Six years ago, Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, killing at least 138,000 people and displacing many more. This commentary—first published by The Irrawaddy on June 17, 2008—discusses how the former military regime initially blocked aid to the cyclone victims.
Being alive or dead is not much different in Burma, as strange as that sounds.
Six weeks after Cyclone Nargis, alive or dead, no one has dignity under the military government’s rule. When people are alive, all their basic rights are stolen. When they die, their bodies are just ignored.
Bloated bodies still lie scattered about, floating in streams or caught in trees in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta, say aid workers.
The junta officially estimated that 134,000 people are dead or missing following the cyclone. The actual death toll is believed to be much higher.
Relatively few bodies were buried by villagers. Most of the dead have been ignored. The government still has not set up a systematic process to collect and cremate the bodies properly. Victims’ bodies decomposed without religious rites.
The United Nations estimated up to 2.4 million people in the delta and Rangoon area were severely affected and tens of thousands still need food, shelter or other aid. Yet international and local aid workers, as well as supplies, are still being shunned by the callous generals.
In the latest outrage, three Burmese volunteer aid workers were arrested in Rangoon last week by the special branch police. Police told the families that Yin YinWie, Tin Tin Cho and Myat Thu were detained because of their efforts to gather donations from friends abroad to aid people who were displaced by the cyclone. The detainees had voluntarily supplied rice, medicine and clothes to displaced people since the May 2-3 cyclone struck.
Two weeks ago, the well-known Burmese comedian Zarganar, a strong critic of the regime, was arrested. Zarganar and his team distributed food, blankets, mosquito nets and other aid which they collected from donors. One of his colleagues, Zaw Thet Htawe, was arrested on Friday. After the arrests, another colleague told The Irrawaddy that the Zarganar team has temporarily suspended its aid activities.
Zargarnar told The Irrawaddy a few days before his arrest: “I see three types of [displaced] people suffering trauma. One type is very violent and sensitive. They are angry, and I can’t say anything to them. They are aggressive all the time.
“The second type is people crying and moaning all the time. They think about what happened again and again, and they repeat what happened over and over. The third type is silent—no talking, very little movement.”
All the people caught up in the disaster—the displaced people, the local and international aid workers and the volunteers—have been victimized by the Burmese military government, which—bizarrely— believes the country’s reputation is at stake and people are out to gather damaging information to spread to the world.
Last week, a small group of foreign doctors that had been allowed to work in the delta began to leave after the junta closed down most of the centers for displaced people. The Thai government was told not to dispatch a third medical team.
In fact, tens of thousands of survivors are still in desperate need of both physical and mental health treatment.
But the military, which has governed for the past five decades, doesn’t care about people—alive or dead. It just keeps repeating to the world that everything is fine, everything is under control.
The Burmese people live without dignity and now they die without it, too.