Glimmer of hope for Burma amid devastation of cyclone

By Andrew Buncombe

Four-and-a-half years later, people are still struggling to farm the paddy fields that were inundated with salt water, and rebuild communities that lost up to a third of their population.  Photo / Getty Images
Four-and-a-half years later, people are still struggling to farm the paddy fields that were inundated with salt water, and rebuild communities that lost up to a third of their population. Photo / Getty Images

When Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, the locals took shelter in rice sheds and temples, tied themselves to coconut trees and prayed they would survive the storm.

Up to 200,000 of them perished.

Four-and-a-half years later, people are still struggling to farm the paddy fields that were inundated with salt water, and rebuild communities that lost up to a third of their population. They are also having to deal with the persistent trauma of what happened.

"Of course there is a psychological effect," said Hla Aye, a 62-year-old woman who makes a living as a day labourer in Pyin Ma Gone, a village accessible only by boat, close to the delta town of Bogale.

"Sometimes when it rains, some of the children refuse to go outside. The parents have to tell them not to be so afraid of the storm and rains."

The raw power of Cyclone Nargis not only devastated the communities of the Irrawaddy Delta. It also shone a light on the inefficiency and cruelty of Burma's military junta, which expended more effort trying to prevent foreign aid workers and Burmese volunteers from Rangoon from reaching the region than they did helping those affected.

The coming to power of a nominally civilian Government in Burma that has embarked on a series of reforms has made things easier for those rebuilding lives in the Delta. Among the most important tasks are providing clean water in remote villages and income generation projects.

Half-an-hour downstream the Bogale River from Pyin Ma Gone lies the community of Myit Poe Kyone Sein. There, villagers have learnt how to plant eucalyptus trees and mangroves to provide timber and erosion breaks and build energy-efficient ovens from clay and banana-tree sawdust. They have also benefited from access to micro-loans.

"I set up a shop selling vegetables and snacks," said Ai Win, one of 50 women in the village who are part of the scheme.

The reforms carried out by the Government of President Thein Sein have brought changes to the lives of those in the Delta in other ways.

Everyone in Pyin Ma Gone knew US President Barack Obama visited Rangoon, met Thein Sein and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - they heard the news on television or radio.

"We are beginning to see some freedoms starting. We feel we can speak more openly," said Hla Kyi, a 65-year-old farmer. "Before, if something was wrong we were too scared to speak to the village authorities. Now we can talk to them about matters of justice."

As an example, Kyi said if two people had quarrelled and one was related to a government official, no one would have raised the matter. Nowadays there was more confidence.

There was also more hope for the future. Another farmer, Than Khe, 53, said he had little knowledge of the changes in the Government. He also knew that their lives had not yet fully recovered from the impact of Nargis. And yet he said: "We do trust. We do believe. We believe our lives will get better."

Harder to tackle than field-testing salt-tolerant rice seedlings and replacing destroyed mangroves, is the sheer scale of loss. The village of Pyin Ma Gone lost 33 per cent of its population to Nargis while the death toll in Myit Poe Kyone Sein amounted to 25 per cent. Everyone, it seemed, had friends or relatives who had lost their lives. Independent

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 26 Oct 2014 12:47:40 Processing Time: 406ms