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The River – Part II

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with the location where each photograph in this dispatch was taken. Red marks the path of the journey.

Many children were orphaned (I do not know if this boy was orphaned), but according to Charlie and other reports I have read, they do not seem to be in immediate danger of starvation.

Most of the aid reaching the delta seems to be coming from other Burmese people, but the government is arresting people who give aid.  International aid is also starting to reach previously off-limits areas.

The Burmese people welcomed the team into their communities.

A friendly monk.

Roofs blown off.

Many Americans and Europeans might be afraid of people who live like this, but from my travels, I know that if there is a problem, I can come to that home, not speaking a word of their language, and they will feed me and give me rest, and they will smile and wave when I leave, seldom asking for anything in return.

Catching prawns.

Gathering coconuts. It’s amazing what native peoples can do with bamboo and coconuts. All they need is a good river, and they can survive. The river is everything from highway to cupboard. In Thai, the word for river is Mae Nam. Mother water. In India, the Ganges is called Ganga Ma. Often the Indians would simply say, Ma. Cyclone Nargis was a horrible event, but the Irrawaddy is still flowing and life will go on.

While Charlie and his team made their journey into darkness, I remained in Thailand. The Thai people look at Burma in a similar way that some Americans look at Mexico. Cheap labor, a bit backwards, but hardworking people. And similar to our experiences with Mexico, Myanmar provides a river of smuggled and illegal workers, who sometimes can die by the dozens by suffocation in the back of a truck. The Thais I have talked with are afraid to go to Burma now. They are afraid of the ghosts. The ghosts created by Cyclone Nargis.

Those ghosts will haunt Myanmar for a long time. It’s one thing to oppress the living. But to disrespect the dead of Cyclone Nargis is a crime that the junta will, one day, have to answer for. The cyclone was an act of nature, but the suffering and indignity that followed is entirely the junta’s fault. While the rest of the world, led by America, offered help, the junta turned it away. Instead of welcoming humanitarian assistance and the media who help stir the global conscience, the junta closed its borders and tried to keep the truth from being known. By valuing their own power and pride over the lives of their people, the junta turned a natural disaster into a human tragedy.

Although the Burmese people are brave and resourceful, the need for aid is still acute. Many of the farmers in the most affected areas will not be able to plant this year, so the damage wreaked by the cyclone will continue long after the media turns its attention elsewhere.

And the last victim of the cyclone might be the junta itself. Along the Irrawaddy River Delta, the people’s hatred for the government was clearly expressed. My friend Charlie said that he would not be surprised to see disaffected factions rise up against the government, perhaps similar to those in Sri Lanka and Tibet. Burma might erupt in violence within a few years, which could have serious implications for neighboring Bangladesh and Thailand. Also, the Chinese seem to be muscling in up north, creating an anti-Chinese sentiment with the potential for violence. The Russians have advisers in Myanmar, though just what they are up to remains a mystery. Meanwhile, ASEAN apparently lacks the desire to take any decisive action that would upset the government of Myanmar. There are too many business interests at stake, and keeping Myanmar as a source of cheap raw materials rather than have it become a new Asian Tiger might very well be in the interests of other member states. The United States is not anxious to arm and train an insurgent force in Myanmar, unless our interests are directly threatened. Meanwhile, Charlie asserts that the Burmese dissident groups living in Thailand have largely lost touch with the situation inside the country, though apparently they get much attention, and funding, from Washington. Myanmar might be a powder keg with a slow-burning fuse already lit, and many Burmese people, who set great store on astrology, believe that great calamity is in the stars.

By bringing these photographs back from an atrocity the world is not supposed to witness, Charlie and his team has ensured that the ghosts of Cyclone Nargis will not be forgotten. They were men enough to face the darkness. And so, too, are the Burmese people, who live in the shadows of their own dead.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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