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Myanmar's People Slide Deeper Into Despair

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Myanmar's People Slide Deeper Into Despair

Myanmar's People Slide Deeper Into Despair

Myanmar's People Slide Deeper Into Despair

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More than eight months after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, villagers are sharing 40 temporary shelters in this village in the Irrawaddy Delta. Only two out of 250 homes remained after the storm last May. Only five people died, although no one survived in neighboring villages. Michael Sulliva/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Michael Sulliva/NPR

More than eight months after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, villagers are sharing 40 temporary shelters in this village in the Irrawaddy Delta. Only two out of 250 homes remained after the storm last May. Only five people died, although no one survived in neighboring villages.

Michael Sulliva/NPR

Water lilies won't grow in a village pond because it's still contaminated with saltwater. Michael Sullivan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Michael Sullivan/NPR

Water lilies won't grow in a village pond because it's still contaminated with saltwater.

Michael Sullivan/NPR

The military-led government continues to rule Myanmar with an iron fist even as it prepares for general elections in 2010 that almost everyone but the government regards as a sham. Foreign reporters aren't welcome in Myanmar. But NPR's Michael Sullivan made a clandestine visit earlier this month to have a firsthand look.

Cyclone Nargis last May devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta. The country's largest city, Yangon, took a beating, too. The cyclone uprooted hundreds of century-old trees, ripped off roofs and wreaked havoc with the power grid, leaving most of the city without electricity for weeks.

More than eight months on, Yangon looks pretty much back to normal — for a city of the last century, at least. Vegetable sellers hawk their wares near the city center while ancient cars and buses choke the streets at evening rush hour. Bus conductors hustle fares and shout destinations to would-be customers on the curb.

Electricity is still in short supply, not because of the cyclone, locals say, but because the government is siphoning it off to its new jungle capital in Nipadaw to the north. Government representatives used to tell us when they were going to cut power, one man says bitterly. Now they don't even bother.

Portable generators outside shops get the job done, but the fuel is expensive — even as the military government rakes in huge sums each year exporting natural gas to neighboring Thailand.

'We Are Helpless Against Them'

At Yangon's magnificent Shwedegon Pagoda, locals still come to pray for better luck and a better life for their families.

It's an act of faith, and faith is about all they have these days in Myanmar. Once Southeast Asia's breadbasket, the country is now a beggar, thanks to the mismanagement and greed of those in power. That's even though the country is rich in natural resources, such as timber, minerals and natural gas.

One of the guides here — lowering his voice, wary of informers — complains about the government's response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people.

Myanmar's military rulers initially refused to allow aid shipments and aid workers into the country, he says, their paranoia and fear of outsiders contributing to the death toll. We are like dogs and they are our masters, the guide says, and we are helpless against them.

The masters have been particular active recently, rounding up hundreds of democracy activists and sentencing them to lengthy jail terms. Myanmar's jails now hold more than 2,000 political prisoners — twice as many as there were before the monks marched in 2007.

Myanmar's tourism industry is taking a beating, too. Take Bagan, the country's top tourist destination. One particular night, a brother-and-sister singing duo performs to a near-empty house at a popular hotel there.

It is high season for tourists, yet less than one-third of the rooms are occupied. The crackdown on the monks and the government response to Nargis have cut deeply into business.

Remote Areas Still Suffering

Far to the south, in the Irrawaddy Delta, the areas hardest hit by Nargis were largely off limits to foreigners after the cyclone. But a few who made it down to the road that leads to the coastal town of Bogalay told stories of the road lined with desperate people who, having lost everything, were begging for food, money, anything.

These days, the same road looks different — the houses mostly rebuilt, the cyclone damage largely invisible. In more remote areas, though, it's a different story.

The only way to reach many remote areas is by boat. Our destination is a village just a few miles from the sea. Out of 250 houses, only two were left standing by the cyclone. Most of the villagers survived, however, by taking refuge in the local monastery.

Eight months later, construction of a new school, with materials donated by foreign charities through the government, is under way. Some NGOs also have donated plastic sheeting and roofing supplies to help provide shelter for the overwhelming majority of villagers who lost theirs.

Sitting in his monastery, the senior monk says his village was luckier than most. But the government, he says flatly, did nothing to help. In fact, he says, the military showed up a few days after the cyclone — not to bring relief supplies, but to ensure that no foreigners came to help without permission.

Why does the government treat its people this way? Because when people are starving, the monk says, they're easier to control. But if they hear me talking like this, he says, they'll throw me in jail for 50 years.

Proper Shelter A Particular Problem

The good news is the first post-Nargis rice crop is in. It's down about 50 percent in this village, the paddies contaminated with saltwater from the storm. But there is enough food to go around. What's still lacking, though, is proper shelter.

A 19-year-old woman rocks a 3-month-old baby in the temporary shelter that's been home since Nargis destroyed hers eight months ago. There are 40 more families like hers in the village. And these aren't FEMA trailers, either — just blue plastic sheeting wrapped around four poles, topped with a crude thatch roof.

The woman says her husband is a day laborer and doesn't make enough money to allow them to build something better.

When asked how much it would cost to build a new house, she responds, about $500. And how long will it take to come up with that amount? About 10 years, maybe more, she says.

We stuff a handful of cash in her hand and leave. On the way out, my driver from Yangon just shakes his head. The rainy season is coming, he says. That hut will never last. How, he asks, will that baby stay dry?

The Regime Is 'Durable'

Back in Yangon, yet another musician plays to an empty house at one of the city's finest hotels. It's not just tourism that's down. The economy in general is suffering. The global economic turmoil has reached Myanmar, too, in the form of fewer exports and less remittance money from Burmese working abroad.

A foreign diplomat says the stress on the economy may yet cause problems for the regime. He notes that the last two uprisings against the military — in 1988 and again in 2007 — began over economic issues. If things continue to get worse, it could happen again, he says.

But the regime is very durable, he warns. And it continues to tighten its grip.

Opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. U.N. envoys come and go frequently but leave empty-handed — while Myanmar's people slide deeper into despair.

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