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 Dear All,

Now that the US Navy ships have left the area while the regime continues to impede aid to the survivors despite its promises. As the world's pressure on the regime eases, the regime has arrested the leading social activists Zarbanar last night (Read his very reveling interview on June 2nd about his experience in the delta and the situation below). This is a sign that the regime is attempting to tightening the screws against little aid operations it allows due to pressure in Burma. Soon, it will most likely go after the monks who have been praised greatly for pulling off very effective relief efforts while the regime falters.

As the experts are saying the survivors will need help up to a year, the regime has already forced many out of the shelters back to their villages where there is no food, water and shelter. Even after a month has passed, many villages have received little or no help.  

The brutality of the regime and the hardship that the survivors are going through is unimaginable. Now, the world has witnessed enough of the regime's tactic and attitude. It goes like this: When the pressure mounts, the regime is always quick to make promises, but they are only skin deep and only to be broken as soon as the pressure eases. We must therefore keep the pressure on the regime to save many lives in Burma.

Nyunt Than

Irrawaddy: Zarganar's Relief Role  (June 2)
VOA News: International Agencies Regret US Decision to Abort Burma Mercy Mission
NY Times:     Myanmar Rulers Still Impeding Access  (June 3)
Irrawaddy Special Report: One Month after Cyclone Nargis (June 4)
NY Times:    Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters  (May 31)
Irrawaddy:  Monks Stepped In Where the Authorities Failed  (June 4)


The regime arrested Zarganar last night. Below is his interview on June 2nd.

Zarganar's Relief Role

Monday, June 2, 2008

Zarganar, a popular Burmese comedian and social activist, has been heavily involved in volunteer disaster relief aid in the cyclone-damaged areas. An estimated 400 Burmese involved in the entertainment world joined together to do volunteer work in the delta.

Question: Can you talk about the situation on the ground since the cyclone struck Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta?

Answer: We started our [volunteer] emergency relief work on May 7, and we are still working. I have been to all the townships struck by the disaster, except Nga Pu Taw.

There are 420 volunteers in our group. We divided our volunteers in groups to work more effectively. The places we go to are usually places nobody has been to yet. We have been to 42 such villages, most under the administrative area of Dedaye Township. Three of these villages are large village tracts where the paddy [rice] purchasing center was located.

We went to three large village tracts in Bogalay Township. They hadn't received aid not only from the government, but also from UN agencies. No NGOs had reached there yet.

Q: What did you see there? What do they need at this moment?

A: I can give you an example. There was a large village tract called Ma Ngay Gyi, where 1,000 families used to live and 700 houses were demolished totally. The other 300 houses left remnants of house-poles and floors. In total, 221 people died in the village and 300 are missing. Nobody knows where they are.

We arrived there on May 22 and until that day, and we saw bodies floating in streams. Survivors there received 7 tins (measurement with condensed-milk-tin) of rice from authorities and an instant noodle pack from some independent donors. Apart from that, they received nothing else. That was the scene we saw 20 days after the cyclone.

On May 28, we went from Bogalay to Tin Maung Chaung, Kyein Su, Hteik Chaung Kyi, Kan Su and Shwe Bo Su villages. The villagers there had received no assistance as well. They had almost no clothing and almost all the children were virtually naked.

In numbers, there were 542 households there and all the houses were heavily damaged. There was a small pagoda left on high-ground. The villagers gathered themselves on the platform of the pagoda and sleep together. There were no UN or NGOs there yet, and they had received nothing. Our private group gave them what we had. The most horrible thing was that they had no water to drink and collected water when it rained. We gave them 10,000 bottles of drinking water.

Q: Has any of the international aid that the regime received reached those areas?

A: There are temporary shelters in Laputta and Bogalay Townships. Some people can stay in tents in those shelters with four or five people to a tent. The people staying there eat rice and rice gruel. Those people receive some assistance, but they are few in number. The people in the villages get no assistance.

Q: The UN said only 25 percent of the storm survivors have received assistance up to last week; do you think that estimate is correct?

A: It's fairly correct. Only a few people can access these shelters. The other survivors are stranded on islands and in distant villages with hardly accessible roads. They usually rely on boats for transportation.

