Tue 29 Jul 2008
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
THEY stood amid the rubble and ruin of Myanmar’s cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta, handing out supplies and cash directly to the victims of the disaster.
This group of 14 – eight Singaporeans, four Myanmar citizens, a Malaysian and an Australian – were doing what no Singapore group had done since Cyclone Nargis tore through the area on May 3.
The group from the Buddhist Fellowship, led by its president Angie Monksfield, 44, had been warned that Myanmar’s military junta could bar them from giving aid directly to the cyclone victims.
In late May, a 23-member team comprising doctors, nurses and logisticians from Mercy Relief, the Singapore Red Cross and the Health Ministry here, denied access to the delta, had to work from a township about 10 hours away.
But the Buddhist Fellowship group, which made the weekend trip there this month with funds raised by the society and flights paid for by team members themselves, made it past three military checkpoints where travel papers and permits for humanitarian work were scrutinised.
Once at their destination, the fishing village of Myit Pauk, all were struck by how calm and dignified the cyclone victims were, despite what they had been through.
There was no ‘grabbing or rushing’ when the villagers came to receive the total of US $5,000 (S $6,800) and items handed out. These survivors – from 600 families – simply received the items, clasped their hands in thanks and walked away.
Former Nominated Member of Parliament Kanwaljit Soin, 66, who was in the team, said: ‘They didn’t even open the envelope to count the money. They just sat there, dignified.’
All around them, reconstruction had begun, though many houses were still roofless and some were only topped with blue tarpaulin.
Many children were running around barefooted and wearing oversized clothing – a sign that relief supplies had reached the people.
After Myit Pauk, the group went to two nearby villages, Poe Thint and Ton Ngar Se San Set.
Their journey to the delta had been arduous: They met the cyclone victims for all of two hours, but to get there, the group was on a bus for 12 hours. It had crawled along at 20kmh over muddy, unpaved roads from Yangon to Labutta, the southernmost tip of the delta.
On board the bus were 1,000 blankets that the volunteers had lugged over from Singapore, as well as 400 mosquito nets, candles and food items.
Of the 14 people in the group, five were from the SilkAir office in Yangon, which helped coordinate the trip.
Everything went as planned, but there were times when the group thought it might have to turn back, especially at those three checkpoints.
Although 130,000 people were dead or missing and over 2.4 million needed food, water, shelter and medicine, the military junta was unshakeable in its decision, at least in the early days, to bar foreign aid from the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta.
SilkAir’s manager in Yangon Joel Goh, 33, who was in the team, said his staff were crucial in helping him explain to junta officials the purpose of the group’s trip.
Dr Soin said: ‘When we crossed the third checkpoint, everyone cheered and clapped because we felt we had made it.’
Mercy Relief and the Singapore Red Cross, following the mission in late May, have based two Singapore members each in the delta; they work with other aid agencies there distributing supplies.
Mrs Monksfield’s team had wanted to meet the villagers face to face. She said that the team’s donors wanted the supplies handed directly to the people ‘and we were glad we were able to do that’.
She called SilkAir’s office here three weeks before the trip, and they agreed to put her in touch with Mr Goh, who made the travel arrangements and procured the candles, mosquito nets and food for distribution.
After the team was done with its work and was ready to leave, one of the villagers held on to Mr Goh’s arm and walked him to the boat.
Recalled Mr Goh: ‘I think she was just very grateful. The highlight for me were the smiles on their faces when we were leaving the villages.’
Mrs Monksfield added that the villagers also helped to push the boat when it got stuck in the mud.
For Dr Soin, the experience was uplifting.
She said: ‘I was struck by the way the people took their misfortune calmly. And though we could only speak one word in their language, I felt a very beautiful human connection.
‘Mingalar par – may the blessings be with you.’