Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘I Couldn’t Stand Back and Watch People Suffering’

By The Irrawaddy 29 August 2015

Aye Chan Myae: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week we’ll be discussing the problems facing those undertaking rescue and relief works in flood-hit areas across Burma and what should and shouldn’t be done for those doing relief work. Traditional dancer Ko Han Zar Moe Win, who is undertaking rescue works in partnership with the the Wai Lu Kyaw Foundation, and Irrawaddy Journal editor Ko Thalun Zaung Htet will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese Edition Editor Aye Chan Myae.

Ko Thalun, people across Burma are giving a great deal of assistance to flood victims. Ko Han Zar Moe Win also carried out rescue and relief works with the Wai Lu Kyaw Foundation. Ko Thalun, you are a media worker and an editor, but you have individually helped flood victims as much as you can out of sympathy for those affected. Would you tell me about the difficulties you faced in going to the flood-hit areas?

Thalun Zaung Htet: There were serious floods around the last week of July. When the floods started to hit, we wrote news stories at first. Then the floods gradually began to affect a wider area. Our main responsibility is to spread information, and we spread as much information as we could. As we did so, I felt like I couldn’t stand back and watch people suffering. So, together with other media workers, formed a group called 5 Plus Donation. The group will not only help flood victims, but all the members of the group will contribute 5,000 kyats every month to help those who are in trouble. Soon after the group was formed, we went to Ingapu Township in Irrawaddy Division, as it was one of the closest places to where we are based. We found that while some places had received relief supplies, but some others had not.

ACM: Some places did not receive relief supplies at all?

TZH: There are many donors. They come in with cars loaded with relief supplies. But then, most of them left their supplies with those who were on the periphery of the floods. And those supplies did not reach other places that are in need of them. Donors did not go those places.

Han Zar Moe Win: They don’t go because they can’t. I will explain. People make donations. They go to flood-hit areas with the desire to donate. They might never have carried rice bags on their shoulders back in their hometowns, but when they feel the desire to donate, they carry them. But then, they have difficulties in doing so. In flooded areas, the roads are not in good condition. They may have to walk in the mud or there may be thorns. Some people are afraid of injuring themselves and others don’t even get out of their cars for fear that they might be caked with mud. They have desire to make donations, but because they don’t have any experience of doing it, they are afraid. There are dangers, like snakes.

ACM: The danger of (poisonous) animals.

HZMW: So, there are dangers and they don’t have the necessary experience. So, they left their relief supplies at easily accessible places.

ACM: Ko Han Zar Moe Win did rescue and relief work in Chin State, in remote places where there were strong river currents. Would you recount your experiences and difficulties?

HZMW: It all started with people making donations. People went to flood-hit areas to make donations, but then as they approached the village to which they were donating relief supplies, they were blocked by a damaged bridge. They had to leave all those rice bags there, as they could not go to the opposite bank. They left those rice bags and returned home. I saw this and my brother knew this. He told me we couldn’t stand by under such circumstances.

ACM: By your brother you mean Ko Wai Lu Kyaw?

HZMW: Yes, he is like an elder brother to me since I he adopted me when I was young. I am like a younger brother to him. My brother said, “We just can’t stand by. The situation is serious.” Five bridges were destroyed by torrents in the area. We didn’t want to swim across the creek, because we would have been risking our lives. The torrents were that strong. It was like a waterfall, there were stones underneath muddied water and we couldn’t see beneath. And we didn’t know how large the stones were. So, we dared not swim.

So, my brother said he would link the two banks with rope and said he himself would swim to the opposite bank. The rest of us there said we would do it, but he refused. He said, “I have brought you here under my leadership, I’m responsible.” That is the attitude of a leader. But he said that he can’t lose even a single rescuer because losing a rescuer means losing the chance to help 40 or 50 people. He said he couldn’t afford to lose anyone. He tied a nylon rope around his waist and he swam across the creek. It only took around 20 seconds for him to swim to the opposite bank. He had to swim without pause. He couldn’t take a rest, he had to swim without stopping. If he stopped for a while, he would have been washed away.

ACM: Without the ability to swim well, it is impossible to do that, isn’t it?

