Thursday, August 14, 2008

BURMA AFTER NARGIS: A Firsthand Report

By Lakshmi Ganesh

A lawyer goes to Myanmar on a relief mission and learns about contentment

On 2nd May 2008 Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar’s capital city of Yangon and a large portion of the Ayerawaddy delta region. The storm raged for over 10 hours. An estimated 200,000 people died and an estimated 2.5 million others were affected. Although detailed statistics are not available and information not verifiable, I was informed that in some villages the population of 20,000 had been reduced to 500 odd.

As soon as first reports started trickling in, a need for humanitarian aid relief became obvious. Attempts were made by many to apply for visas from the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for permission enter Myanmar and provide medical and other relief. Initial attempts were fruitless.

Meanwhile the media and television were flooded with reports that offers of relief from first world countries had been declined by the military junta in Myanmar while victims were perishing in the rains which were lashing relentlessly.

Efforts to get past the red tape continued. Eventually there was light and I left for Myanmar under the banner of the Sathya Sai Baba Central Council of Malaysia to provide humanitarian aid. In the intervening period between 2nd May and 10th June when I eventually left, I had received all kinds of horrendous reports – villages wiped out, dead bodies of people and animals rotting in the fields, villagers in refugee camps being asked to leave and return to their villages after one week, and so on.

So I arrived in Yangon expecting a nightmare. What I saw and experienced was something else altogether, so much so I began to wonder about the accuracy of the Western dominated media - and whose vested interests they were serving.

I had last been to Yangon in 2003. At that time it was a sad city rotting in every corner. But the Yangon I saw this time was very different. There were new buildings, wide new roads and most existing buildings had a new coat of paint. And the city was rather clean! Has some good come out of Cyclone Nargis, I wondered.

The only signs that suggested that there had been a cyclone were fallen trees. And there were many fallen trees. In every compound, there were fallen trees. Most people had cut the trees that had fallen but were keeping the wood. The huge roots which lay on the surface had not been removed.

I heard from the people that though many big trees fell, few fell on homes and buildings. For some unfathomable reason, they had fallen away from the buildings thereby minimising damage to property. Consequently there was little loss of life.

The Sathya Sai Baba Central Council of Malaysia had been given permission to go into the Delta area to provide aid. The Council was also hoping to be allowed to build a village for the affected people and so we were working on that as well. Towards this objective, we met many people. What we learnt from these people bowled us over. Each and every person was involved in some kind of relief work. Yes the people of Myanmar were using whatever resources they had to provide food, shelter and medicines for their fellow countrymen who had been affected by the Cyclone. And corporations had been allotted areas in which they had to re-build schools and buildings which had been damaged. Every monastry/ temple was also undertaking relief work.

So help was underway. The affected were not perishing as reported in the media. And I later found out that the people in the villages actually caught and ate frogs and snakes which were abundant in the paddy fields!

We went shopping to purchase essential items for a refugee camp in Laputta which was one of the worst hit areas. We took over 2,000,000 kyats with us in a paper bag to the market. At every stall, we took the money out, counted it and paid for our purchases. Everything was done openly. Everyone could see how much money we were carrying. I was terrified of being robbed but our local guide was unperturbed. She said the crime rate was low and there is no fear of snatch thefts. In fact the women wear quite a bit of jewelry. I asked myself when was the last time I felt safe wearing jewelry or carrying money and walking in the streets of Kuala Lumpur?

In the market I found the shopkeepers reducing prices and also donating items for the affected people. It was so very touching. I noticed that the shopowners complement one another rather than compete with one another. Really an attitude of let all survive. Ask them a question and they directed me to the right shop. No one attempted to push his or her wares on to me. There was none of this “come buy from me, I'll give you a better deal than my friend next door” attitude. It seemed to me I had a lot to learn from them – does capitalism make us more selfish?

And the trip to the Delta – oohhh my God! And ohhh my aching back! The distance of 180 miles (yes they haven't gone metric, and rice is still sold in bushels……) was covered in 9½ hours. Yes you read right. It took us 9½ hours. We left at 4 a.m. and arrived at 1.30 p.m. Why did it take so long – because the roads were basically laterite roads. The metalled roads ended about two hours (or 50 miles out of Yangon).

All along the way, again the only visible signs of damage were fallen trees and new roofs. The houses are basically wood/bamboo with thatch roof. Almost every house we saw had a new thatch roof and new “walls.” Some houses had plastic sheets instead of thatch roofs and walls. Otherwise there were no visible signs of damage. And the fields were not inundated.

Along the way wherever we stopped, people slowly came out and stood on the roadside some distance away from our vehicles. They said nothing and asked for nothing but when offered some food items, they quietly accepted. No one even came close enough to our vehicles to look inside.

