Myanmar democracy activists turn focus to cyclone relief - Emirates24|7

Myanmar democracy activists turn focus to cyclone relief


Hundreds of children survivors of Cyclone Nargis, cover their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates, as they wait for a plate of rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato, in front of a private donation center, in Laputta town, Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar. (AP)

Khin Kyi has been a democracy activist for decades, but she and other Myanmar dissidents say politics has become secondary to the humanitarian crisis unleashed by killer Cyclone Nargis.

She still hopes that one day Myanmar's people will find a way to end nearly half a century of military rule, but her day-to-day work now focuses on helping the 2.4 million cyclone survivors in desperate need of help.

Using her grassroots connections and her organisational skills, Khin Kyi has started running her own small relief operation, trying to skirt the obstacles that the junta has used to block foreign aid workers.

"Look everywhere, people are suffering. We are angry that this is being allowed to happen," she said.

More than one month after the storm left 133,000 dead or missing, the United Nations says that one million desperate survivors still have not received any aid.

Now she says the junta is also trying to block deliveries from local benefactors.

"I am shocked and furious at this development," Khin Kyi said. "The people should not remain just idly sitting by and be complacent."

Her anger is echoed by other dissidents, but few expect that their frustrations to soon turn into protests like ones that rocked the country last September, when Buddhist monks led as many as 100,000 people onto the streets.

The military responded then by shooting and beating protesters, including the revered monks, in a crackdown that left at least 31 dead, according to the United Nations.

Khin Kyi says the regime's treatment of cyclone survivors is far worse than the crackdown on the monks, or the bloody suppression of the 1988 uprising, when 3,000 people were killed in the streets.

But now the country faces more urgent concerns, especially in the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, where every day is a struggle just to stay alive.

The receding waters in the town of Maubin have exposed animal carcasses and decaying human remains, and the smell of decay hangs heavily in the air, permeating surgical masks used by the volunteers.

In one riverside village, a woman fetches water to be used for cooking while a cow's rotting carcass floats nearby.

People in this town on the edge of the delta live side by side with the dead, without clean water or enough food and medicine, leaving them highly vulnerable to outbreaks of diseases.

Buddhist monks and volunteers like Khin Kyi are the most visible leaders of the relief effort, ferrying sacks of rice, clothes and medicine into the delta.

Phan Maung, another veteran of the 1988 uprising, said that the public puts little faith into official announcements that aid is pouring into the delta.

"People know it's not true. This is something to prop up its image," he said. "Like most people, I am frustrated and angry."

But the memory of the brutal crackdown against the monks remains sharp, and Phan Maung said that even if people did return to the streets, he might not join them, fearing for his family's safety.

Only last week, a small group of pro-democracy activists tried to mount a small protest after the military extended the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

They barely made onto the street when police arrested 16 of them, including a 12-year-old boy.

Everyone here agrees the future looks dim. The cyclone destroyed the country's most important rice-growing region, and without enough aid to help farmers with their crops, experts fear food shortages and even famine are looming.

The cyclone also battered the economy in one of the world's poorest countries, with prices soaring in the wake of the storm.

Dissidents say that means the future is unpredictable, and Khin Kyi says one day the public's fury may overpower their fear of the authorities.

"Sooner rather than later it may happen," she said. "People have anger in their hearts."