Burma junta hides cyclone suffering with model village

Apr 30, 2009
Edward Loxton

One year after Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese junta is hiding the continued suffering by turning one rebuilt village into a TV set

A Burmese reporter touring the Irrawaddy delta nearly one year after the region was devastated by Cyclone Nargis came across an extraordinary site.

After wading through the mud and debris of villages still struggling to recover from the deadly storm, he stumbled on a happy community of peasant farmers tending their fields and rice paddies with the help of obliging soldiers. In the evening, they returned to newly-built homes or gathered at the library that graced the tidy main street.

Much in evidence were various film crews. "They were filming a carefully reconstructed village for state TV," said the reporter, Kyi Wai. "Our village has become a kind of film studio," one woman told him. "People filmed for the TV reports are given new clothes to wear in front of the cameras. Soldiers are based here and are filmed helping us in the fields. We're even filmed reading at the new library and watching the community TV."

"TV crews created a propaganda success story reminiscent of the fake Potemkin settlements reputedly built to fool the Russian empress Catherine II during a visit to the Crimea in 1787," reported Kyi Wai for the exile magazine Irrawaddy.

The village, Thayet Thone Bin, has become a showpiece frequently being used as the background for other TV reports about the success of the cyclone relief effort. Road signs at the entrance to the village were replaced by others bearing other names in a bid to show that various villages throughout the region were also recovering well. 

Nearly half the inhabitants of the village of Thayet Thone Bin died in Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma at the beginning of May last year killing nearly 140,000 people and making 800,000 homeless. An estimated two million people lost their livelihoods, and hundreds of thousands are still destitute.

70 percent of rice paddies in the delta are still poisoned by the seawater

The cyclone survivors of Thayet Thone Bin have a famous local son to thank for their good fortune. The government's Energy Minister, Brig-Gen Lun Thi, was born there, and reportedly personally directed emergency relief for the village. Neighbouring villages weren't so lucky.

While Thayet Thone Bin prospers, villages only a few miles away are still struggling to survive as their inhabitants rely on rice handouts from relief agencies. More than 70 percent of rice paddies in much of the delta are still poisoned by the seawater that flooded the region when the cyclone struck.

The British charity Oxfam announced at a press conference in Bangkok this week that hundreds of millions of dollars were still needed to rebuild shattered communities and revive the agriculture and fishing industry of the delta.

Foreign governments and charities provided at least $315m for food aid and emergency assistance in the months after Cyclone Nargis struck but predicted that without several more years of aid, many of the 2.4 million people affected by the disaster would have a struggle returning to the life they knew.

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