Just about one hour away from Laputta, there were no more settlements or houses and the fields were inundated. Is this what we saw from the air? We don’t know. But we did from the air see vast inundated areas which looked like flooded paddy fields and which had no signs that there had even been any kind of habitation. We saw no remains of any villages from the air.

It was really pouring cats and dogs when we got to the temporary camp at Laputta. Naked children were happily playing in the rain without a care. There too no one came up to our vehicles to ask for anything. As has been widely reported, everything has to go through the military. We reported to the camp commandant. He looked through our papers and said he would call the community leaders to gather in one tent and we could then distribute our supplies to them. In pouring rain, the men came up to our vehicles and unloaded all our supplies which by the grace of God we had packed in plastic bags (we had purchased an assortment of personal items and packed it into bags - one bag per family. From my experience in Banda Aceh, I knew that people in relief camps need waterproof bags in which to keep their personal effects and so we had provided them with the waterproof bags).

Pampered as we are, we were wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas while these hardy people were walking around in the rain in their wet sarongs (or lungyis as they are called in Myanmar) with no shirt and sometimes no slippers. It was all just too heart-breaking. By the time the distribution was over, the rain had let up. We walked around the camp and looked into the tents. People welcomed us but never asked for anything. There was also a class in session in one of the larger tents. Within a short while we saw people walking with the bag of ‘goodies’ we had given. The community leaders had wasted no time in distributing the relief items. Only one little boy indicated that he was hungry but we could not give him anything as we didn’t have enough for everyone. This is the really tough part about aid work – not having enough for everyone.

The return journey was just as torturous. I began to vomit by the time we got back. Having made the trip to the Delta and seen conditions first hand I had so many questions to which I had no answers – where were the settlements which had been wiped out, where were the displaced people, where did any one get the statistics from?

No foreigner can undertake any kind of work in Myanmar without the permission of the military. And there is one more condition, all work has to be through a Myanmar registered corporation. And every large corporation in Myanmar has been allotted a village or a small town which they have to rebuild. So rather than depend on foreign aid, they are doing it themselves. Corporate Social Responsibility in action!

There was a guest in the hotel where I was staying who is a Malaysian from Sibu. He had been in Yangon on the day the cyclone struck. He talked about his experience. He said the glass doors in the lobby of the hotel had been shattered by the force of the wind. He had gone out after a few hours and seen the military in action removing the fallen trees. He had also been to the Delta 2 weeks after the cyclone to distribute essential items. He said that the company he worked for had been expected (like all other corporations doing business in Myanmar) to provide aid. He had the same questions I had. So how many people really died? How many villages had been wiped out? We may never know.

One of the Sai Baba devotees I met in Yangon is a doctor. She remarked that the hospitals had been expecting an increase in water borne diseases (diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, etc) but to their surprise, there was no increase. She said it must be because the people are so uncomplaining. And their basic attitude was one of gratitude – to be grateful for whatever they had.

The other members of the Sathya Sai Baba Central Council of Malaysia left after a week. I stayed on in a meditation centre where I had an introduction to some of the Trustees. I spent one week in the centre called “Dhamma Jyoti.” The trustees were also involved in relief work, as a centre and individually.

I was taken to a village named Pyaw Byi Gyi which is just about one hour out of Yangon. First we took a ferry across the Yangon River. Man was the ferry a moving dustbin. It was so dirty and full of betel leaf spittle - a lot of people chew betel leaf and spit the remnants everywhere. Yecchhh! (In the first version of this story, I thought this habit of betel leaf chewing was as a result of the Indian influence but my niece corrected me. Seems betel leaf chewing has been a practice since the 11th century. Can’t blame the Indians!) Loads of people and their wares seem to travel from one shore to the other. I never found out if it was possible to go by road.

More surprises were in store when I got to the other shore. I got out with a sea of humanity and what do I see – Indian men selling jelebis ( an orange coloured sweet). It was just so ludicrous – the place is wet and slushy, there are people everywhere and no shortage of flies and in the midst of all this, vendors selling an Indian delicacy. And cut pineapples! Luckily I am old enough to not be foolhardy enough to venture to eat anything from a street vendor.

From the jetty we had to travel to the village – there were two options, by jeep or by motorbike. Since it would take time for the jeep to have sufficient passengers, we went by motorbike. To say the least it was quite an adventure for someone who has been on a motorbike maybe twice in all her life. As usual the metal road gave away after about 10 minutes and we were on a laterite road which was full of potholes, actually I should say there was a small road in between the potholes!

