Burma crossing

Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer

By Patricia Evangelista

THE MOEI RIVER LICKS THROUGH the gap between Thailand and Burma, nibbling away at the muddy brown banks of the Thai border town of Mae Sot. On the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge, a long legged-Thai girl in black heels totters hand-in-hand with a balding European, just behind an elderly woman clutching an impossibly small baby. Beneath the bridge, on Moei’s brown waters–out of sight from immigration officials–a woman stands on an inflatable black tire, struggling up to the sheer bank. When her feet meet Thai soil, she runs clutching a battered suitcase with her black bun bobbing behind her, past abandoned furniture lying on the sparse grass, past emaciated dogs and a torn red sweater, to try her luck at crossing the border.

On the other side of the bridge is Myawaddy, the Burmese town that guards the entrance into Burma, where gold-plated temples and demure buddhas with pink-painted nails cast shadows on the broken concrete. Myawaddy is where living rooms are furnished with wooden benches around battered televisions, and not much else. Here, a cell phone costs a minimum of a million kyats—a little more than $30,000, and red-toothed, betel-chewing men lounge in teashops beside the Snow White salon.

As it happens, I was not supposed to be in Myawaddy that day, did not intend to walk across the bridge to Burma under the spattering summer rain. The plan was to fly from Bangkok to Mandalay to the Burmese capital Rangoon, but two rejected visas reduced me to giggling at uniformed immigration officials, wheedling for a day pass to the border town “to go shopping.” The Burmese do not take very well to writers and journalists.

Inside Myawaddy, the English-speaking Burmese tour guide refuses to take us to the bus station, or anywhere that will take us further into Burma. He tells us foreigners are not allowed inside—on the off chance any of them might be aiding non-government organizations or journalists. Journalists, he says, are bad, bad people. “Bad, yes, very bad—they say wrong things about Burma.” He tells us about the upcoming referendum on the new military-backed constitution. He does not know if he will vote yes or no, “I think, I will think.”

The Burmese constitution was scheduled for referendum on the 10th of May. Its approval would essentially further entrench an autocratic Burmese junta. Newspaper stalls in Myawaddy hawk the “New Light of Myanmar,” whose headlines scream that to vote yes for the new constitution “is a national duty of the entire people today,” a vote in opposition of “foreign interference and manipulation,” as well as the “demons” in society and “stooges” that “hold negative views.”

It was the referendum that kept Burma in the international news the last few weeks, until Nargis ripped into the country’s rice bowl—the Irrawady delta. Nargis was not a surprise to the junta. The country had received warning of the cyclone as much as a week before it hit, but the Burmese government did little to prepare for the situation, and chose not to warn citizens of the need for immediate evacuation. The 10-hour cyclone hurtled into the country at 150 miles per hour, snatching away roofs and power lines, killing, according to government estimates, over 70,000. According to Zin Linn, information officer of the National Coalition of Union of Burma, the official government numbers—at first 243 dead, then 351, until the most recent 78,000—are in all probability wrong. “We believe more have died. If the government confesses this many it means there are more. They always attempt to give false facts.”

At the moment, 56,000 are missing, and many are starving in the Irrawady delta. Aid workers have not been permitted access to victims, and much of the international aid are waiting at airports for the Burmese government’s say so. Today, more than two weeks after the cyclone, only a trickle of aid has been permitted into Burma. The junta, which has little more than 15 working helicopters, claims that Burmese government agencies are capable of handling relief operations, particularly aid distribution. The AFP quoted France’s UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, who said refusal to allow aid to be delivered to people in need or in danger “could lead to a true crime against humanity.”

The New Light of Myanmar reported Saturday that “the storm” that occurred on May 2 and 3 led to some damage, injuries and casualties, but went on to say that The National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee carried out extensive relief and rescue work “as soon as the storm occurred.”

Burma state media claimed that there was a “massive turnout” in the country’s national referendum, which the military regime held despite widespread damage from Cyclone Nargis. Aung Toe, head of the committee that organized the vote, said that the results of the referendum were largely in favor of the military junta.

“We announce the results of the referendum, with 92.4 percent casting Yes ballots.” There was no mention of the dead and missing.

These are the images after the cyclone: limp bodies floating akimbo on sodden rice fields, long lines of women waiting for the single cup of rice allotted per family, military checkpoints outside Rangoon to turn away foreign volunteers, and, in the most bizarre of all scenes, referendum voting at booths erected beside makeshift shelters for the cyclone’s survivors.

And in Myawaddy, in the dimming light, a young novice in orange robes races across the wet temple tiles, carrying a tiny packet of rice.

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Patricia Evangelista is a 2008 SEAPA Fellow. The above article was first published by the “Philippine Daily Inquirer” on 18 May 2008.