I would like to share a sad story with you. I met an old lady who had 11 family members and 10 of them died in the storm. I saw many people like her. I saw many traumatized people on the delta islands. Only boats can get in there.

Q: You saw many people suffering trauma and depression?

A: I see three types of 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.

We gave people yellow beans and lablab, along with a blanket and mosquito net. We gave a pack of these things to each survivor, and many didn't even appear to acknowledge it. They showed little interest, as if they thought it would be better to die.

Q: How was your experience with the local authorities? Any problems?

A: At the beginning, we took risks, and we had to move forward on our own. Sometime we had confrontations with the authorities.

For example, they asked us why we were going on our own without consulting them and wanted us to negotiation with them. They said they couldn't guarantee our lives.

We said we'd take our chances on our own. Later after the Natural Disaster Prevention and Protection Committee (NDPPC) said private donors could contribute, we faced fewer problems.

After that announcement, well-off traders from Chinatown and gold traders from Mogul Street joined the relief work. It is better now since the survivors can receive more assistance. These rich traders can't go to remote areas, and we try to help them deliver aid to remote villages. For instance, they can drop the assistance in Bogalay and our actors' group takes it to villages.

Q: The Myanmar Alin newspaper said survivors in the delta don't need foreign ai. They can survive on locally grown vegetables and edible fish and frogs. It says the Irrawaddy delta can prosper again next year with vast golden fields of paddy.

A: I have no idea whether they can catch edible fish and frogs. We renamed the Irrawaddy River and Bogalay River by the color of the water. The rivers are a chalky white color. We call it the Nargis color. There are many dead bodies and cadavers of cattle floating in the rivers. We call that the Nargis odor.

The odor sticks with us when we come back from the villages. Nobody can stand it, and causes some people to vomit. How could people find edible fish and frogs in that environment?

Q: Have many of the bodies have been properly buried?

A: I returned returned from five villages in the Bogalay area on May 28. I couldn't take videos and photos in those villages because there were so many bodies, at least 40 bodies. That was after about 1,000 corpses were burned, I think. I believe some NGOs like AZG and some Christian organizations helped cremate bodies.

Q: Most of the people in the delta are Karens. How is their situation?

A: In Bogalay and Dedaye districts there are Karen villages and most of them are Christians. I like these Karen. When I arrived in their villages, I saw some organizations were already there. They appointed some local Karen leaders to go to Rangoon, and they organized meetings with doctors and other professionals. They are taking a part in their reconstruction effort.

They came back to some villages with relief items like material for shelters, food and utensils. I believe they have already been given some vegetable seeds like morning glory, amaranth, rosells and fertilizers that can be used on any kind of soil.

Q: When do you think the area can start to recover its agricultural potential?

A: In many areas, I think rice will be unworkable for a long time, but vegetables can grow. We need to start working with the people on how to recover the land and work their crops.

There are only 15 days left in the rice planting season. We have talked to private companies and Thai professionals about how to resume the agricultural works with small machinery.

A small mechanical plow, called Shwe Kywe, costs 1.4 million kyat. We have selected the Kyun Nyo Gyi village tract for a pilot project. About 5,514 people live there. Thai professionals said the agricultural work could be resumed. We will try to start the work with 18 small plows. We've received 10 plows from donation.

Q: Is any assistance coming from northern and central Burma?

A: Of course, many people come to assist. For example, 10-wheel trucks from Namti, Myit Kyi Na and Lashio arrived with aid. They brought 200 tanks of cooking oil and other supplies. The Christian group from Lashio came with 10 trucks. They are Shan.

Q: How is Rangoon now?

A: We are also reaching out in Rangoon as well.
Our group left this morning to Dala, Kwan Chan Kone, Kyi Myin Daing and Nyaung Wine on the other side of the river. The situation there is not as bad as in delta. However, the houses were damaged, and we do need to assist them as well. Psychologically, they are not as traumatized as the people in the delta.

Q: What do you want to say people living outside of Burma?

A: There are many things we can't do alone. People can help us a great deal. For instance after the tsunami in Thailand, professionals arrived immediately and built houses for the survivors in a short time. We can't afford such assistance, and it is a very vast area. It would be better if international assistance could help with this.