HZMW: How was it possible for Ko Wai Lu Kyaw to do this? When we were young, we were hired to star in a police action movie, and we had to undergo relevant training. I, and Ko Wai and three or four others actors in the movie, underwent training together with real police cadets. So, we have experience in tying ropes and swimming.

ACM: We have heard the cases in which some volunteers died in road accidents on their way to flood-hit areas to undertake rescue and relief work. That is really upsetting to hear. Would you share what you have heard about such cases and things you needed to be aware of when you traveled to Ingapu?

TZH: People were eager to help and they drove very fast on their way to the deluged areas. And tollgates did not impose toll on them. They kept the tollgates open for them. Other vehicles gave precedence to relief vehicles. They let them overtake. People very very emotional.

HZMW: They were.

TZH: Yes, they were. They were too eager to provide help and lost awareness of anything. They were only thinking of arriving at villages and providing supplies. These thoughts overwhelmed then—when we went there—I told our drivers that they can help but need to ensure our safety. There have been dozens of accidents. Recently, two monks died in a car plunge, and Ko Thar Po, who came back from Singapore to help flood victims, died in a road accident, and then Red Cross member Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin, whose body was recovered just a few days ago. The most important thing is, as Ko Han Zar has said, relief workers must have good stamina, knowledge of local conditions and should not be overwhelmed by their eagerness to help. They need to consider their own safety. They need to be aware of these things. You have more experience on this subject, Ko Han Zar.

HZMW: In the past, there were first aid classes at schools. Since there have been no such classes for a long time, we don’t know how to give first aid now. For example, we don’t even know how to properly carry a victim of a road accident. We just carry him. My brother said that sometimes patients are not fatally injured, they just broke bones, but then when they are carried improperly, they die because their ribs pierce vital organs. There have been such deaths because we don’t have enough knowledge—so, some people die unnecessarily.

My brother told me that there are people who drowned. He asked me if I know how to swim. I asked him what we should do if a boat capsizes. He told me we would need to take off our extra layers of clothes and swim if the boat capsizes, and not to let anyone drag you, because it can drown you both. So if you are going a rescue trip to flooded areas, ask these questions first: “Can I swim? What do I do if there’s something wrong with the boat, if some dangers arise?” We also have to wear life jackets. How safe are they? Some last six hours, some three hours, and there’s some fake life jackets that will only last one hour. How do we use those life jackets, how do we swim in strong currents while wearing life jackets. Ko Wai Lu has this kind of experience. Some people wear knee-length boots. He does not let us wear them, he only allows us to wear the lightest possible clothes suitable for swimming.

ACM: That sort of footwear is dangerous for those who do not how to use it, right?

Han Zar: Water will seep into the boots and drown you.

ACM: I would like to ask you another question, Ko Han Zar Moe Win. You are a dancer and though there have been floods in lower Burma, your troupe is staging performances in dry areas of upper Burma. You are doing relief work and you also have to stage performances. How do you strike a balance between them?

Han Zar: There is a juxtaposition between self-interest and public interest. Self-interest comes first, but it is often neglected. Self-interest means for yourself, your family, your relatives, and your friends. While I help those who are in trouble for the public interest, we just can’t leave our family members in trouble. We just can’t help those who are in trouble at the frontline, leaving our family members at home to starve. So, I stage performances for my family members. I feel I need to stage more shows for I want to make a greater contribution. I will be able to donate more when I have more money. Therefore, I have to do my job.

Two people have reminded me of that. One is a senior writer and another is my friend, Sai Sai Khem Hlaing. He cautioned me on Facebook, saying, “I respect what you are doing, but you have to do your job.” And I replied, “I don’t even think about my job while I am helping people.” He said, “Just consider carefully what I say. Don’t you want to help, make more donations? If you are well-off, if you have lots of money, you can help more people.” The feeling that I want help brings me great satisfaction. When I give help it is in the public interest.

ACM: It is a good thing, Ko Han Zar Moe Win. The artists doing rescue and relief works would be more effective than ordinary persons doing the same thing, because the familiar faces they see in movies and performing arts shows come to their places and give help.

TZH: It gives them moral encouragement.

ACM: Yes, their help gives a great deal of moral encouragement. Ko Han Zar Moe Win and Ko Thalun, you have talked what needs to be considered when performing rescue work, which is very beneficial to those who will travel to floot-hit areas. Thank you both.