Published: Monday, 23 June 2008 05:00
Journey into Darkness
Part I of II
One man’s devil is another man’s demon
Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore
Cyclone Nargis was born over the Bay of Bengal on April 27, 2008. Just five days later it swept through Myanmar. The military rulers of Myanmar estimate that some 134,000 people are dead or missing, while others believe the numbers to be much higher. Due to the secretive policies of the regime, the world may never know the extent of damage and loss of life caused by the cyclone.
Not only has the junta kept the truth from its own people and the rest of the world, they also turned back nearly all foreign aid and restricted media access. The silence of its reclusive and mysterious leader Senior General Than Schwe was sickening. A stunned international community was poised to respond with significant aid resources if the junta would just open their country to the outside world. Instead, the generals demonstrated that maintaining power, and perhaps just saving face, was more important to them than anything, even their own people’s lives.
Though I was in Florida at the time, a longtime and trusted friend, whom I have worked with in other conflict zones, was in Myanmar before and after Cyclone Nargis. He reported to me that, although large numbers of people were still in dire need of assistance, having lost their homes and livelihoods in the storm, the Myanmar government was still forcing local fishermen in the region to pay a ‘licensing fee’ for subsistence fishing in the Delta region. America, France, Thailand, India and other countries offered immediate assistance. The U.S. even dispatched Navy ships and helicopters laden with thousands of tons of relief supplies. Yet, while the people continued to suffer, most of the aid was restricted. The junta would only accept relief flights landing at Yangon International Airport, where until late May, supplies were handed over to junta representatives on the airstrip. The United States was generous in its assistance, with C-130 flights bringing relief supplies from a staging base in Uttapao, Thailand. Yet after weeks of waiting, our Navy ships sailed away, after the junta refused to allow them to help. Still, we kept helicopters ready in Thailand should the junta change its mind, and we continued our C-130 flights, extending the hand of friendship to a regime that spouted propaganda against outsiders. The United Nations and other multi-lateral agencies and Non Governmental Organizations mobilized every resource they could as quickly as possible and some of them played a key role in saving lives in the early days after the cyclone.
When the United States, the richest country in the world, suffered horribly during Hurricane Katrina, the world gave us financial assistance. I first heard about it while in Qatar taking a break from the Iraq War. Our friends in Qatar offered $100 million dollars. Kuwait offered half a billion dollars in cash as well as oil products. United Arab Emirates offered $100 million. Bangladesh offered a million (where does Bangladesh come up with an extra million bucks?). Cambodia: $20,000. India: $5 million. China offered more than $5 million. Sri Lanka – besieged with its own problems – offered $25,000. Nepal, Sri Lanka and Mongolia offered help. And our former enemies in Vietnam offered $100,000. There is no telling how much aid actually reached American victims, but this list of international pledges is stunning: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9282598/
The aftermath of Katrina was another demonstration that our wealth and power cannot protect us from natural disasters (and governmental incompetence). It also demonstrates how the rest of the world can come to our aid when we need help. And instead of hurting our pride, this assistance was greatly appreciated.
But what about Myanmar? International donors were trying to get in the country, but the junta was prohibiting aid workers, doctors, journalists, and other foreigners from entering the worst zones of the Irrawaddy River delta, where entire villages had been obliterated. Stories of homeless orphans were coming out of Myanmar, as children had lost their parents and their homes at the same time. According to the various private, informed reports that I saw, the majority of the killed and missing were women and children. The only real source of support for the people were the Buddhist monks, as well as aid from within the country from private citizens, who though still largely poor, were observing the time-honored national tradition of giving aid to those less fortunate. Much of this private assistance has been coordinated through religious organizations, the only truly legitimate civil society structure left in Myanmar. In this case it was the Buddhist monasteries, since the affected area is almost 100 percent Buddhist. The monks and other community leaders were distributing what aid they could get, taking in orphans, and silently standing up to the government through their actions, showing solidarity with the people of the Irrawaddy delta. The junta responded with more venom, and now even aid from private Burmese citizens has been discouraged. A number of leading organizers were arrested, including the high-profile political satirist U Zarganar.
I followed events in Myanmar through the news and my own sources. Then I got a call from Singapore, asking me to get to Thailand immediately -- a small relief/reconnaissance team was assembling to head into the Irrawaddy delta. There were unsubstantiated reports that the Myanmar government had warned that any foreigners heading into the delta would face a $3,000 fine, and five years in prison. A number of rumors circulated about arrests and a further clampdown on information from the region, as well as continued restriction of access to the cyclone-affected area. I have known the leader of the relief team for some twenty five years. He asked if I would take a chance and slip into the delta and bring the news home. Over the past couple years, my friend has been awarded about $100 million dollars worth of construction and other contracts in conflict zones. He had been traveling to Myanmar for nearly a decade, bringing back news of the junta, but also the simple and very friendly people who had won his respect and fondness. He had been in Myanmar just before Cyclone Nargis.
A day after getting the phone call, I was on a jet. Soon I was in Thailand. On 9 June, I went to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok to apply for a visa, but when the government worker behind the glass learned I was American, he nearly slammed the window shut. The man would not consider issuing me a visa; he never looked at my application, even though others were getting visas.
My friend decided to push in alone. But though he’s an outstanding international businessman, he’s a terrible photographer, and this story needs to be told with pictures. So just hours before he was to board the flight into Myanmar, I gave him forty five minutes of camera instruction. Now, mind you, that’s like giving forty five minutes of flying lessons to someone on the tarmac, and then saying “Good luck!” He also packed $15,000 in cash to bring some initial aid to those who have not been reached at all (of course, they need much more), but the primary mission was to do a serious reconnaissance and bring back information to the world.
His photographs will be published in my next dispatch: The River, Part II: JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS. These pictures say more than words can ever convey.
In the meantime, for more information about Myanmar, please visit: