Friday, May 23, 2008

A report from the Irrawaddy Delta

The NY Times reports:

Mr. Thura and other volunteers have been lugging relief goods into remote villages in the Irrawaddy Delta over the past two weeks.

“Only a very small percentage of the victims get help at government-run camps,” he said in an interview. “Those fortunate enough to live near roads and rivers also get help. But people in remote villages that are hard to reach don’t get anything. To make it worse, the people in the Irrawaddy Delta have traditionally been antigovernment, so the junta doesn’t like them.”

“Even if they die,” he said, “the generals won’t feel sorry for them.”

For these outlying villagers in the delta, occasional visits by people like Mr. Thura have been virtually the only help they could get. But even people like the ones much closer to Yangon, like Ar Pyin Padan, do not appear to be faring much better.

“If they don’t get help soon, so many of them will die,” said a 36-year-old Yangon resident who has made four private aid runs into villages near Hpayapon, a delta town. “It’s hot when the sun shines and cold when it rains. When you see the villages, you just wonder how these people sleep at night in the rain. They have no shelter to speak of.”

“They are still so stunned by what had happened to them that they show no emotion,” he said. “They don’t even thank us when we give them food. They just accept the help with no expression in their faces.”

He said that during their aid runs he and his friends saw people with pneumonia, cholera and diarrhea. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the private aid deliveries that his group conducts are prohibited.

Mr. Thura and other aid runners said they were hampered by reinforced military checkpoints as well as by roads washed away and streams clogged with storm debris. Those who reach towns with aid are told that such goods must be distributed through the authorities. Many groups like Mr. Thura’s break away and head deeper into the delta on their own.

“We usually drive from Yangon in five hours, switch to a boat and travel four more hours and then we carry whatever we can — rice, noodles, energy drinks, medicine, gaslights — on our backs and walk,” he said. “You really need helicopters and boats to help these people.”

One of his recent trips took him to a village called Mangay. The village, whose name means “gaze at” in Burmese, was a sorry sight, he said. Once a prosperous community of 1,000 families who supplied dried fish throughout Myanmar, Mangay was virtually wiped out: 700 families were left homeless and 500 people were reportedly dead or missing.

Mr. Thura said more than 400 people were making donations for his aid runs as a way of helping the victims directly. Still, his five teams of renegade aid runners, who often use Buddhist monks as scouts, could only manage to deliver 6.5 million kyats, about $6,500, of relief a day into 32 villages.

The aid runners are coming under increasing pressure from the government.

Twenty of Mr. Thura’s team members have received calls from the police warning that they will be punished if they continue their work. On Sunday, he said, his photographer, U Kyaw Swar Aung, was arrested and has not been heard from since. He had been traveling around the delta making videos of dead bodies, crying children and villagers who went insane after the storm and distributing them as DVDs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thura said the government seemed less focused on aid than on making sure there were no more scenes like those to film. In one place, he said he saw a pile of floating bodies clogging the narrow mouth of a stream after they were dumped into the water by soldiers on a cleanup operation.

“Then the soldiers used dynamite to blow up the bodies into shreds,” he said.

Why aren't special forces -- backed up by military helicopters -- making these kinds of aid runs? This is not an unfeasible proposition -- all that's lacking is some leadership. Until Friday, thousands of US, Thai, Japanese, Indonesian, and Singaporean soldiers were playing war games in Thailand as part of "Cobra Gold 2008."

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