Burma cyclone survivors struggle on

Six months after Cyclone Nargis slammed into army-ruled Burma, killing more than 130 000 people, many in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta continue to rely on handouts to stay alive.

“We get rice and beans from a charity called Care Burma, drinking water from the sky and fish from this creek,” said Maung Oo, a swarthy 51-year-old, as he stared at monsoon floodwaters lapping against his makeshift bamboo and tarpaulin hut.

Around the village, 40km south of Rangoon, the paddy fields are under water and unplanted, casting doubt on assertions from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that 97% of storm-hit parts of the delta—once the “rice bowl of Asia”—is under cultivation again.

“We can’t wait to grow our own paddy. We really hate living on charity—although that is not to say we are not grateful,” Maung Oo said.

“We don’t want to depend on others, but to be honest, that’s just wishful thinking at the moment because the situation does not allow us to be independent as yet,” he said.

It may be another four weeks before he can start planting, he added.

The rough monsoon season weather in the delta in the last four months has also kept the villagers on edge, every storm stirring up fears of a repeat of the May 2 cyclone that crashed ashore with a 4m wall of water.

“We get scared to death when it’s windy so we now keep a radio handy all the time so that we can know the size of the danger by listening to the weather report,” his wife, Ma Nu, said, holding up a basic battery-powered wireless set.

Another farmer, 70-year-old Bo Sein, complained that rice seed handed out for replanting was a mixture of varieties that ripen at different times, making it a nightmare to harvest.

“Maybe it’s because they came from different sources, but as a result while some plants are ready to harvest others are still not ripe,” he said.

Homes for the favoured
Even though most of the estimated 2,4-million people affected by the cyclone have received little official assistance, a few new homes built by private donors under the aegis of the ruling military junta have sprung up from the devastation.

In some cases, however, they have gone to those with the best connections, rather than the most pressing needs.

“Not all the needy got houses and not all those who got houses were needy,” said one resident of Latkhitegon, a village south of Rangoon that has received ten new wooden homes.

“Five of them had their homes really badly damaged by Nargis. The other five did not suffer that much damage, but they got the houses because they are the VIPs,” the man, who did not wish to be name for fear of reprisals, said.

Thayet Thonebin, a village south of Rangoon where half the 340 residents were killed, have fared better in the rehabilitation lottery, receiving 32 new homes courtesy of the Energy Ministry and Malaysian petroleum company Petronas.

However, survivors are still haunted by a sense of shame at relying on handouts and hopelessness at a lack of jobs or prospects.

“We are really ashamed by having to live on the charity all the time.
We now have to depend on them for rice,” said labourer Maung Tun.

“People like me have been worst hit. The cyclone has crippled the economy in the entire region and there is very little work for us,” he said.—Reuters

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