LABUTTA TOWNSHIP, Irrawaddy Division — “I can have a proper burial only if the neighbors are willing to help,” says Than Than Nwe, rubbing away a tear that dropped from an eye that no longer sees.
With little money and no surviving relatives to arrange her funeral, she explains, only the goodwill of her neighbors will see to it that she is properly laid to rest when her time comes.
“I lost my husband and all three of my sons in [Cyclone] Nargis. It also destroyed my house and my belongings,” says Than Than Nwe, sobbing now.
Before the devastation of Cylcone Nargis, Than Than Nwe and her family lived in the village of Nagon in Irrawaddy Division’s Ngapudaw Township, where she worked on a salt farm. Despite leading a hand-to-mouth existence, she says life at home was filled with contentment.
The ferocity of Nargis, which whipped into the Irrawaddy Delta region with winds of up to 120 miles per hour on May 2, 2008, took her completely off guard.
The military regime of the time, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), did not issue adequate warnings about the cyclone, offering no evacuation plan to the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable residents of the low-lying region.
Than Than Nwe even attended a friend’s wedding reception in a neighboring village on the morning of May 2, leaving her family behind at their home. That evening, Cyclone Nargis killed her husband and three sons, and robbed her of all of her possessions in a matter of hours.
“I was in Kanseit village to attend a friend’s wedding reception when the storm hit. The house of the newlyweds collapsed as the storm raged. Three of us floated along on two five-gallon containers. One girl died, and me and another person survived,” Than Than New recounts of the storm surge.
The cyclone raged through the following morning, killing 84,537 people and injuring another 19,359, with 53,836 missing in 10 townships of the Irrawaddy Delta region, including Labutta, Ngapudaw, Dedaye and Bogale, and three townships in Rangoon, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. Adding those missing to the confirmed fatalities, the human toll of the disaster approached 140,000 people.
More than 800,000 houses were damaged in the storm, which also killed 150,000 cattle and inundated 72,000 acres of farmland with crop-killing saltwater. The total financial losses were estimated at US$10 billion, making Nargis the worst natural disaster in Burma’s recorded history, and ranking it eighth on a list of the world’s worst storms in terms of fatalities and damages incurred.
Despite the widespread devastation, the ruling junta went on to hold a national referendum on Burma’s military-drafted Constitution that same month, drawing widespread criticism. Some political activists even mockingly dubbed the charter the “Nargis Constitution.”
The military regime did little to assist victims in the aftermath of the storm. Worse still, the country’s leaders were hesitant to accept international humanitarian aid.
While Naypyidaw dithered, storm-hit victims in Labutta were desperate for clean drinking water, food and medicines.
“There were many injured survivors in the aftermath of Nargis,” says a villager from Thingangyi village in Labutta Township who asked for anonymity. “There was no food and the worst thing was there was no drinking water. People in villages were expecting help for two days after Nargis. No help came and we went to Labutta for fear that we would die. Because it was a long distance to the town, many died due to weakness on the way.”
Than Than Nwe survived the storm and made an arduous return to her home. Eating coconuts and drinking saltwater along the way, she arrived back her house to find the bodies of her husband and children. Her house had been reduced to nothing.
Except for rice, oil, clothes and some kitchen utensils, Than Than Nwe received no assistance from the government that might have helped her to pick up the pieces of her former life. The ruling regime, led by retired Sen-Gen Than Shwe, included among its senior leadership Burma’s current President Thein Sein, who was serving as prime minister in 2008.
Having lost her entire family, Than Than New and other Nargis victims resettled in Peinnetaung village in Labutta Township, but the legacy of Nargis would continue to haunt her. Injuries she sustained while clinging for dear life in floodwaters that surged as Nargis made landfall worsened, and she eventually lost sight in her left eye.
“[My eye] was struck with tree branches while [I was] floating on water during the storm. I did not go to see a doctor as I couldn’t afford to pay for medical treatment. Now, my left eye is completely blind and my right one is almost blind,” says Than Than Nwe.
Seven years have passed since Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, but survivors like Than Than Nwe continue to struggle with the hardship it wrought.
“I saw a man who resorted to begging in Pathein after all his family members died and he was not fit enough to work,” says Than Win from the Pathein-based National Democracy Network. “He died by the roadside because of deteriorating health. The government should provide social welfare allowances, at least daily meal allowances, for those who lost their entire families in Nargis and can no longer work.”
For her part, with one eye blind and little in the way of financial resources, Than Than New gets by thanks to the generosity of others, and hopes charitable donors might one day allow her to afford a medical procedure to restore her sight.