Again the only visible signs of the cyclone were fallen trees and new roofs. Almost every house had a new roof. There was at the meditation centre a young man named Kanta (he is of Nepali origin but born in Myanmar) who spoke good Malay as he had been working in Malaysia for 4 years. He was my translator/interpreter as most people speak little English and no Malay.

At the village, I went to a school with Daw Hwtee Hwtee and we gave out exercise books, stationery, raincoats, umbrellas, uniforms, and so on. The teachers had previously been asked to identify the students whose parents were too poor to afford new uniforms. All students received stationery. The school was sitting in the middle of an inundated field. But this was not the work of Nargis. Every rainy season, the fields get flooded. But Nargis had blown off half of the school. And the half that remained was not really in a great condition but again I was told it had already been like this before Nargis. All the students were squeezed into the remaining classrooms.

It was really lovely looking at the kids – most of them come to school with copious amounts of tanaka on their faces. Tanaka is a tree, the trunk is ground into a paste which is then liberally applied on the face to keep the skin smooth and cool. They looked so cute and they were full of smiles and laughter. I walked through the village (estimated population 5,000) but again no one asked for anything. Look into the front door of a house and you can see straight out into the back. They have no possessions, having lost everything in the cyclone. (I was told that to start off with they had very few possessions.) This village had received no aid and people had somehow just rebuilt their homes with whatever money they had and whatever materials they could find. And what they could not afford and any medical aid needed, was trickling in through the efforts of people like Daw Hwtee Hwtee who had been born in that village and still had family living there.

Our return journey was another new adventure. This time since there were no motorcycles available, we had to travel by jeep. Daw Hwtee Hwtee said sit in front, it is very uncomfortable behind. I decided hey I can handle this, I am no softy and got into the back. Two minutes, and I was screaming – stop, stop! I thought my intestines were going to come out through my mouth – the ride was so rough. Tucked in my tail and my wounded ego and got into the front.

I went back to the village two days later. Again ferry and jeep – I sat in front only to find that the jeep had no door! I hung onto some kind of strap for dear life. This time we distributed rice. Daw Hwtee Hwtee’s sisters had identified 140 families who were really poor. Numbers were given out to them and they came one by one to collect their 2 bushels of rice. There was no pushing, no cheating, no disorder, no asking for more... nothing.

People came carrying old lungyis, old bags, small little containers in which to take back the rice. One little girl came in a dress that was made from an old sack. At that point I had to do everything I could to not burst into tears. The little girl was laughing and smiling as were most of the other people. The only person who made some noise was a man who was drunk. Each person received his or her share with much humility and so much gratitude.

I met people who had few material possessions. Yet they were uncomplaining about their lot in life. In fact they were all full of smiles and the joy of life. A cycle rickshaw rider who earns a few cents for each ride, decorates his vehicle with fresh flowers. They still have time to smell the roses. It seems to me that we have forgotten how to be happy in our quest for material possessions. How much there is to learn from them.

The people of Myanmar went out of their way to do things for me. Daw Hwtee Hwtee made puris for me. She is of Chinese descent, born and brought up in Myanmar and yet she knew how to cook puris (deep-fried Indian bread made from wheat flour) and a potato curry to go with it. She must have gotten up really early to cook as we met at the jetty at 7.30 a.m. The cook in Dhamma Joti, a Myanmar lady called Yin (her actual name if I remember right is Rubayah), made thosais for me. She has never been out of Myanmar. Another lady in Dhamma Joti bought tanaka for me. Someone else bought mangoes for me. Yet another person went out of her way to buy yogurt for me as she knew Indians like yogurt. Everyone I met wanted to do something for me or give me gifts simply for the joy of giving. How can I describe this attitude and what it is like to live in an attitude of gratitude?

I came away humbled by the experience. Who are we (by ‘we’ I mean the rest of the world) to interfere with their way of life? And to complain about lack of human rights, and so on? Or about the lack of “development” as we know it? When was the last time we went out of our way to open our hearts or houses to a stranger? When was the last time we felt contented with our lot in life?

Lakshmi Ganesh

The writer practiced law for 25 years and is now a full-time humanitarian aid worker.

Postscript: The Sathya Sai Baba Central Council of Malaysia has been given permission by the Myanmar government to build a village comprising 50 houses (costing USD1,200 each); 1 school and 1 temple (each costing USD5,000) in a designated area in the Ayerawaddy Delta. If you would like more to know more about the project please email the writer.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?


A must-see for every parent and teacher. Education guru Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining (and profoundly moving) case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity, rather than undermining it. Sir Ken Robinson is author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and a leading expert on innovation in education and business.

Recorded February, 2006 in Monterey, CA. More TEDTalks at

[Thanks to Lily Fu @ PeakSpeak for bringing this important message to my attention!]