Burmese take cyclone disaster in their stride

Jun 30, 2008
Edward Loxton

Victims of Cyclone Nargis have proven resilient despite media predictions of doom, says Edward Loxton

The doomsday scenarios that the world media predicted have not materialised. Cyclone Nargis blew into Burma on May 2 and, with the military junta refusing to allow the aid agencies in, by the middle of the month our press warned that 1.5m were on the verge of starvation.

There were reports that as many people had died in the Irrawaddy Delta as the 230,000 who perished in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Thankfully, the West was wrong. The death toll is tragic - the most recent official estimate said that 84,500 had died and almost 54,000 were missing - but it isn't nearly as much as we feared. The Burmese simply got on with the business of survival themselves.

Thousands of the delta's villagers, forced to scavenge in wasted rice paddies and fields, have proved remarkably resilient in the face of terrible conditions and a callous, incompetent ruling elite.

"The Burmese people are used to getting nothing," said the US charge d'affaires in Rangoon, Shari Villarose. "I am not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay [in getting aid to the delta]."

Doctors from Medecins sans Frontieres and other charities have mostly been treating curable abdominal and respiratory problems. Isolated outbreaks of typhoid and even cholera were smothered early on.

"Villagers have their own herbal remedies for many of the health problems that arose in their communities in the wake of the cyclone," said a French doctor.

Although a crude commentary in the regime press aroused international indignation - it said that cyclone survivors could exist on frogs, fish from the corpse-strewn waterways and plants and herbs from the devastated fields - the writer was only describing the daily diet of a Burmese rice farmer.

In rural parts of the country frogs are a staple food and even a delicacy. So, too, are the lizards, snakes and rats snared in the rice paddies. Coconuts provide essential nutrients.

Self reliance is an unquestioned feature of rural life in Southeast Asia. The villagers who lost their homes and fields in last month's cyclone never expected government help.

When I lived in a remote village near the Thai-Burmese border, I awoke every morning to the alluring smell of what I first took to be grilled bacon. I was disgusted to discover frogs being roasted whole on a backyard grill, but I soon got used to the taste of frog curry.

When disaster struck the village in 2002, with torrential monsoon rains that swept away homes and much of the local infrastructure, I sat back and waited for official help to arrive - as one does in the West. After several days without water, I asked my Thai wife when we could expect the provincial council to send engineers round to rebuild the village's ruined filtration and storage tanks. She looked blankly at me.

"The village is still organising work gangs," she said. "Each household has to supply one man for one day." So I became a village day labourer.

The West tends to imagine that the developing world has no way of coping with crises other than with the charity handouts we provide. While we think of the people who face disaster in countries like Burma as victims, they're often quite capable of rescuing themselves. 

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