The catastrophic cyclone

I think it is time for me to return to blogging and doing what I can to bring awareness to Burma.

I recently wrote to my college newspaper, the Daily Bruin, the following letter to the editor:

As a Burmese American and a member of the global society we all live in, it is imperative that all of us take any measures possible to make the world a better place—doing what we can.

The silence of the Daily Bruin (aside from recycled wire reports) on the recent cyclone in Burma which has killed over 100,000 and made homeless more than a million people in Burma, has dismayed me.  To put it in perspective, the cyclone has killed 100 times as many people as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005.  The epic scale of this tragedy, coupled with the military junta’s reluctance and paranoia to allow foreign aid of any kind, despite the unimaginable outpouring of assistance by the United States, the United Nations and other countries, is unfathomable.

While the survivors languish from disease outbreaks because of poor sanitation, floating corpses, destroyed homes and lack of water and nourishment, the Burmese junta has decided to focus its energy and resources on less urgent matters, namely a constitutional referendum that will legitimize its place in the highest echelons of Burmese government.

What makes me shudder most is, despite the stories that come out from Burma every hour and the nearly universal access to Internet among college students, many are unaware and oblivious of what is happening to the millions on the brink of starvation, malaria, cholera, diarrhea and ultimately, death.

What Burma needs most is aid, in the form of money, medical, food and water supplies.  Only ten percent of the cyclone survivors have received aid in any form, and the Burmese military junta, which cannot sustain its own people in the best of times, surely cannot tackle this catastrophe on its own.

For over four decades, the world, including we Americans, have watched the military decimate the nation by ethnic genocide, slavery, and repression by violent means, in complete silence.  But now is not the time to tackle the political issues Burma faces.  But it is our responsibility to do all we can to help in the humanitarian crisis that the survivors, people like you and me, face.

(Aung Htin Kyaw)
First-year, biology

(Probably due to the newspaper’s style guide, my language was subdued, and Burma became Myanmar upon publication.)

Cyclone Nargis, which ravaged the heart of Burma’s rice production center at the beginning of May, has not disappeared. As we approach the month of June, millions of cyclone victims have not been reached with aid. Than Shwe, after meeting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for 2 hours, allowed aid workers of “all nationalities” to enter the country. Yet, yesterday, the visa department at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, burst into flames (link). How convenient, considering Thailand is UN’s transit center for aid into the country.

Despite the tremendous death toll and scale of devastation, most of the people I know do not know about the cyclone. It is a sad truth. In this case, the Sichuan earthquake, a natural disaster in which has killed almost 70,000 people, is more widely known. The UCLA chancellor, for one, committed one meager sentence to Burma in his statement on the recent natural disasters (link).

It is true that politics should be disregarded at this crucial point, in recovery and reconstruction. But dealing with such a corrupt group of military men requires another approach. Perhaps Burmese people are pessimistic, but what they have to say may hold some truth. To my family and friends from Burma, what they have said is “The aid supplies will just be sent to the VIPs as home deliveries;” “Soldiers and bureaucrats will sell the goods on the black market;” “The money will go straight into the generals’ coffers.” Luckily nobody is stupid enough to hand over $10 billion USD to the government–according to the latest reports, the aid conference in Rangoon raised $50 million USD. But news reports, unpublicized in English language media for the most part, has shown that aid supplies have been diverted time and time again.

And the world chorus says that politics must not be brought up in such a time of need. Yet for the government, the opposite is true. The constitutional referendum went on as planned and the approval rate (and the turnout rate, even in the delayed Irrawaddy delta region, where many voters were missing or dead) was falsified. All things people expected. But today, Aung San Suu Kyi is up for release. The glimmer of hope still remains that she will one day be released. But as for this year, she will not, according to the news, as her house arrest was extended, probably through manipulation of existing laws.

But it’s not a time for politics. Time is ticking.

There’s a saying in Burmese: “Rice is worth 7 days of one’s life; water is worth 1 morning of one’s life” (Htamin a-thek kwe-hna yek yei a-thek ta ma-nek). How much longer can the survivors cling onto life?

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