Still reeling from military junta, Burma a mess after cyclone

Source: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)

By Tita Valderama

How long should the Burmese people suffer?

Cyclone Nagris that hit this former capital of Myanmar and its neighboring areas last weekend has made the already impoverished people in far worse situation in the months, and maybe years, ahead.

The death toll, initially reported by cable news networks at four on Saturday evening, quickly multiplied to at least 10,000 by Monday night. The military government gave an exact number of 243 deaths late Saturday, and then 351 deaths, hours later.

Zinn Linn of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the exile government in Bangkok, observed that adding 2, 4 and 3 would sum up to 9. The second estimate also equals to 9.

“The military government believes in astrology,” he justifies. The junta may have consulted astrologers to come up with a number that is auspicious, he says in Bangkok.

I was among seven journalists from Southeast Asia who were able to enter Myanmar (still Burma to pro-democracy groups) from Bangkok on tourist visas for five days — Thursday to Monday (May 1 to 5). We happened to be in Yangon a day before, and two days after, the “killer” cyclone wrought so much damage and disaster.

 

Cut off from the world

 

For days, or probably weeks, months, Yangon and its nearby areas will be more isolated from the world. The limited communication lines to the outside world are totally gone. News reports say it may take weeks to restore power and water lines.

The tree-lined boulevards of Yangon are now littered with fallen trees and electric posts. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of the trees, many of which are already decades old, have been uprooted, or have fallen flat to the ground.

Several houses and hospitals lost roofs. Thousands, or maybe millions, of poor people in about 30 coastal villages are left homeless.

Most Burmese houses in these areas are made of very light materials like bamboo (sawali) and old iron sheets or palm leaves as roof.

Our group managed to take a look of the devastation from the international airport to the downtown area for an hour and a half on Monday afternoon before taking our flight back to Thailand.

Just as the Bagan plane that took us from Mandalay to Yangon was touching down, we already saw the coastal villages inundated. As we went out of the airport, huge trees were uprooted, and a huge iron billboard in front of the main airport building was down.

 

Extraordinary time

 

After confirming our connecting flight later in the day to Bangkok, our Burmese tour guide managed to get a rundown van that would take us downtown, but for a fee of 50,000 kyats (pronounced as chats) or an equivalent of $50 dollars. The driver candidly admitted later that the normal charge from the airport to the downtown area as 8,000 kyats.

But it was an extraordinary time, and we were left with no choice but to pay the exorbitant fee just to be able to take a quick look at the devastation.

As we hit the road, the beautiful tree-lined boulevards were littered with fallen trees, billboards and electric posts. Men were seen cutting up trees and repairing the roofs of their houses.

 

Petrol lines

 

At the Thai embassy, tattered flags of Myanmar and Thailand were flowing so freely under dark clouds warning of yet another storm.

There were fewer cars on the road. But near gasoline stations, there were long lines of cars that stretch up to at least two kilometers, waiting for their turn to buy three liters of petroleum.

Motorists were limited to three liters of fuel per day, at $5 per liter.

When we passed by the Yangon General Hospital, built by the British in 1945, more old trees were down, and the roof made of iron sheets had been blown off. We just could not enter the hospital to get a closer look at the situation inside.

We were scared to be seen by the police or military and be interrogated about what we were doing — taking photographs that not ordinary tourists would do.

The military government does not allow foreign journalists to enter the country. We had to enter in disguise and we tried to be cautious in our actions to avoid being taken to the police station and miss our flight out.

It would have been more interesting to go to the coastal villages, but there was just no time.

As we were going back to the airport, we saw a group of military men in their green uniform chopping off trees blocking the road. I managed to discreetly position my little digital camera from the rear of the van and get a photo of them.

Before coming to Burma, we were repeatedly warned against taking photos of the military men, but I managed to get away with it. Back at the airport, I found myself wishing that this tragedy would be a blessing in disguise to the poor people of Burma, that it would be an opportunity for the country to be opened up to the world.

 

So much to be done

 

There is so much to be done here to uplift the lives of millions of people. Perhaps, the situation here is like the Philippines 40 or 50 years ago. The people do not seem to know how to protect their environment. There is garbage everywhere. There is no drainage system. Children seem to be malnourished or undernourished.

Burma struck me as a rich country with so many poor people. It is a wonderful place in the wrong hands.

It is difficult to imagine how long the people can recover not only from the devastation of cyclone Nagris, but from long years of mismanagement, or absence of economic and political management.

As what the driver of the van that took us to the downtown area said, the referendum on Myanmar’s draft Constitution scheduled on May 10 is not likely to change the situation.

What the draft Constitution cannot change, cyclone Nagris probably could.

 

Tita Valderama was in Burma as a fellow of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance when cyclone Nagris battered Yangon (Rangoon), its former capital, last weekend and left thousands of Burmese dead.

The above first person account was first published by PCIJ on 6 May 2008. See pictures here.

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