Andrew Khoo was recently in Myanmar to comfort and encourage friends. And to bring along some medicines and medical supplies, blankets, candles, food, personal toiletries and money. He filed this report for this website.
On Sunday afternoon I was listening to our superb Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra playing music by Leonard Bernstein in the majestic Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.
On Monday afternoon I was looking up at the Petronas logo affixed high on the frontage of the Sakura Tower, the tallest building in downtown Yangon, Myanmar. On either side of the wide boulevard leading down to the Sule Pagoda, scene of one of the many anti–government protest by monks in September 2007, massive gnarled roots of upended trees stared me in the face. The roads have been cleared, but the debris and detritus of trunks and branches still line the sides of many streets in downtown Yangon. They are slowly being moved to decentralised dumping grounds. Military, municipal workers and private citizens alike in their own way toil daily to remove the huge fallen tree trunks. Some teams have chainsaws and heavy lifting equipment, while others simply have to make do with saws and small choppers. I spent a short time trying to help a small group of villagers attempt to clear a huge tree which had been uprooted in their village – it was hard going without modern machinery.
Near the hotel I was staying, an elderly man busied himself chopping away at a big fallen tree trunk over the course of a few days, cutting the branches into one–foot firewood–sized strips for easy bundling and carting away. Throughout Yangon, firewood will not be in short supply for many months to come. Which is a blessing of sorts since fuel prices in general have gone up due to increased demand. Utility workers are also busy all over Yangon replacing electricity and telephone poles.
Electricity supply is still limited, and police have to do added duty directing traffic at traffic–lightless major junctions. Some apartment blocks have generators to power up, as have most of the hotels. But many houses in Yangon still have to make do with candles. Running water depends on electricity powered pumps. It has rained every day in the week I was in Yangon. The monsoon rains have come early this year, spearheaded by Cyclone Nargis. A second potential cyclone threatened for a while, but dissipated. But the rains continue, keeping the many potholes full and the roads muddy.
Terrestrial telephones are not fully operational, and e–mail connectivity, not the greatest even in the best of times, is still unavailable in many places.
There is also irony between the news heard over BBC and CNN shown in the hotel room and the New Light of Myanma, the local English–language tabloid. On the one hand, the daily paper is replete with endless pictures of generals handing over aid to affected areas, southwest of Yangon in the delta area, stressing the adequacy of relief efforts and supplies, albeit from overseas friends. The local national–language television station is no different. Grateful cyclone victims in relief centres or in front of tented housing are seen being greeted by generous generals, and there are happy handshakes as tokens of aid are presented.
On the other hand, BBC and CNN consistently broadcast the failure of aid to reach those truly in need, the refusal to allow foreign aid workers to enter the country and the conservativeness of the estimates of death and homelessness.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. Quite exactly where no one really knows. Aid is arriving, even from the US, and is being distributed. Some victims are being relieved. But communications and transport links are such that not everyone is being reached. It can take up to 7 hours to travel the distance of 90 kms, the length of the journey between Yangon and some of the nearer towns in the affected delta region. From these towns, it can then be many hours by boat to extremely remote villages, tucked away in the maze of land and water that constitutes the Delta region. Reports have been received of whole villages having disappeared.
One survivor told me that in his village of 600, only 3 survived. He only did so by clinging to a palm coconut tree for his life as wave after wave brought on by strong winds buffeted his village for hours. I saw photographs of survivors with their chests and inner thighs rubbed raw from the friction of clinging on to trees.
Another friend said to me that of 70 people in a sub–village, only 19 survived. Many who died were related to him. So it is not surprising that the death toll is raised almost on a daily basis. It went from 251 to 20,000 before I arrived. It moved up to 38,000 by mid–week and by the end of the week it had almost doubled to 78,000, and still rising. All this in the first 14 days. ICRC estimates put the death toll at anything up to 128,000. The government has stated that 1 million people are homeless. The UN puts the figure at anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 million.
Like the clearing of roads, meeting the needs of victims probably has its priorities. The important roads, from the airport to the city, near diplomatic compounds, public monuments and key temples and monasteries, and government offices, get attention first. So the bigger towns and those with easier access are reached first. The government has now allowed religious bodies to set up relief camps in addition to ones established by the government, an indication perhaps that the situation is graver than the government had originally anticipated. Aid convoys from international relief organisations and NGOs are slowly getting through, but foreign personnel are however still not welcomed.
If the tsunami in Aceh in December 2004 taught us anything, it is that concerted effort and multi–level co–operation is essential. Not just in the immediate aftermath, but for years following, as rehabilitation and resettlement gradually replace relief as the principal focus. This can only be achieved through a willingness to accept not just foreign aid but advice and assistance as well. National pride and professions of self–sufficiency must be put aside.
Anything less than that would be a disservice to the memory of those who died and a denial of the future for those who survived. And those who survived deserve more than what they are getting at the moment.