Burmese Struggle to Rebuild

Burma's volunteer groups are helping villagers return to their land in the Irrawaddy delta in a bid to kick-start a rice harvest amid severe food shortages that linger in cyclone-hit areas. Relief still isn't reliably available to all, with at least 1 million people still falling between the cracks.

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Victims of Tropical Cyclone Nargis crouch under a makeshift shelter.

BANGKOK—Burmese are struggling to rebuild temporary shelters in the cyclone-hit villages of the Irrawaddy delta, where some villagers are desperate to begin the new rice harvest amid severe shortages of food and fresh water.

Others say supplies of food and water remain unreliable despite an increase in the number of foreign aid agencies allowed into the country.

“Villagers want to go back to their villages,” a young man volunteering to build “budget houses” for villagers to stay in together during the harvest said.

“If they don’t work in their fields, they won’t be able to work in their fields in the following years...We started supporting them with the things they need, and at first they didn’t want to build individual houses for them,” said the man, whose group had drawn up the quick-build designs specially to house a small proportion of village residents.

More than 1 million survivors from Tropical Cyclone Nargis are still languishing without foreign aid, camped out in makeshift shelters with scant help from the government, after the storm ripped through the low-lying lands of the southwest on May 2-3, leaving 133,000 people dead or missing.

“Timber is expensive,” the volunteer said. “It’s not done immediately. It’s raining all the time. So we need something that can be built easily and quickly,” he said. “That’s why we drew up these designs and are helping them.”

He said around 10 houses each sheltering 10-15 people in three small rooms had already been built in two villages, without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Self-built shelters

“They contribute their own labor since we don’t want them to feel that we are giving them everything for free. They have to build these houses on their own,” the volunteer worker said.

While the secretive military regime has now granted the last 45 pending visas to U.N. staffers, and Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have sent more than 14 workers in recent days into the delta region, Burmese on the ground still say aid isn’t getting through in a reliable manner.

“Since I have nowhere to live, I’m just staying at the monastery, and the followers of the monks are donating bags of rice and clothing,” a woman taking refuge in a Rangoon monastery said. “They donate everything including footwear.”

“I heard water bottles and Yan-yan noodle packages had been distributed to other pregnant women,” a pregnant woman in the same monastery said. “When I got there, it was too crowded...They were giving out boiled rice,” she said.

“So I lined up to get some boiled rice. They said I would get it only if I had a bowl. I had escaped with nothing, and since I had no bowl, I didn’t get to eat all day,” she said.

One man said morale among storm victims was extremely low, even among those who had made it to the camps, as police treated them roughly aboard government boats and buses.

Mistreatment reported

“All the way, we didn’t get to drink any water,” the man said. “We had to be on the roof with no shirts on our backs. When the boat approached the shore, the police were rude to us...We were treated like prisoners. They were yelling at us.”

On arrival at Laputta, little was done, and no food or water was given out there, either, he said of his recent journey.

“The victims were just wandering around. Some knew no one there, so if they saw a monastery, they just entered it,” he said. “We could not remain in Laputta any longer. If we did, we would starve and die.”

Eventually, some food was handed out, he said. “We had water and boiled rice. Even then, it wasn’t regular. They, however, were eating biryani and drinking alcohol from Rum bottles.”

The junta only agreed to allow foreign aid workers in after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with leader senior general Than Shwe last weekend.

Thousands of refugees from the Laputta area are now being held in camps around Myaung Mya and Pathein. Those under government control have their freedom of movement restricted, one woman in the area said.

 Christian group steps in

“Things were not going well in the villages at all, and that’s why people came up to the cities,” she said.

“There’s no water. There’s only salt water. The stench from the dead bodies was so terrible that some couldn’t stay there anymore...Some men remained behind in the village - to rebuild the village,” she said, adding that the Pathein refugees were being fed by a religious charity called the Karen Baptist Convention.

“Foreigners are not allowed. Only local people went, so there wasn’t any problem. But if foreigners do go there, they won’t give them permission,” the woman said.

“Previously, they were kept in a Christian compound. But later, the government moved them to state high schools. However, only the Christians are feeding all of these people.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies have launched a U.S.$28 million plan to curb disease outbreaks and improve medical care in Burma over the next six months.

According to Eric Laroche, WHO assistant director-general, who is heading a coalition of more than 40 organizations, the May 2-3 cyclone destroyed about 50 percent of health facilities in Burma. The joint plan intends to replace the destroyed facilities and “build a health care system that can withstand any future natural disasters,” he said.

The military regime said Thursday that its new constitution had been “confirmed and enacted” after a referendum held earlier this month amid the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. State television, reading a statement by junta leader Than Shwe, said that 92.48 percent of voters had endorsed the charter.

Voter turnout was 98.12 percent, it said.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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