Yesterday, 3 May, marked one year since Cyclone Nargis swept across the impoverished nation of Burma. The category four cyclone left nearly 140,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless and hungry.
I was in the former capital of Rangoon on the night of 2 May, when winds of up to 240 kilometres per hour rushed through from the Irrawaddy Delta, generating an 18-foot tidal surge that swallowed all in its path. With no prior warning published in the Government-controlled newspaper The New Light Of Myanmar, most Burmese had little if any idea that a cyclone was building in the Andaman Sea, let alone one that would hit shortly and change their lives forever.
"We didn’t get any prior information about the cyclone. Nobody told us it was coming and we have never experienced a big natural disaster like this before. It was the scariest thing imaginable, I am lucky to be here now", said one irate man to me the next morning. Trees, billboards and roofing choked the streets as traffic had the evening before. Electricity and water were out and remained so for the next fortnight. The city, empty at first bar an eerie silence, eventually filled with shell-shocked citizens, but the silence remained like a grey cloud over the day.
Yet while Rangoon — in its romantic, decrepit British colonial glory — was brought to its knees, few were prepared for the devastation that hit the impoverished Irrawaddy Delta region. When local and foreign journalists gradually ventured into the area the magnitude of the disaster was immediately clear — and as news of the devastation spread, the world came to Burma’s doorstep offering practical and financial assistance.
All recognised that the xenophobic Junta was way out of its depth. All were denied.
"The size of the disaster would be difficult for any country to manage, let alone one of the world’s poorest nations," said head of World Vision, Reverend Tim Costello, in Rangoon at the time. "But I understand their response to some degree."
"The same hand [the West]that has been slapping them around politically is now saying, ‘trust us, we’ve put politics aside and we only want to give you humanitarian aid, but you might still feel the pain of the last slap’… I understand their position but the penny needs to drop with the Government that international NGOs are not beholden to any ideology, to any government, to any sort of politics."
As the world watched in disbelief, 75-year old Burmese leader Senior General Than Shwe ignored phone calls from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and The New Light Of Myanmar wrote that despite the images being sent out of the country by "external destructive elements" (the Junta’s favourite description for foreigners within the country), food was not needed as the survivors of the storm could "go out with lamps at night and catch plump frogs".
Let them eat frogs.
Meanwhile, British, French and US warships carrying relief supplies were moored off the coast, and in the UN Security Council French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner floated the idea of a forced humanitarian invasion. Polish EU lawmaker Urszula Gacek led a growing chorus of condemnation stating that "the Burmese authorities are responsible for a crime against humanity".
Regardless, the Junta pushed on with a scheduled constitutional referendum and, according to state media, the 10 May vote secured a 92 per cent approval rate for the newly drafted constitution — this apparently included votes from the cyclone-devastated region.
This came as no surprise to most observers. As one UN official said to me by candlelight in a powerless Rangoon hotel the night after the cyclone, "they should just postpone the referendum and announce the result".
Despite this, the resilient Burmese public mobilised and developed a local relief effort. Combining what little they could, groups across the country sent truckloads of supplies to the hardest hit regions and public figures like famous comedian Zargana and Myanmar Tribune editor, Aung Kyaw San, organised bands of volunteers to help distribute the aid.
After several weeks the UN and other international agencies slowly began to filter in and take over the work the volunteers had begun during the diplomatic standoff. However, instead of being thanked by the Junta for delivering aid out of their own pockets and burying the bodies of the dead, over 20 key figures in the volunteer relief effort were arrested. All were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for their role in distributing aid, including Zargana who received a sentence of 59 years — since reduced to 35 years — in remote Chin state. They joined an estimated 2100 political prisoners behind bars in the unaccountable Burmese jail system.
"They weren’t acting in a political way, strictly humanitarian," said Bo Gyi, Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Mae Sot, near the Burmese border in Thailand. "The Burmese regime will say they were doing crime. Their crime was helping survivors of the cyclone. In truth they are popular figures and the regime must have felt threatened by them."
"It is now the responsibility of the United Nations and ASEAN to ensure they are released from prison. This is the legacy of the relief effort."
The slow relief and now rebuilding effort has left many survivors feeling hopeless and a growing number have fled to the Thai/Burma border camps over the past year.
With her husband blinded in the storm, one child dead and less than a dollar to their name, Moe Moe Thun finally made it to Mae La camp, managing to avoid the Burmese military on the way.
"We don’t want to go back. If we go back we will surely die," she told me. "There is no food and no shelter there and my other child died there." The camp is home to over 50,000 Karen refugees. However, because they are seeking asylum on the grounds of a natural disaster, Moe Moe Thun and her family are not recognised as political refugees and, like many other Nargis refugees, face deportation back to Burma at any moment if caught by the Thai authorities.
Since permission was eventually granted for the international aid community to enter Burma’s disaster area, there has been some progress in the recovery effort. But now, as the story drops out of the attention of the international media, shrinking finances threaten to undermine the program. The Burmese Government’s persistent lack of cooperation and concerns from donors about financial transparency has meant the UN received only $136 million of the nearly $1 billion that it appealed for.
This is in stark comparison to the $12 billion donated after the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2005.
The Burmese Government has built only half of the 18,000 homes it promised to and 350,000 people still require food handouts from the World Food Program. "It is estimated that 20 per cent (100,000 families) of those whose homes were destroyed, still live under tarpaulins," said Bernd Schell, spokesperson for the British Red Cross in Myanmar on their website.
It is clear the Burmese Government has little regard still for survivors of the cyclone, and would prefer that their plight was not made public. No mention of the one-year anniversary was made in the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar.
There is still a long journey ahead for many in the Delta region — and of course, for those now behind bars. The ever-resilient Burmese are determined to rebuild their lives and see that those who helped them are released from prison. But the sustained attention and scrutiny of the international community will be crucial in ensuring that this is achieved.
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