19 June 2008 - In a squalid, bare room dozens of survivors from Cyclone Nargis sat and laid upon the concrete and thin mats of a monastery in Burma's afflicted Rangoon Division – the complex's hti standing ominously and noticeably askew. Just shy of a week after the devastating storm, the monastery and its remaining monks were supplying what relief they could. And what relief the monastery was in a position to supply, was not nearly adequate.
This is a scene that played itself out seemingly ad infinitum throughout Rangoon and Irrawaddy Divisions in the immediate wake of the storm, which hit Burma's delta region with all its force on May 2nd.
Commonly the most permanent structures in villages otherwise dominated by bamboo and thatch homes, monasteries became the de facto destination of refugees and the natural focus of any aid operations. Further, if there was any slight inclination in the topography of the region, it was typically the local monastery that occupied the relative higher ground, providing another obvious reason for villagers to seek shelter inside. However, in those immediate days after Nargis, to speak of the monastic community being able to effectively administer a relief operation and thorough cleaning-up campaign would be to distort reality.
I cannot recall a single monastery whose roof did not leak and whose grounds did not suffer major damage, its temporary residents exposed to the elements of Burma's rapidly approaching monsoon season. Pools of stagnant water, quickly depleting, were often the sole source of water for those in need. Rice soup had to be consumed as being the only available option. When the rice soup was depleted in one location, refugees were forced to visit next nearest alternative for their meals. Debris, the remnants and reminders of the fateful day nearly a week previously remained strewn across monastic grounds and throughout devastated communities.
Monasteries and their occupants were crying out for assistance, forcing the refugees that could to come to the side of major roads to plead for help.
At this time soldiers could be seen in the center of the delta's major towns. Literally the centers, a hundred meters either way and there would be no sign of the military – or of any semblance of a government. Outlying villages, and their monasteries, were left to fend entirely for themselves. The only presence of the military government was commonly a recruited informer whose job it ostensibly was to inform the government of any visitors.
The relief supplies the military were able and willing to offer the local population were miniscule – a packet of noodles here, a few kilograms of rice for an entire family for a week there. Again, there was a failure in both quantity and distribution system.
As the days passed and mid-May approached, the military steadily advanced and enhanced its presence along the delta's main thoroughfares and in the population centers, in the process increasingly restricting access to storm ravaged areas. Soldiers could be seen cutting away giant trees dislodged from the earth and painstakingly piling heaps of debris. But just off the main roads, the people still suffered and were ignored.
Meanwhile, assistance to populations and monasteries in need began to trickle in. The Rangoon-based Metta Development Foundation, no longer officially a Buddhist organization but still defining its mission as one of loving kindness, set about on the momentous task of delivering aid to approximately 115,000 communities it identified as vulnerable. Monastic communities from Rangoon and further afield also sent relief supplies. But the effort was led by the people, not a single faith. Concerned citizens, media outlets, mosques and businesses came to provide what relief possible.
Three weeks after the cyclone struck, and after the natural disaster drew the attention of the world and a visit from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a United Nations report claimed that over a million victims of the storm had still yet to be reached. Certainly Burmese authorities had not reached them, and without any outside assistance it is dubious what comfort local monasteries could provide other than a watery bed and companionship in a time of sorrow.
Now, as June starts to fade, there are increasing voices being raised of local organizations and specifically monastic communities having taken the lead in relief and rehabilitation following Nargis. The truth is, nobody had the capacity or was in a position to effectively deliver the help necessary in the critical first half of May.
The fields and shoreline of the delta remained littered with not only the decaying flesh of animals and laypersons, but those of the sangha as well. Water and food were often scarce, and monks could also be seen scrounging for what help and assistance could be found.
Owing to a feeble transportation infrastructure, one which the government now vows to drastically upgrade, and the slothlike response and interest of the military to establish a logistical presence throughout afflicted regions, material support and assistance was hard to come by for hundreds of thousands of people, regardless of whether or not they were draped in saffron.
This does not speak poorly of the sangha. Entire communities were, if not utterly destroyed, then left with a fraction of its structures and residents. Food stores, animals and tools simply 'flew away', as the local population would muse. Ground reality made it virtually impossible for any actors in the region to jump to the lead in the immediate days to follow; the Burmese Naval base on Hyine Gyi Island lay in ruin.
Help had to come from outside the delta. And the lead needed to be taken by the government, and they failed to do so. They were the only possibility of a conduit to effectively reaching hundreds of thousands of people in a timely manner.
A lack of government institutions and legitimacy throughout the region factored into the plight of the cyclone's survivors, the geography of the region and poor development played no minor role, and domestic and international politics sealed the fate of any hoped for rapid response.
The fact is, in the crucial days after Nargis there was arguably no organization, let alone government, positioned to offer relief remotely approaching the levels mandated. And the further one ventured into the delta, the worse the situation became. Providing time effective relief in the face of such a disaster would have been trying for any country and government; for Burma, it proved an impossible feat.
Thus is the plight of present day Burma. It can only be hoped that the epitaph of the tens of thousands lost will provide the final script as to why change must one day come.