Myanmar's people help where its leaders don't

Seven weeks after huge swaths of Myanmar were savaged by a cyclone and tidal wave, a new and remarkable citizen movement is delivering emergency supplies to survivors neglected by the military government's haphazard relief effort.

The scores of ad hoc groups, many of them based here in the country's largest city, are not overtly political. But they are reviving a kind of social activism that has been largely repressed by successive military rulers in the country.

Defying roadblocks and bureaucratic obstruction, volunteers have reached devastated villages in many parts of the Irrawaddy delta, dropping off food, drinking water and other essentials and bringing back photos that contradict claims in the state media that life is returning to normal.

Some members of the groups say they hope to keep working together when the cyclone damage is finally repaired and turn toward other activities that carry shades of political activism in this tightly controlled state.

With residents' frustration over the official relief effort mounting, pledges of support and donations to the National League for Democracy, the main opposition group in Myanmar, also called Burma, have doubled since the cyclone, according to a student leader of the league.

The storm, which came ashore on the night of May 2-3, killed an estimated 134,000 people and created severe hardship for 2.4 million more. The country's deeply xenophobic junta turned aside many offers of foreign help, agreeing to let in substantial numbers of international aid workers only after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to the country May 22 with a personal appeal.

By then, however, homegrown groups were already mobilized, working to offset the tragic shortcomings of the government operation.

Down a street lined with gold and ruby merchants, where dealers charm clients over tiny tables set with tea and chess, employees in the back room of a gem shop one recent morning were swapping evidence: photos of rotten government food handouts.

A week earlier, people in the shops said, more than a dozen local jewelers had loaded 100 bags of rice, 20 bags of beans, tarpaulins and blankets onto a truck donated by a supplier and set off at midnight for the storm-ravaged town of Labutta.

They returned with photos of homeless villagers lining up for tins of food at a makeshift camp, a tear-stained boy who, they said, had lost his entire family to the storm's fierce tidal surge, and rotten rice – yellow, fist-size chunks of it, piled like rocks in bags donated by the government-affiliated Myanmar Red Cross.

“When I saw what they were being fed, I was shaking I was so angry,” said a shop assistant, 26, narrating each photo as she passed it to a customer.

The informal organizations are often based on occupation. Artists, doctors, students and the gem dealers have formed separate groups. In other cases, the groups are friends coming together to help.

A 27-year-old lawyer trainee said he and five friends were furious when they tried to distribute supplies around the ruined town of Bogalay about a week after the cyclone but were turned away by local authorities who told them they needed a permit.

“They say they are giving these things to the people, but we know they aren't,” he said, pointing at a photo in the state daily newspaper, the Mirror, that showed a relief camp with neat rows of tents and tables laden with food. “We know not to believe them.”

In the weeks immediately after the cyclone, a doctor recounted, he closed his private medical clinic for twice-weekly trips to the delta with others. There, they noticed local officials shooing away desperate children, many of them orphaned or suffering storm-related trauma.

So the doctors, four of whom are pediatricians, tried to entertain the children to keep their minds occupied. They held a sanitation workshop after noticing that there were no visible efforts to instruct people in basic hygiene.

“The Ministry of Health is trying, but they're not effective, not organized,” the physician said.

Like many other residents, the doctor can't afford to take many more days off work, but he still meets with the group every week. He said he hopes to translate the momentum of its cyclone relief work into other efforts.

“I'm not political; I'm a community-based activist,” the doctor said, when asked how his group could keep working and turn from cyclone relief to other activities, such as organizing debates on health care.

“Now we're seeing the time of civil society. Now thousands of small groups are helping any way they can,” said a magazine editor, who pooled funds with other journalists and artists in the hope of purchasing 1,000 shortwave radios so delta survivors could receive uncensored foreign news broadcasts. In the end, the group could afford only 50 but managed to distribute them in villages.

The back page of the Mirror and the New Light of Myanmar daily tells readers that “everybody may make donations freely … to any person or any area.” But nearly a dozen people interviewed offered firsthand or secondhand tales of confiscation or obstruction by local authorities.

A surgeon said he and his group of medical and psychology students were prevented from handing out food at a monastery near the town of Dedaye to about 1,000 refugees who had been sheltering inside. A general there wanted to be seen to hand out the food first, the surgeon said.

A lawyer said he had set out on a relief trip to the delta town of Kyunpangong with five friends, but every box of goods they brought was opened and searched in front of them.

“If I had the chance, I'd occupy the whole delta and put up a sign to the authorities that reads ‘Don't come here,'” said a Yangon monk who is active in medical work. “So many people are waiting to get aid from the government, but they're having to rely instead on private donors.”

In five relief expeditions to the delta or ravaged areas around Yangon, he said, he saw military troops and police patrolling roads or monitoring checkpoints but not once helping survivors.

Since the cyclone, three people have been arrested on charges of taking photographs of the cyclone-ravaged areas and sending them to foreign news sites, and one person for marching to the offices of the U.N. Development Program to complain about government neglect, according to a lawyer monitoring their cases.

In Yangon, a surgeon wrote notes on a blackboard in preparation for another crack-of-dawn trip to the delta.

Later the surgeon remarked: “I think the government made a huge mistake. If they were seen to care, people would have forgiven them for the past 20 years.”