Farmers Await Food Aid After Myanmar Cyclone

null|The New York Times

The roads of the ravaged Irrawaddy Delta are lined these days with people hoping to be fed.

After lifetimes living off the land, poor farmers have abandoned their ruined rice paddies, setting up makeshift bamboo shelters, waiting for carloads of Burmese civilians who have taken it on themselves to feed those who lost everything to Cyclone Nargis.

Few of those who wait say they have received anything from the government, other than threats.

A village damaged by Cyclone Nargis is seen Thursday, May 22, 2008 in an aerial view over the Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar from the helicopter carrying United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. (AP Photo/United Nations, Evan Schneider)
Evan Schneider

“They said if we don’t break our huts and disappear, they will shoot us,” one man in the village of Thee Kone said over the weekend before a police jeep approached. “But as you can see, it’s raining now. We are pleading to the police to give us one more day and we will be gone far, far from the road, as they wish.”

A red sign on a stake along one road read: “Don’t throw food on the roads. It ruins the people’s good habits.”

On Sunday, donors from more than 50 countries and international agencies meeting in Yangon promised they would deliver more than $150 million in aid to help the country recover from the May 3 storm, The Associated Press reported, but only if they could get access to hard-hit areas like the delta. It remained unclear if Myanmar’s rulers were willing to meet that demand.

At the donor conference, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s prime minister, said that international aid was welcome, “provided that there are no strings attached,” according to news agencies that were allowed to send reporters to the meeting.

The conference also made clear a gap remained between the views of the government and the donors on what Myanmar needed most urgently.

The government, which insists that the emergency phase of the disaster is over, showed a video suggesting the country had enough rice, and that what it needed instead was billions of dollars for long-term reconstruction. Some analysts fear that the focus on rebuilding is a ploy.

“I believe they just want to use it for their ordinary activity, put it into their accounts and use it to buy weapons or houses or whatever they would like to do,” Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar with Rutgers University, said in a recent interview.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he believed that short-term help was a priority, with hundreds of thousands left homeless and aid reaching only a fraction of those who needed it. “The needs remain acute,” Mr. Ban said Sunday, “from clean water and sanitation to shelter, medical supplies and food.”

The breadth of those needs was evident during a trip on Friday and Saturday to the delta, the area most devastated by the storm, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing. It also ruined rice fields and destroyed stocks of rice in flooding that followed.

Villagers in the region, which previously provided much of the rice for the country of 48 million, now squat along miles of roads, holding out bowls to the occasional passing cars bringing food and other supplies. Children keep a vigil, rushing to the vehicles for handouts, sometimes thrusting their arms inside the cars’ windows.

“I don’t know how the government is helping us,” said Ko Htay Oo, 40, in Kungyangon, a delta town 30 miles south of Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. He said the only aid he had seen was delivered by other Burmese citizens.

“I am no beggar, so I didn’t eat anything in the past two days,” he said, leaning against a roadside palm tree. “Besides, you shouldn’t compete with kids for begged food.”

Those who have gotten government help say it is not nearly enough.

U Min Lwin, 37, said his family had received a government ration only twice in the three weeks since the storm; each time they were given seven cups of rice.

A 51-year-old woman who gave her name as San said she recently received potatoes and a small amount of beans from the government but had no stove for cooking them.

Some people have been given government-issued tents, but the tents can accommodate only a small fraction of those left homeless.

In the village of Thee Kone near Pyapon, a major town in the delta, victims said that the village had received four tents that house 20 people each. Any family lucky enough to find tent space had received 16 cups of rice in the past week, a little more than two cups a day.

“There are many other families who want to move into the tents, but there is not enough space,” said the villager who spoke of the police intimidation. “So people complain. They complain not to the government or to the village administrator, but to each other, arguing, ‘Why are you in the tent and I am not?’ ”

He and others had built their own shelters by the road, but it was unclear where they would go after the police told them to leave Friday.

Those and other makeshift dwellings that have popped up on the roadsides are barely sufficient to shield people from the searing morning sun or the monsoon rains that sweep in to drench the area most afternoons.

Many of those who moved to the roadsides are the poorest of Burmese farmers, those who rent rice paddies from landlords. Before the storm, they traveled with their buffaloes, ducks and pigs from field to field, living in huts beside their paddies.

Now, as before, they live next to their source of food, with whatever little they were able to salvage from the wall of water that smashed into many parts of the delta.

One man found shelter in a large bamboo basket he had salvaged from the floodwater. Another lived in a tent built with a plastic Tiger Beer advertising banner that a truck driver had thrown to him. Pigs are tied to roadside palm trees. Ducks swim in the nearby ditches.

The roads are littered with plastic trash from the packaging of donated food.

“I have no dish, no cup, no blanket, no pillow. I have received nothing from the government,” said Daw San Mar Oo, 31, a farmer in a hamlet near Dedaye. “I have nothing in my hands.”

Still, the government continues to make it difficult for those wishing to offer private charity. Police officers armed with rifles stopped cars at checkpoints on Friday and Saturday. Foreigners without government permits to enter the disaster zone were turned back after their passports were copied. Those Burmese who were allowed to pass through were given a warning: Any donation, a yellow handout notice said, must be distributed through village leaders allied with the government.

In Pyapon, a commercial hub renowned for its “hpaya” grass mats, people maintained a semblance of traditional Burmese hospitality despite the disaster. When outside visitors asked for directions at dusk, a man offered them food and lodging at his home.

Pyapon, a trading center for rice, dried fish and fish paste, is the hometown of many rich Burmese tradesmen. But in this town, too, tales of horror were told, over evening tea.

“Dead bodies floating down the Pyapon River are no longer strangers to us,” said Daw Khin Kyi, a resident. “Some of these bodies still wear gold necklaces and bracelets, so some people went out to collect them in the first few days. But now, after many days, nobody goes near. Fish are nibbling at the bodies.”

Ma Ye Ye Tan, a 17-year-old from a hamlet down the river, survived the cyclone. She had arrived at the home of a Pyapon relative several days after the cyclone with virtually nothing on, shivering in monsoon rain.

Now, she said, she did want to go back to her village, which is filled with death. She is not sure what happened to her parents.

“After the cyclone came and went, we continued to hear people shouting in the darkness, but when village men went to search for them, they could find no one,” she said. “We think they are ghosts shouting. I am afraid of ghosts.”