements scattered amongst low-lying islands.
Instead of welcoming help and granting improved access to the Irrawaddy Delta area, the Burmese military government is still using red tape to obstruct some relief efforts. At each checkpoint on the way to delta areas, we encountered not only police, but also immigration officers searching out any foreigners who might be coming in with locals. Even Burmese citizens are being restricted by the security forces. At some checkpoints, the officials wanted us to leave our supplies with them for distribution. We refused, since we knew that, if we had done so, the supplies would not get to the victims, and might even end up on the black market. Then they asked if we wanted to distribute aid ourselves. We said yes, so they asked us to give them money.
I wanted to use my small video camera to make a record of our aid distribution to show my friends; in some places we were allowed to do so, but not in others, where we were requested not to take pictures. In [deleted] village, my video camera was taken by the check point officer. After talking with him for about 30 minutes, explaining it was just for my family to see, and after offering him money, he agreed to gave me back the camera—but without the tape.
On our way to [deleted village name], we saw dead buffalo and cows floating. There is still a bad smell swirling around. Villagers in that area said that there were still bloated bodies lying uncollected near their villages.
Cyclone victims from villages between Kunchangone in Rangoon Division and Irrawaddy's Dadaye Township are keeping a daily roadside vigil in the hope of receiving aid. Villagers continued to flock to the main highways because aid workers had not been able to access the more remote villages. The villagers go back to their villages in boats at the end of the day, after they have received food for their family from the aid workers. Their buffaloes and cows were killed by the storm, so it is very unlikely that they will be able to resume their routine jobs this year.
As for living conditions, they don’t even have enough plastic sheets to make roofs for their shacks. They are using coconut leaves for roofs. After distributing food supplies in [deleted village name], we came back in the heavy rain and saw many, many people crouched by the side of the road, holding their children in their arms and covering themselves with plastic sheets.
A week before I came back to [deleted], the Myanmar Jewish community hosted an interfaith prayer ceremony for the victims of the cyclone at the Rangoon Synagogue. Leaders from the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Bahai’ and Hindu communities were invited to attend. About 100 people assembled for the ceremony and it was beautiful to see all the different religions gather together for a common cause affecting all of our people, regardless of their individual faiths.
Wherever we went to distribute food bags, plastic shelters and clothing, I could see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It was very rewarding to see smiles on the faces of people who had suffered so much. And in every cyclone-hit region I went to in Burma, I shared with the victims I met there that there are passionate people in the outside world who care about the Burmese people and whose hearts go out to them during this very difficult time.

An explanatory note: The entire Burmese (Myanmar) Jewish community consisted of no more than 20 families when we visited the country in January 2008.

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