Q: What is the UN able to do?

A: I am not happy with the UN. It doesn't seem able to reach many of our people. The UN and NGO staff must work under the eye of the regime. That's a problem. Why are they so concerned with the government's endorsement of their relief work? They should have taken more risks.

Even if they can't go without permission, they could assist volunteers like us who are willing to go to the villages. There are a lot of groups like us assisting refugees. Many people have received nothing from the UN and NGOs. The UN and a lot of professional organizations send their aid to the compounds of the local township authorities.

Q: What happens with the people who are waiting for food on the roads?

A: Actually, they have to beg as they are starving. The authorities said don't give out food to people on the roads, but they are starving. The scenes are not that chaotic. I didn't see people robbing each other for food.

Q: The US says some relief work could be done with their amphibious boats. They are willing to help. Do you think they are still needed a month after the cyclone?

A: I believe they are necessary. We provided some survivors with radios and asked them to listen to the news, to keep in contact with the world. They were happy with that news, but now they feel sad and desperate because the ships aren't allowed to come. They feel alone and abandoned.

International Agencies Regret US Decision to Abort Burma Mercy Mission

By Ron Corben
04 June 2008

Corben report - Download (MP3)

United States naval ships with relief supplies for cyclone victims in Burma are leaving the area, because the Burmese government refused their help. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, international agencies trying to help more than two million storm survivors regret the loss of the navy's resources.

The USS Essex , center, and the Essex Amphibious Ready Group steam in formation, in the Andaman Sea, 23 May 2008 (photo released by U.S. Navy)
The USS Essex and several support vessels are leaving the seas near Burma after spending three weeks trying to deliver aid to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

The French navy also has given up efforts to send in aid and is heading away from the Bay of Bengal.

Burma's government has rejected offers to use other country's military helicopters to carry relief supplies.

Instead, in the past week the World Food Program received two helicopters from Africa, but aid experts say that is not enough.

WFP spokesman Paul Risley says it is unfortunate that U.S. Navy helicopters will not be available to bring aid across the Irrawaddy Delta.

"And this is truly unfortunate because these helicopters represented immediate heavy lift capacity in the area and would have been a standard operating procedure for the U.N. for relief agencies in responding," he said.

Military helicopters from several nations played a vital role in relief efforts in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. They also helped in the aftermath of a cyclone that hit Bangladesh last year.

Burma's state media say the government rejected the U.S. military aircraft because it feared an invasion, despite U.S. assurances that wanted only to provide aid.

This aerial view shows a devastated town, with many roofs missing, in the Irrawaddy Delta region, Burma, 06 May 2008
The cyclone that hit a month ago left more than two million people in need of food, shelter and medical care. The storm killed 78,000 and left 56,000 missing.

International donors have condemned the Burmese government's roadblocks to relief efforts. U.S. officials say the delays may have cost "tens of thousands of lives."

The United Nations and ASEAN recent reached an agreement with Burma to allow international aid workers more access to the areas worst hit by the storm.

But U.N. officials said Wednesday relief efforts need to expand rapidly, since just one point three million people had gotten any sort of assistance.

The Irrawaddy Delta is Burma's main rice-growing region, but U.N. officials said Wednesday that 60 percent of the paddy fields were damaged in the storm. About 16 percent are too badly damaged for the next planting season, in July.

The WFP's Risley says international food aid to the hardest-hit areas could last a year.

"In a situation such as this it would be very typical for the World Food Program to continue providing food rations through general deliveries for families and farmers in the delta area, certainly through the next six months, certainly through the next harvest. It is likely that harvest will not be able to take place for an entire year," he said.

U.N. officials say few farmers have returned to their land because they have no food, shelter or farm tools. In addition, roads throughout the region remain unusable.

 Myanmar Rulers Still Impeding Access

Atlas Press, for The New York Times

Burmese displaced by the cyclone meeting with a monk last week at a monastery where they had taken refuge in Bogale.

