In Burma, Fear Trumps Grief

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Survivors of the deadly cyclone Nargis work on a roof near the Pyapon River.

She told me how the torrent of water stole away her one-year-old daughter. With one child gone, all San San Khing could do was clasp her five-year-old son to her chest and hope. By the time the tidal surge triggered by cyclone Nargis receded on May 3, San San Khing was still holding her son, but his body was lifeless. At least, she says, she chanted prayers and gave him a proper burial.

Sitting in a refugee camp in Kaw Hmu township, San San Khing showed little despair for her loss. Twice, her eyes welled up, but she blinked back her tears. Her children were gone. She had no money or food. But instead of grief she seemed terrified at both her urgent need to tell her story and her decision to tell it to a foreign journalist. Burma's ruling military junta could do terrible things to her for such disregard.

Disaster scenes, no matter where they are, tend to take on a terrible similarity. There is the keening for lost family members, the frantic jostling for relief supplies and mounting anger as diseases stalk refugee camps and medicine is in short supply. But Burma has been different. There are third-hand stories of food riots, but in four days of visiting villages in the affected Irrawaddy Delta, the dominant emotional themes are fear and resignation. It is a remarkable accomplishment by the junta to have set the bar so low for competence that weariness reigns; few people express any frustration at all at the prospect of slow starvation.

But the junta excels at fear. Twenty minutes before meeting San San Khing, I was stopped at one of several checkpoints that have been set up in disaster-struck areas to keep foreign journalists and aid workers without the proper government permits out. A polite immigration officer took down my passport details, as well as the name and address of my local driver. His colleague told me that the cyclone had blown down his house. They didn't say it, but their demeanor was apologetic — a slight sense of embarrassment that their orders were to keep their wounded country closed.

Then an army jeep screeched up to the checkpoint. A major jumped out, screaming at the two guards. Apparently some foreign NGO workers had slipped past the checkpoint. How could the officers let that happen? The major turned to my driver and continued to rant: how could he bring foreigners to this disaster area? Doing so showed his utter disregard of patriotic duty. The major warned that he would be reporting the driver's serious violation back to military headquarters.

After this episode, my driver thought it prudent to avoid coming on a visit to several storm-ravaged villages. A boat was arranged and in my notebook, he wrote out basic questions in Burmese that I could at least point to when meeting cyclone victims: what is your village name, what is the death toll, have you gotten any government aid?

Luckily, in one village, a tall man walked up to me and said hello. He was the local teacher and could speak a little English. He showed me the rubble of his destroyed schoolhouse. Only two things had been salvaged from the building: a small, waterlogged globe used for geography lessons and a framed photograph of junta leader Than Shwe that normally hung at the front of the classroom. Asked if Than Shwe was a good person, the teacher laughed. "No, very bad." Asked why he had salvaged the picture the teacher struggled for the right English word and said, "scared." Then he brought his wrists together to mime handcuffs.

A week after the cyclone, no government officials have come to the teacher's village to assess the damage. But fear of the junta pervades. So just to be safe, the picture of General Than Shwe is propped up against one of the schoolhouse's few remaining pillars. As I walk back to my boat, the teacher asks where I come from. I tell him. He asks me whether in my country people can "say government bad." I say, yes, we can. He looks at me and shakes his head. Then the teacher makes another gesture. He points at the waterlogged earth and slashes a finger across his neck.