Monday, 2 June 2008

Singapore volunteers tell of plight faced by Myanmar cyclone survivors

In the capital city of Yangon, except for the cracks in the ground where Cyclone Nargis had uprooted the trees, life appeared to be back to normal as people went about their business.

But just three hours away in the Irrawaddy Delta region — the “rice bowl” of Myanmar — where the May 2 cyclone hit the hardest, Singaporean volunteer Lim Hwee Sie had only one word to describe the scene: Devastation.

“The situation got worse the further we got from Yangon and as we got closer to the delta region,” said Ms Lim, a sales manager. “Houses there have fallen apart and there’s mud everywhere. Only a few concrete buildings are still standing.”

Together with Venerable K Gunaratana of the Mahakaruna Buddist Society and another volunteer, Ms Lim was in Myanmar for four days last week to deliver aid to residents who were affected by the cyclone.

Apart from the devastation, the level of poverty also shocked her. “They live in extremely simple houses with no toilets, and their clothes were dirty and falling apart,” said Ms Lim, 29, who was on her first relief trip.

Leaving Yangon behind, the group — on volunteer visas and accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs — ventured three hours away to Dedaye and took a boat down the Irrawaddy River to a remote village.

No foreign or local aid had reached the area at the time, said Ms Lim. “I wondered then what they lived on, because all the fields had been destroyed and no one had delivered any food to them,” she said. “They looked fine and were not at the point of starvation, but they had very little that we could see.”

Another Singaporean who had gone to Myanmar to document the aftermath of the cyclone two weeks ago saw locals salvaging rice crops that been destroyed by the cyclone, even though they were not ready to be eaten.

“I think they were living on that,” said the 30-year-old, who only wanted to be known as Bryan. “The food distribution centres were all so far away and the people didn’t have any transport, so a lot of them came running, hoping to receive aid, whenever they heard the sound of vehicles.”

Ms Lim found the experience of delivering aid “surprisingly smooth”. She added: “I was concerned that we would be prevented from delivering the items to the locals but we managed to do that.”

However, Bryan said he saw “lots of aid” piling up at the airport, but none at many of the disaster sites. “Many people were in Yangon trying to help, but they were told to just hand the material over to the officials who were then supposed to deliver it themselves,” he said.

The presence of the Venerable Gunaratana, as well as the donations the society had been giving to the Myanmar embassy since the disaster, could have helped made things smoother, said Ms Lim. “We had no trouble at roadblocks or taking pictures, but I’ve seen other foreigners being chased away for taking pictures,” she said.

In spite of the desolation, she was impressed by the dignity of the residents. “They didn’t rush to us, they lined up to receive the food and money we brought for them,” she said. “You could sense the sadness but they made the most of what they had.”

With just three days to carry out what they had set out to do, Ms Lim is bracing herself to return to Myanmar with more aid. “I don’t think we have seen the worst yet,” she said. - TODAY/sh

To contribute food and medicine, or volunteer to deliver the aid to Myanmar, contact the Mahakaruna Buddhist Society at 6745 1803 or email

Channel News Asia

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