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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

News out of Myanmar is infrequent. And it's usually bad. Some of our recent coverage includes the government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007. And the massive death toll from Cyclone Nargis last May. The military-led government rules Myanmar with an iron fist. It's preparing for general elections next year. But almost everyone regards the elections as a sham. Foreign reporters aren't welcome in Myanmar. NPR's Michael Sullivan, though, managed a clandestine visit earlier this month.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta. But 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.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SULLIVAN: Eight months on, Yangon looks pretty much back to normal — 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 hustling fares and shouting destinations to would-be customers on the curb.

(Soundbite of shouting bus conductors)

SULLIVAN: Electricity is still in short supply not because of the cyclone, locals say, but because the government is siphoning it off to their new jungle capital in Naypyidaw to the north. They used to tell us when they're going to cut power, one man said 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.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

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

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

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

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: One of the guides here — lowering his voice, wary of informers — complains bitterly 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, their fear of outsiders contributing to the death toll. We're like dogs and they're our masters, the guide says. And we are helpless against them.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

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

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's tourism industry is taking a beating, too.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: This nine year old girl and her older brother perform nightly at a popular hotel in Bagan, the country's top tourist destination. But the siblings are playing to a near-empty house. Its high season, yet fewer than a third of the rooms are occupied. The crackdown on the monks and the government response to Nargis have cut deeply into business.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: 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 this road on the way to Bogalay told stories of the road lined with desperate people begging for food, money - for anything - having lost everything. These days that same road looks different — the houses mostly rebuilt, the cyclone damage largely invisible. In more remote areas, though, it's a different story.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

SULLIVAN: The only way to reach many remote areas is by boat. Our destination is a village just a few miles from the sea - a place where only two houses out of 250 houses were left standing, though most of the villagers survived by taking refuge in the local monastery. Eight months on, construction has begun on a new school - the materials donated by foreign charities to the government. Some NGOs also have donated plastic sheeting and roofing supplies to help provide shelter to the overwhelming majority of villagers who lost theirs.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Sitting in his monastery, this 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 no foreigners came to help without permission. Why does the government treat its people this way?

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Because when people are starving, he says, they're easier to control. The weaker they are, the weaker we are, the easier it is to keep us in line. But if they hear me talking like this, he says, they'll throw me in jail for 50 years. 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's enough food to go around. What's lacking still is proper shelter.

(Soundbite of rooster)

SULLIVAN: A 19-year-old 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 with a crude thatched roof.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: The woman says her husband is a day laborer and doesn't make enough to allow them to build something better. How much would it cost to build a new house?

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: About $500 she says. How long would it take to come up with that kind of money?

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: About 10 years, she says, maybe more. 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?

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: Back in Yangon, yet another musician plays to an empty house at one of the city's finer hotels. It's not just tourism that's down. The economy in general is suffering. The global economic turmoil has reached Myanmar too -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, noting that the last two uprisings against the military — in 1988 and again in September 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.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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