Aid Getting to Cyclone Victims, Despite Junta Myanmar's leaders may have hindered relief efforts, but help is still getting through, says journalist Simon Montlake of The Christian Science Monitor.
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Aid Getting to Cyclone Victims, Despite Junta

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Aid Getting to Cyclone Victims, Despite Junta

Aid Getting to Cyclone Victims, Despite Junta

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The body count in Myanmar keeps rising, two months after Cyclone Nargis ravaged that country. Yesterday, Myanmar's ruling junta announced that the death toll from the storm is now at 84,537. That's up from the last count on May 17th, when officials said 77,738 people had died. Hundreds of representatives from the United Nations, the Myanmar government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been surveying villages in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta. They began to release preliminary findings. Their complete assessment is expected next month.

To get an update on aid efforts in Myanmar and the effects of the storm, we turn now to Simon Montlake. He's a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. He's based in Bangkok. That's where we've called him this morning. Simon, thanks for being here. I want to ask you, first of all, when's the last time that you were in Myanmar and what did you see there?

Mr. SIMON MONTLAKE (Reporter, Christian Science Monitor): Unfortunately, I haven't been in since the cyclone. It's very difficult for journalists to get access. I have been to Myanmar in the past, and to that part of the country, indeed, but unfortunately at the moment, it's very difficult to get a visa. So I've relied very much on firsthand reports from aid workers and other journalists who've been down there.

MARTIN: What are you hearing from your sources inside the country, about what's happening with the survivors? We understand now the death toll has increased. There's still tens of thousands of people who have been left homeless. What's the situation now on the ground?

Mr. MONTLAKE: Well, in some ways, the death toll is a little bit misleading in the sense that these are just - this is just an update of the people that died when the storm hit. And you know, by some reckoning, you know, the storm was so great and if you were caught in the path, you were really in trouble, but if you survived, there was not a lot of major injuries afterwards.

I mean, I spoke to doctors who have been down there, and they said that, you know, we're not talking about sort of trauma patients. I mean, these are just minor injuries and people who are basically left homeless, lacking water, lacking shelter and food. So, this is a situation where - you know, and aid was needed immediately, and is getting through and is saving lives. I think the initial blocking of aid by the regime obviously had an impact on what happened, but this idea that it lead to a second wave of deaths is still very much unproven.

In fact, you know, most people did get some kind of help, often from their own communities. These were Burmese people from Rangoon, the capital, the commercial capital, and other places who basically just loaded up stuff in their car, and drove down there and tried to get help to people. So, it was a very piecemeal effort, but we shouldn't believe that nothing got through and that no one got help.

MARTIN: Because that - there's so much - so much was made of that, that the aid may have been able to get inside Myanmar, but that it was then sitting in big storage units, and that officials from the ruling regime there were pilfering the aid, even. There were charges of corruption, and now it seems that that wasn't nearly as severe as perhaps was initially thought.

Mr. MONTLAKE: I'm sure it was severe, and I am sure it went on, but I mean, the big question was what would happen to the U.S. military ships that were waiting off the coast to deliver aid, and of course, in the end, the regime said no to this. So that was a major blow, compared to the Tsunami in 2004, which I covered as well, in which, you know, militaries played a very big role in getting emergency relief to people, and fresh water, and other things. But I mean, I don't think we can say that the aid has gone missing.

And in fact, you know, you talk to aid workers and they say, well, like in any disaster situation, and particularly in countries which are poorly run with a bad record, you know, you've always got to guard against corruption and things going missing. But I think in many cases, some of the smaller private agencies on the ground, you know, people like Save The Children, and Medecins Sans Frontieres - that's Doctors Without Borders - I mean, they've been operating in the country for a number of years now, and you know, quite frankly, they know who to trust, and who to pay, and how to get things done.

MARTIN: And you talk also about that social activism, these ad-hoc groups of just residents, citizens of Myanmar, stepping up, forming voluntary organizations to get that aid out. Is that a new thing in Myanmar, that kind of social activism?

Mr. MONTLAKE: It is and it's been stamped out before. One thing I should point out is that the Buddhist monks were also involved in the relief effort. Initially, people sought shelter in the temples. Now, that is very sensitive in the country, because of what happened last year when monks were involved in peaceful protests against the government, which were eventually put down very violently. So, there's a great fear, I suppose, amongst the ruling junta that, you know, if the monks start taking too strong a role, that that represents a challenge to their power.

So, it's very, very early days, and I mean, a lot of people are very excited by this, but at the same time, I mean, there have been some people organizing relief missions who have actually been detained. Their stuff has been taken away from them, and they've actually been arrested. So - and these are people who are clearly seen as, you know, too political or being too critical of the government. So, it's not to say that people are out there doing things unhindered. I mean, there is always the danger that the government could just pull the plug any minute.

MARTIN: Mm. And finally I want to ask you about the status of the rice crop. Have you been able to find out through your reporting about where that stands? There was so much concern about the rice crops out of the Irrawaddy Delta. People said, oh, we think the stocks will hold through the end of August, the food supplies. Have you learned anything about that?

Mr. MONTLAKE: Well, there's also been some interesting reporting there from the Food and Agriculture Organization by the United Nations. I mean, they initially were telling us that, you know, this is a very big problem for the farmers there. And they're saying, look, it's still a problem, but the amount of land that's actually been affected by this is not that great. They're talking about maybe two percent of the country's total rice crop could be affected, and they could lose, you know, the planting which is going on now.

So that's the crop gone, but I mean, that's nothing like the predictions that people were talking about before. Now, this is not to say that farmers aren't feeling the pinch, and there's also the fishing industry off the coast there, which got completely slammed. And what the U.N. says basically is that people are going to need food aid. So, it's no - by no means a minor problem, but perhaps, again, the in - earlier worst-case scenarios have, you know, thankfully, not turned out to be quite as severe.

MARTIN: And we should also remember the larger context of this, that the people of Myanmar have been living under dire circumstances for a long time, even before the storm, so this has exacerbated their current situation.

Mr. MONTLAKE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, before the storm, the United Nations reckoned that maybe one in three of the children under five suffered malnutrition, that they were actually stunted by the lack of food and calories they were receiving. I mean, this is a country which in terms of health indications and amount of money spent on healthcare would rate among the lowest in the world, basically on a par with very poor African countries.

So, it was a pretty dire situation before, and of course, people don't expect the government to ride to the rescue. I mean, you know, people in New Orleans did expect the federal government would come in and, you know, rescue them, pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences, whereas I think in Myanmar, the expectations are so low that people honestly didn't expect any great rescue effort, and really had to rely on their own resilience to survive.

MARTIN: Simon Montlake is a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. We reached him in Bangkok, where he has been covering the disaster in Myanmar. Simon, thanks so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

Mr. MONTLAKE: Thanks very much.

MARTIN: Take care.


Coming up, remodeling the Internet. We're going to knock down a couple of walls, create more of a flow. Maybe question this dot-com, dot-org thing. And also, we'll talk to an airline industry expert who tells us why airlines are priced in a way that was popularized by the Albanians or some crazy people. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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