May 27, 2008
I came to Thailand to volunteer in the Cyclone Nargis relief work. In the few days that I have been in Bangkok, the numbers of Burmese at risk in the aftermath of the disaster has more than doubled. The day before yesterday, UN stats were at 1.2 million. Yesterday noon, 2.5 million at the high end and by dinnertime Johns Hopkins (The Center for Refugee and Disaster Response & The Center for Public Health and Human Rights) was reporting 3.2 million in jeopardy. At press briefings we are reminded that new information keeps coming out and to bear in mind that "the situation is fluid". How macabre and cruel. Yes, fluid is the defining word.
This is what I am learning -- picture the Irrawaddy delta, known as the Ricebowl of Burma, spreading across the southernmost end of the country. The cyclone hit on May 3rd and devastated 82,000 square kilometers. For 10 hours winds of 100 mph ripped clothing as sand, debris and salt of the sea beat backs to bloody rawness. Estimates of dead and missing run from 128,000 - 220,000 with the numbers rising daily. Bodies float. Not only human but also carcasses of animals. Survivors patched together shelters from available palm fronds and bamboo. Roads in the delta region were never the main avenues of transportation as most used the waterways. Tributaries and paths would be revealed with the rising and falling of the tides. But the storm brought 12 foot rolling waves. One after the other surging up to 20 kilometers inland. Fishing and transport boats were carried on top of each other and are now in pieces - pummeled into useless heaps. Gone too are most of the little bridges connecting the narrow roads and paths. The bodies float. Trees are now toppled and many are submerged, invisible and ready to claw holes into unsuspecting boats that dare to carry meager but necessary relief. The rice is now moldy, the bodies float, the wounds are festering, the young ones have diarrhea, the mothers with newborns cannot produce breast milk as they themselves have had little if any nourishment, and cholera is reported.
Why not move the bodies out of the water, I wonder? Well, where is it dry? Ah, nowhere. The grounds are saturated and now the rains have hit again and are predicted to drop another 12 cm of punishing water in the next 5 days. The UN spokesperson predicted that these rains will collapse those fragile, life-protecting shelters. But, wait, weren't we told earlier that people were congregating in the monasteries where the floors were more stable even if the roofs had fallen in? Yes. But the situation is fluid. The military has sent them home. What home? There is no home. If people congregate with those conniving monks, they might drum up some plans. And so they must go out into the open air.
40% of the 3.2 million at risk (aka the Second Wave) are children. But all are equal in Nature's eyes. That is the one democratic aspect of Burma - nature.
This narco-dictatorship, this illegal junta knew the storm was approaching as India had forewarned them 2 days prior. The regime, with security network ever-ready to suppress its own, did nothing to prepare the country other than warn of “widespread rain". Before, during and after the cyclone, the generals had full attention on a bogus constitutional referendum. Despite having four battalions of riot police stationed in Rangoon in readiness for the referendum day, it took 24 hours before soldiers began clearing toppled trees with machetes and handsaws.
As health care is a sad 3% of the national budget, there has been little that the junta has had available. Not much aid has been permitted into the country and it is now two weeks later. Burmese sources tell of confiscation of the relief supplies and high-energy biscuits sent in as international aid. They have seen them in the markets. Foreign journalists have been arrested and deported. When Burmese women, known as "the well-wishers" cook batches of food for their communities, the military harasses and shuts them down. The generals must be in charge of all relief. More bodies float. I try to imagine what might possibly be going through the minds of these men as they huddle in Napydaw, their newly built capital, (constructed at the behest of a soothsayer) as they plot out how to do nothing and say it is Something. It must be a form of true psychosis. The evil of incapacitation. A gripping fear. They have always been unspeakably cruel, now the scale of their crimes against humanity overwhelms all and takes this country down. This is a group that even Orwell could not conjure up. And they are not fiction.
Hello international community - blitz them please. Blitz them with biscuits, blankets, boots, mosquito nets, shelters and clean water.
1.5 to 2.5 to 3.2 million.
Burma is dying.
Adelle Lutz is an artist and longtime Burma activist.
May 16th, 2008 Bangkok