Published: June 3, 2008
BANGKOK — One month after a powerful cyclone struck Myanmar and 10 days after the ruling junta’s leader promised full access to the hardest-hit areas, relief agencies said on Monday that they were still having difficulty reaching hundreds of thousands of survivors in urgent need of assistance.

Over the past week, they said, the door has opened slightly and a number of foreign experts have been allowed to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the May 3 storm. A modest flow of food, medicine and other supplies has begun to enter the delta by truck and barge.

But the agencies said that travel permits for international experts were limited and irregular and that dozens of relief workers remained stranded in the country’s main city, Yangon.

“Several have been able to make essentially day trips to work with our field staff there,” Paul Risley, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program, said. “But access remains a continuing challenge.”

A spokesman for the United Nations disaster relief agency said on Monday that as of two days before, 15 foreign experts representing United Nations agencies were in the delta.

Analysts of Myanmar, formerly Burma, said they feared that the junta was playing a game of hints, promises and deception, which it has used over the years to deflect criticism from abroad.

“In all these crises that the Burmese face, there always is the teaser to take the pressure off the government,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University.

“They seem like they are going to cooperate, and just as soon as comment dies down, anything that is going to be useful dies with it,” he said. “Look back at the ‘saffron revolution,’ when they made all kinds of promises about what they were going to do and nothing happened.”

He was referring to a peaceful uprising, led by monks, that was crushed in September. The junta’s promises included a dialogue with the democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but Myanmar’s rulers dropped the idea after international attention had moved on, and last Tuesday it extended her house arrest for a year.

In Geneva, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, who is leaving her position, said the world’s failure to press Myanmar more strongly on human rights issues made it easier for the junta to keep out cyclone relief.

“The obstruction to the deployment of such assistance illustrates the invidious effects of longstanding international tolerance for human rights violations,” she said.

The United Nations estimates that 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone and said last week that 1.4 million of those remained in desperate need of food, clean water, shelter and medical care. The government says 134,000 people died or are missing.

International relief agencies have complained strenuously that the junta is barring foreign aid and foreign relief workers from the worst-affected areas and that it is endangering survivors.

After a 10-day delay, the junta allowed the first of 10 helicopters from the World Food Program to carry supplies from Yangon into the delta. The other nine were en route to Myanmar, Mr. Risley said.

He also said barges and smaller craft were delivering supplies to hard-hit areas.

The government has allowed American aircraft to land with relief materials but has barred American workers from leaving Yangon Airport to deliver them. It has turned away American, French and British ships loaded with supplies.

Some news reports from Myanmar have said the junta was beginning to force survivors out of shelters and back to the devastated countryside.

According to the independent group Human Rights Watch, thousands of displaced people have been evicted from schools, monasteries and public buildings.

“The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance,” the organization said on Saturday.

Anupama Rao Singh, regional director of Unicef, warned after a visit to the Irrawaddy Delta that any resettlement would be premature, even if it was voluntary.

“Many of the villages remain inundated with water, making it difficult to rebuild,” she said. “There is also a real risk that once they are resettled, they will be invisible to aid workers. Without support and continued service to those affected, there is a risk of a second wave of disease and devastation.”

The government of Myanmar also said it would reopen schools with the start of the new term this week, though many school buildings were destroyed and many teachers were swept to their deaths. Unicef said that more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or destroyed by the storm and that more than 100 teachers were killed.

“I think the generals are doing what they do best, taking charge of everything, trying to keep themselves in complete control,” said U Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst who lives in Thailand.

Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.

Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.

However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.

Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.

“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.

“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”

He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”

Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.

Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”

A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.

A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”

The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.

Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.

Irrawaddy Special Report
One Month after Cyclone Nargis

By AUNG THET WINE / LAPUTTA Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Just as relief efforts were beginning to take hold in Laputta—although serious problems still exist—the Burmese authorities have forced tens of thousands of refugees to return to their home villages.

Based on numbers provided by local officials, as many as 30,000 refugees were sent back to the area of their homes during the past week. Of the estimated 40,000 refugees that lived in Laputta previously, only about 10,000 remain.

Multimedia (View)
They are living in better established camps on the outskirts of the city, where they receive shelter, sufficient drinking water, food and other relief supplies on a daily basis.

