Monday May 12, 2008
Death toll from Cyclone Nargis’ aftermath may be alarmingly high
By HARIATI AZIZAN
THE first thing that struck me when I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, was how old and battered it was. Derelict buildings, still very much in use, line the narrow streets of the once prosperous Burmese city. Poverty is rampant, and so is the air of tranquil timelessness.
Buses and cars that should be in a junkyard rattle like tin cans downtown while the people mill about on uneven pavements. After more than four decades of military rule, the former capital of one of the world’s poorest countries is in tatters, its squalor saved only by lush trees and awe-inspiring pagodas.
That was a day before Cyclone Nargis hit. And, when it did, it left in its wake more ruins.
Most of the magnificent pagodas were unscathed but the huge, beautiful trees were gone. The most powerful cyclone to strike the nation also wrecked many of the dilapidated buildings. With debris strewn about the open spaces, devastated Yangon was like a war-zone.
Gone is the pregnant air of resignation among the people as desperation and raw survival instinct seep in.
I was in Myanmar during the fateful weekend with a group of journalists from the region on a fellowship with the Bangkok-based South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). We were on a five-day “study” mission on the state of the country after last September’s Saffron Revolution (when Buddhist monks took the streets in protest) and the mood of the people with the constitutional referendum held on Saturday. We got more than what we had bargained for.
As luck would have it, we were in the northern Myanmar town, Bagan, when the maelstrom occurred. Our travel plans were changed at the last minute due to the country’s rigid immigration laws, which saw a few fellow journalists rejected entry. So, with the fewer number, everyone travelled north instead of some going to south and west; it proved to be a crucial turn of events.
We first got wind of the impending disaster on the afternoon of May 2 in Bagan when our tour guide informed us that our flight from the historical town to Mandalay might be cancelled due to bad weather. We continued with our sightseeing, oblivious to the tragedy that was to come.
With communications down, we were unable to get news on the magnitude of the disaster. All attempts to get a clearer picture of the situation, as well as the safety of our guide's family were futile.
“This is how the military junta keeps control of us – divide and rule. If something happens in one part of the country, those in the other states will not know of it,'' he said.
The guide said no warning was given to the people in the hit areas. In a country where the media is controlled and telecommunications infrastructure is under-developed, the people usually get whatever information there is from independent short-wave radio services like the Voice of America and BBC World Service.
“Most people are too poor to have radios though, so they would have been totally unprepared for the cyclone,” he said.
Frustrated by the lack of news on local TV, he said: “Our government only wants people to see everything that is fine in the country. That’s why there is no news on the disaster.”
True, in Mandalay, it was surreally sunny and serene.
We first received news on the impact of the cyclone on the night of May 3. The official Myanmar media reported a fatality of only four.
The next day, the country’s official television channel reported that the body count had risen to 351. The rest of the airtime was filled with soap operas and musical programmes. Only the foreign news channels reported the real extent of the catastrophe.
We flew back to Yangon on May 5, the first day the airports were re-opened, with a connecting flight to Bangkok scheduled for the same evening.
With journalists from all over the world trying desperately to get into the country, our first instinct was to stay on and go out to the worst-affected areas but we were thwarted by floods, broken bridges and closed roads. With petrol supply halted for two days, most vehicles were immobile.
Fortunately, we were able to hire a mini-van into the city to survey the aftermath before our flight, but only after paying five times the normal rate.
According to the official report, up to 600 people were killed in Yangon but many more were made homeless. Destroyed amenities meant the survivors have no clean water and electricity.
There was much hype on the local news about how the Tatmadaw or army had gone to the people’s rescue but as we drove around the city, we saw little evidence of this.
We saw army trucks and jeeps parked by the roadside, but only a few soldiers, standing idly on the pavement or hacking away at broken tree trunks.
With Monday being the first day the shops and petrol stations opened in Yangon, many residents thronged the streets for food, water and energy.
Fear of food shortage and escalating prices was creating panic, and many who could afford these were stocking up, said one lady.
“Prices have been rising since last year. Before the cyclone, it cost about 5,000 kyat (about RM16) for a litre of petrol and more than 1,300 kyat (RM4.20) for two kg of rice,'' she said. “Now, the prices will be double, triple that.”
Rice prices skyrocketed when the junta, taking the opportunity created by the world rice crisis, exported it to neighbouring countries instead.
Yangon and the low-lying Irrawady Delta areas form the rice bowl of the country, accounting for 70% of its rice production. The cyclone hit when the second rice crop was about to be harvested. Saline water from the tidal wave and other debris, including human remains, have made rice production uncertain in the months ahead.
In the rural areas of the Irrawady Delta and the west coast, the death toll was officially reported to be about 22,400, but international experts are estimating it to have crossed 100,000.
And, with the military junta dragging its feet over opening the doors to international aid, a greater catastrophic loss of life is predicted.
Even now, a medical volunteer has reported that an increasing number of people have been infected with fever and diarrhoea. There is also news of death from snakes and attacks from crocodiles near the flooded swampy areas.
It is feared that unless urgent action is taken, the death toll could be bigger, even more than that of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
John Holmes, the United Nation’s humanitarian chief, described the Myanmar cyclone crisis as “increasingly desperate” and urged for political pressure from world leaders to allow aid in.
But as an exiled Myanmar journalist dryly remarked: “Myanmar people were in trouble even before the cyclone. We needed the world’s help even earlier than this, way before the cyclone.”