BANGKOK—A voluntary group financed by several Burmese celebrities from screen and media industries says it is turning its attention to providing psychological help to some of the millions of survivors of Cyclone Nargis.
Former political prisoner and sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe said his group, which includes comedian Zargana and movie actor Kyaw Thu, was now training young people in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta area to provide emotional support to cyclone victims struggling to rebuild their lives.
“Announcements were made that anyone could go and provide help to the victims, and the rest of the people are going around together and donating,” Zaw Thet Htwe said, referring to previous restrictions on private voluntary relief efforts by ordinary Burmese and religious charities.
“So now we can stop our efforts there. People are going there to donate rice, oil, biscuits, and dried noodles. Everyone can do this, so we are thinking of filling the gaps,” he said.
With thousands of refugees crowded into makeshift camps in cities in the cyclone-hit region, the authorities have proven highly reluctant to allow international disaster relief workers into the area, although the United Nations says a rather patchy relief effort is now operating.
People lose ‘normal minds’
They have also put bureaucratic obstacles in the way of private groups and individuals wishing to donate to help those whose families, homes and farmland have often been totally destroyed by the storm and its associated sea surges.
Zaw Thet Htwe was once handed a death sentence for alleged conspiracy and high treason, though his trial was widely seen as an attack on the success of his soccer publication First Eleven and its independent editorial line. He was later released after serving a jail term.
He said it was important now to help people to reclaim their normal mental abilities, as many still appeared shell-shocked by the extent of the disaster.
“What we saw was that when people were lining up, there were people standing with arms akimbo, with no interest in the rice or oil, staring into space,” he said.
“If there was a bit of sad news, they’d cry a lot. When faced with a disaster this big, where they lost their family members, there were those who couldn’t even remember their names. When I saw them, I knew that it was really important to rehabilitate their minds,” he added.
Western-style psychiatry is rare in Burma, where the country’s strong Buddhist faith encourages people to turn to the monasteries to ease the psychological pressures of their lives. Only a handful of psychiatrists exists per 100,000 head of population.
Rice harvest crucialZaw Thet Htwe said people were mostly worried about the closing window for the summer rice planting, which must be completed by the end of the month.
“They said with our current condition in rainy season, they cannot delay more than two or three weeks to plough their land and grow rice,” he said. “So we will try to get them back to their workplace and get them back to their normal minds.”
“We had to rely a lot on the monks. We need to give them and the volunteers the right direction,” he said, adding that the group planned to run workshops to train volunteers, and then send them out to the cyclone-hit areas.
“Mental health experts have given us advice. We’ll give short-term training to the very active youth. We’ll tell them, 'When we go to this village, we’ll do these things,' and we’ll go there. [We] will give time and stay there and talk to them,” Zaw Thet Htwe said.
“If the results are good, we will share our experience with the relief groups and urge them to continue this work. This is what I have in mind.”
Zaw Thet Htwe said his group had expanded rapidly to encompass more than 400 volunteers, including performing artists, writers, editors, and journalists, volunteer youth and monks, along with donors from numerous monasteries.
Movie actor Ko Thiha also mobilized large numbers of fellow entertainers and close friends by showing them video of the worst-hit areas taken on a trip to the outskirts of Rangoon shortly after Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit.
"I showed them the video that I took. There were dead bodies and faces of people who were devastated, and small children. When I showed them those pictures, everyone shed tears. They all participated on their own," he said.
"Now I don't have to say much. Every morning, they are all going there as if it's their duty."
He said the celebrity status of many of the volunteers meant they met with better cooperation from local officials than religious, charitable or individual donors had done. Once the government had determined they weren't acting on behalf of any political party, they had mostly left them alone, he added.
"When we started penetrating those areas, we had confrontations. We had to talk to the regional authorities. But one thing is that all of us are artists, and since we're known by the public, it went well when we had to negotiate with them. Some provided protection," he said.
But officials still regard celebrity donors with suspicion. Sources in Rangoon said comedian Zargana, also part of the relief effort, was interrogated by Burmese special branch police on Wednesday.
Relief effort still 'too slow'
Burma’s military rulers have denied that there have been any delays to cyclone aid, but the United Nations has warned the operation to help the 2.4 million survivors was still moving too slowly, one month after the disaster.
Cyclone Nargis left 133,000 people dead or missing when it ploughed across the country one month ago, laying waste vital farmlands and wiping villages off the map.
International aid workers were slowly admitted to the worst-affected areas only after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid a personal visit here to meet with junta leader Than Shwe.
The United Nations says that about 1.3 million people out of the 2.4 million affected by the cyclone have now received some form of foreign aid.
Official Burmese media reported that sea water has now been removed from farmland, and that farmers are beginning to plough rice fields for the summer harvest.
“[Burma] was able to successfully carry out the relief and rehabilitation operation in a short time although it was hit hard by the severe storm,” the government's New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
Original reporting by May Pyone Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.