Reports also indicate that drinking water, food and other relief material are beginning to reach some refugees who have been sent back to their villages.

Many refugees are now returning to Laputta to pick up food and other relief aid from international agencies located there. Many refugees also are receiving diesel fuel to power vehicles or boats. However, many refugees lack transportation to return for relief supplies.

Serious logistical problems remain in terms of distribution drinking water, food and survival material to refugees in more rural areas. Local doctors report many people are suffering from diseases such as diarrhea and malaria, and many others have psychological problems.

Medical doctors in Laputta said sending the refugees back to their home villages so quickly was a misguided policy, denying them badly needed relief supplies and medical services.

Local Laputta authorities ordered about 40,000 refugees living in 49 temporary shelters, including camps at Thakya Mara Zein Pagoda, No 1 and No 2 State High Schools, and other temporary shelter sites, to move to shelter camps on the outskirts of town, called Three-mile camp on Laputta-Myaung Mya Road, locally known as the golf course; Five-mile camp and the Yantana Dipa Sport Ground camp.

During the past week, Laputta, authorities transported tens of thousands of refugees back to their home villages, most of which are destroyed or badly damaged. The refugees were transported on a daily basis by private companies that have been awarded reconstruction contracts. The companies include Ayer Shwe Wah, Max Myanmar, War War Win and Zay Kabar companies.

"Until May 18, there were about 40,000 refugees in total in camps in Laputta. Starting on May 20, they were sent to camps situated out of town and since then most refugees have been returned to their home areas," said an officer of the Laputta Township PDC, who asked that his name not be disclosed.

“There are now about 650 families from 22 cyclone-affected villages living at the Yadanar Dipa Sport Ground,” he said. “The camp population is 2,609. The camp population at Three-mile and Five-mile camps now totals about 10,000. The figures are not constant, and the refugees are being sent back daily."

Refugees in the camps on the outskirts of Laputta are provided with tents and other shelter material donated by the governments of Britain, Japan and international aid agencies. They have access to safe drinking water from distilling machines. Food is distributed by the UN World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, and nongovernmental organizations, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency Myanmar [Burma] (Adra-Myanmar) and other organizations.

"For rice, we receive a sack of rice for four families for three days, which is from the WFP,” said a refugee at Three-mile Camp. “The rice is good to eat. The government also provides some rice. One person receives two tins (measured in a condensed milk tin) of rice for three days. We also receive cooking oil, salt and beans from other organizations. For drinking water and water for other use, we can collect it from the distilling machines set up at the front of the camp."

Camp refugees now have regular access to health care at medical clinics operated by Holland-MSF, Marlin, Malteser International, UN agencies, the Myanmar Medical Association and the Burmese Ministry of Health. Diarrhea and other diseases are minimal in the camps, sources said.

However, many refugees already sent back to their villages are living under very different and difficult conditions.

“They don't get proper assistance for food, drinking water and shelter and no health care is available to them,” said a doctor with an international health agency in Laputta.

“Many of them are suffering from diseases such as diarrheas, malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, plus psychological distress and depression.”

"When I went out to villages, I found some cases of diarrhea and typhoid. I see six or seven patients out of maybe 60 villagers. Some suffer from hepatitis, jaundice, pneumonia and malaria. Most of these diseases are caused by lack of safe water."

Many refugees are suffering from depression, he said, and mental health specialists have yet to arrive in Laputta.

He criticized the forced return of refugees to their villages.

"It is certain these refugees will contract some diseases by sending them back without proper preparation,” he said. “It’s also impossible for health services to access all these villages. What we can try to do is just contain diseases to prevent an epidemic."

When the refugees were returned to their villages, the authorities provided them with a sack of rice, a tin of cooking oil and 20,000 kyats ($16).

A family of refugees at the jetty in Laputta who were on their way back to Gway Chaung village in the Yway village tract said they were required to sign a consent form saying they were voluntarily repatriated.

"They asked us repeatedly to go back,” said the man. “They told us repeatedly to work our way out of a beggar-like life by relying on donations and food from others.”

