Self-reliance a way of life in Myanmar

By a Times Staff Writer

U Maung Saw and his family are in a race against the rain.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis pounded their house as flat as the mud where the broken pieces now lie. A 5-foot wave, driven by a storm surge that rolled 20 miles upriver from the Andaman Sea, crashed onto his doorstep. It washed away almost everything the family of seven owned -- even the fish they were farming in a nearby pond.

The flooding and torrential rain on May 4 also ruined a fifth of the unmilled rice they had stockpiled since harvesting the paddy from the rich soil of the Irrawaddy River delta, Myanmar's rice bowl, in late March. A week after the storm, the rest of the rice is so damp that it has to be spread out on the mucky ground to dry in the sun so it won't rot.

And therein lies the problem: A nasty tropical depression is bearing down on southern Myanmar. And in countless villages such as this, where no one has received outside aid, the clock is quickly counting down to what threatens to be the next disaster.

Despite intense foreign pressure on Myanmar's military regime to open up the reclusive Southeast Asian nation to an international relief operation, the generals have been reluctant. Relief groups said today that clearance for aid shipments had eased somewhat, but most foreign workers had no visas.

Weak from the lack of adequate food and avoiding using a bad leg, Maung Saw, 58, isn't waiting for help. With a hand from his sons, he works from dawn until dusk, rebuilding their house from scratch, getting what strength he can from boiled rice and white melon.

Even without a house, the family is better off than most neighbors. So Maung Saw and his sons are helping those less fortunate as they seek to hold out against the coming rain long enough for relief operations to begin.

"The government never gives us anything," he says, laughing. "We're not angry. We're not surprised. We don't expect anything else."

Kyaiktaw lies about 20 miles north of the Andaman Sea on the Bogalay River, one in a web of waterways that make up the fertile Irrawaddy delta.

In the center of the 1,000-resident town, Ma San San Lwin and her husband have taken shelter in the dirt-floored sitting room of their boss, who pays them to weave palm fronds into roof thatch.

With rice prices soaring, they can't afford to buy enough to eat, so they depend on daily donations from villagers such as Maung Saw. It's not so much the model of self-reliance and discipline that the military regime has hammered into its people, but more a sad realization that the generals can't be counted on to rescue their country from catastrophe.

"They are very selfish," says one villager, leaning on a thin bamboo pole for strength. "They don't care what happens to others. They only think about themselves."

The only way into or out of the village is by boat, and with shortages driving up the price of fuel, few can afford to go far. Maung Saw uses his boat to travel upriver to a lake for drinking water.

He thinks it's safer than boiling water from a river poisoned by human waste and the hundreds of rotting corpses floating through the delta toward the sea.

The 12-hour cyclone killed five elderly people in the village when their houses collapsed. Several children are now sick with diarrhea, which villagers say was caused by bad water. Eating rotten rice also could be contributing to illness.

It's anyone's guess, though, because no doctors have visited. Villagers heard a promise of help Sunday from the military regime. But local officials only recorded the names of the homeless and said they would return to give each a single ration of about four cups of rice, Maung Saw says.

"That's only enough to feed one person with one meal," declares his wife, Htwe Kyi, 57, who sat on the makings of a new bamboo wall with two of her grandchildren, blowing fierce clouds of gray smoke from a fat cigarette.

The storm that destroyed the village blew with an oscillating wail; Maung Saw says it was a noise like none he had ever heard. The closest sound he could think of was a jet plane, but Nargis howled much louder than that.

When the eye of the storm swirled over the Irrawaddy delta around 3 a.m., the rain was lashing his house from the side.

"We couldn't even see our neighbor's house," he says, describing the pounding rain and the pitch-black darkness. "I bet it hasn't happened in the last 200 years."

As Maung Saw huddled with his wife, children and three grandchildren, the wind became a terrifying shriek, the thatched roof suddenly disappeared, and the rest of the bamboo-and-wood building splintered and collapsed.

Their bed, clothes, kitchen items and about $100 in cash that Maung Saw had socked away either vanished in the wind or were sucked into the Bogalay River.

After the deluge, all the family could find were scattered bits of what had once been a pretty good life: a Thermos bottle, two clay water urns, a rusty barrel, a broken water pump, a rubber tire and two glass mugs.

Maung Saw, a small, wiry man with betel-stained teeth and a dapper gray sun hat, ordered his son to shimmy up a coconut tree and fill one of the mugs with fresh juice for a visitor. He apologized for not having more to offer.

The unmilled rice Maung Saw's family has lost so far is worth $370, roughly half its annual income. Even after losing so much, Maung Saw says he's better off than those who rely on him for handouts.

Once the family home is rebuilt, he says, they'll plant their next rice crop. In a matter of days, hundreds of pounds of damp paddy piled up in the mill may start to sprout, and then it will be worthless as food.

They can't bear the thought of so much rice going to waste. So workers in his son's mill, which doubles as the family's emergency shelter, are turning the wet paddy into rice. But the moisture makes it vulnerable to fungus and rot that could sicken anyone who eats it.

"It's not good for you," Maung Saw says, looking slightly embarrassed. "But something is better than nothing when you're just trying to survive."

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