Frustrated Burmese Organize Aid Forays

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 21, 2008

RANGOON -- Seven weeks after huge swaths of Burma were savaged by a cyclone and tidal wave, a new and remarkable citizen movement is delivering emergency supplies to survivors neglected by the military government's haphazard relief effort.

The scores of ad hoc Burmese groups, many of them based here in the country's largest city, are not overtly political. But they are reviving a kind of social activism that has been largely repressed by successive military rulers here.

Defying roadblocks and bureaucratic obstruction, volunteers have reached devastated villages in many parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, dropping off food, drinking water and other essentials and bringing back photos that contradict claims in the state media that life is returning to normal.

Some members of the groups say they hope to keep working together when the cyclone damage is finally repaired and turn toward other activities that carry shades of political activism in this tightly controlled state.

With residents' frustration over the official relief effort mounting, pledges of support and donations to the National League for Democracy, the main opposition group in Burma, also called Myanmar, have doubled since the cyclone, according to a student leader of the league.

The storm, which came ashore on the night of May 2-3, killed an estimated 134,000 people and created severe hardship for 2.4 million more. The country's deeply xenophobic junta turned aside many offers of foreign help, agreeing to let in substantial numbers of international aid workers only after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon flew to the country May 22 with a personal appeal.

By then, however, homegrown groups were already mobilized, working to offset the tragic shortcomings of the government operation.

Down a street lined with gold and ruby merchants, where dealers charm clients over tiny tables set with tea and chess, employees in the back room of a gem shop one recent morning were swapping evidence: photos of rotten government food handouts.

A week earlier, people in the shops said, more than a dozen local jewelers had loaded 100 bags of rice, 20 bags of beans, tarpaulins and blankets onto a truck donated by a supplier and set off at midnight for the storm-ravaged town of Labutta.

They returned with photos of homeless villagers lining up for tins of food at a makeshift camp, a tear-stained boy who, they said, had lost his entire family to the storm's fierce tidal surge, and rotten rice -- yellow, fist-size chunks of it, piled like rocks in bags donated by the government-affiliated Myanmar Red Cross.

"When I saw what they were being fed, I was shaking I was so angry," said a shop assistant, 26, narrating each photo as she passed it to a customer.

The informal organizations are often based on occupation. Artists, doctors, students and the gem dealers have formed separate groups. In other cases, the groups are made up of friends coming together to help.


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