A refugee living at the Yadanar Dipa Sport Ground said they were told that if they returned home they would not be accepted back in a shelter camp. He said he was returning to his village, Thin Gan Gyi.

A 60-year-old man at Three-mile Camp said he wanted to return home, but he worried about how he would eat. He had no other option if the authorities forcibly evicted him, he said. 

A UNICEF officer in Laputta said repatriated refugees face renewed problems of safe drinking water and adequate food and other supplies. They are told to return to contact UN organizations and other relief agencies for assistance, he said.

"We are receiving representatives from villages,” he said. “They tell us their needs and problems such as lack of drinking water, lack of rice, and ask us to provide pumps to take the salt water from the drinking ponds. They need to make the ponds ready to receive fresh rain water.

A WFP supervisor said, “We are now getting more than 20 representatives a day from various villages. They get some drinking water, rice sacks and diesel for boats, as much as they can carry when they go back. Some villagers are coming to us almost daily."

Staff with the UN and international organizations worry that only a limited number of returned refugees are making contact with relief agencies, since many don’t have adequate transportation. Likewise, relief organizations don’t have adequate transportation to reach the villagers.

Compounding the problem is the monsoon season, which begins this month.

Sources note that villagers reach out to UN agencies and international organizations, and they hardly share their needs or complaints with local Burmese authorities.

For example, a representative from the Pyin Salu Sub-township was in Laputta specifically to ask for a water-pump from the Adra-Myanmar [Burma] agency to reconstruct a water reservoir pond for drinking water. His village received just enough drinking water and people relied on seawater for cooking and other purposes.

A village representative from Hlwa Sar village who was receiving relief supplies from the WFP in Laputta on May 31, told The Irrawaddy, "Almost all of the storm survivors believe in the UN and other international agencies. They don't go to our authorities. The main reason is we don’t trust them."

Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters
Published: May 31, 2008

KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.

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With little help from the government, refugees were fed by a monastery near Yangon.

Associated Press

A monk organized relief donations this week for people left homeless by the cyclone. This monastery, outside of Yangon, has become a temporary shelter.

At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.

The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.

In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.

With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.

“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”

Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”

While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.

The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.

The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.

“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”

Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.

“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”

Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.

Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.

“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”
Monks Stepped In Where the Authorities Failed

By SAW YAN NAING Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More than 800 monks prayed for the victims of Cyclone Nargis on Tuesday at a Rangoon ceremony in which one senior cleric criticized the regime’s response to the catastrophe.

Pyinya Thiha, a senior monk at Thardu monastery in Rangoon’s Kyeemyindine Township, accused the junta of exacerbating the plight of the cyclone survivors by thinking only of its own interests and placing restrictions on the delivery of aid. He called on the regime to allow international aid workers access to the cyclone-devastated areas.


Buddhist monks walk to a monastery to have lunch in Twantay, 30 miles southwest of Rangoon. More than 800 monks prayed for the victims of Cyclone Nargis on Tuesday at a Rangoon ceremony. (Photo: AFP)
About 100 nuns and more than 500 members of the general public attended the prayer ceremony, in Thardu monastery.  

Pyinya Thiha said the junta was guilty of a “double injustice” in its approach to the catastrophe. “The current situation is not important for them [but] it is very important for the survival of the people now in trouble.

“It is necessary to see human beings with the eyes of a human being. They [the junta] should not see human beings as animals.”

Aid for the cyclone survivors should take priority over everything else, Pyinya Thiha told The Irrawaddy.

Monks would do “whatever we can for the victims,” he promised. The monks of the Thardu monastery distributed relief supplies daily in Rangoon Division’s Hlaing Tharyar and Kyeemyindine Townships, and prayed every evening for the cyclone victims.

Monks had already delivered relief supplies—from food to mosquito nets—to about 200 villages in the Irrawaddy delta, he said.

Monasteries throughout the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division had taken in refugees from cyclone-hit areas. Monks had also helped clear up the cyclone damage.

One Hlaing Tharyar Township resident, Tin Yu, said the authorities didn’t dare prevent the monks from helping cyclone survivors, some of whom were still sheltering in monasteries, despite official pressure to leave. The assistance provided by the monks had been “very encouraging.”