Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Myanmar bloggers help build 'Budget Huts' for cyclone survivors

LABUTTA, Myanmar (IHT): Bloggers may find their messages blocked by Myanmar's military regime, but that hasn't stopped blogger Nyi Lynn Seck from raising tens of thousands of dollars for cyclone survivors through his Web site.

The 29-year-old IT specialist and his friends are getting their hands dirty and putting the donations to work by helping to build "Budget Huts" in the Irrawaddy delta, a region still reeling from the May 2-3 killer storm.

Days after Cyclone Nargis hit, Nyi Lynn Seck traveled from Yangon to the delta to document the survivors' stories. He posted their accounts and his photographs on his Web journal.

"I have been blogging for quite a long time and many overseas Myanmar citizens read it. They wanted me to go to the delta and help out," he said.

Nyi Lynn Seck quit his job as a manager at a software solutions company to lead six volunteers, including four other bloggers, on a mission to aid villages around Labutta. They have been here since May 9.

He is just one example of a grass-roots movement that has emerged in Myanmar. Many of those doing private relief work are highly critical of the government effort that followed the storm.

Private efforts have filled a lot of gaps in the relief effort, especially in the early weeks after the storm, when the junta turned back most foreign relief workers. After pleas from the U.N., the junta agreed to international aid, but it still limits foreigners' activities.

Nyi Lynn Seck said most of the US$30,000 received by the group came from Myanmar expatriates in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, but that money had come in from as far away as Europe.

Myanmar's military government, which strictly controls all media including the Internet, blocks most blogging sites. However, they are sometimes accessible by using a server that masks the site's true origin.

Bloggers played a major role in ensuring the free flow of information during anti-government protests in Myanmar last fall and the violent crackdown that followed. At least one blogger, Nay Phone Latt, remains in prison.

Nyi Lynn Seck's blog has in the past included personal observations, advice for would-be bloggers and news items. It has not been seen as anti-government.

Nyi Lynn Seck said he became an aid worker because he felt the junta's response to the storm — which killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 more missing — was inefficient.

"The government doesn't rely much on a system or technology and they don't know what to do. They work only on paper, so the help was really delayed," he said.

Nyi Lynn Seck picked up his black leather laptop bag and pulled out a stack of slides he shows to would-be donors. He also has two models of wood-and-blue plastic shelters, dubbed "Budget Huts."

The group, which calls itself "Handy Myanmar Youths" because it wants to lend a hand to survivors, has put up 88 huts in delta villages.

Such volunteerism is not always welcomed by the junta. A popular comedian was taken from his Yangon home by police this month after going to the delta to help survivors.

Many Myanmar volunteers and the local staff of foreign aid agencies pack their vehicles with food, water and other supplies when heading into the delta; several have reported being harassed by police or having their vehicles impounded.

Nyi Lynn Seck said the government approved his group's project after they detailed their plans to authorities in Labutta and declared that no foreigners were directly involved.

The group makes five- to six-hour boat rides to coastal villages to deliver materials and tools to build the huts and supervise the construction, which is done mostly by survivors.

Due to tides, the volunteers are unable to return to Labutta on the same day, so they usually spend at least one night sleeping on the bare ground without shelter from mosquitoes. Several have fallen ill.

The blogger said the group's most pressing concerns were about sustaining the project despite the high price of materials and transportation.

"Now the biggest problem is that we're having trouble finding wood in Labutta, and the wood is also getting very expensive," Nyi Lynn Seck said.

"As long as there are funds and donors, hopefully we can keep this up for another two to three months here," he said. "But I'm not so sure about the future."


On the Net:
Nyi Lynn Seck's Myanmar-language blog:

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