Image: The Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar
John Heilprin  /  AP
The Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar seen from the air on Saturday. U.N. officials flew in a World Food Program helicopter from Yangon to Kyon Da Village to inspect the rebuilding since Cyclone Nargis struck in early May 2008, killing 138,000 people.
updated 7/7/2009 5:39:09 PM ET 2009-07-07T21:39:09

As the U.N. helicopter skimmed above the placid Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar's military junta was putting the final touches on its showcase village.

Throngs of people lined the muddy walkways of Kyon Da village, a relief camp erected in this cyclone-hit area, while others stayed in their homes — neat rows of small houses made out of dried palm and matted bamboo.

The new houses on stilts replaced the plastic tents and stacks of supplies put on display for visitors a year earlier, after Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta in May 2008.

For last weekend's visit by U.N. officials, some villagers smiled, and their kids sported freshly starched and ironed white linen garments. Many of the women and children wore Thanaka, a cosmetic used by Burmese women for 2,000 years — golden-colored tree bark that is ground, made into paint and used to draw circles on the cheeks and even their ears.

About 1,000 homes collapsed and more than 100 people died in Kyon Da when the cyclone struck.

The angry waters that swallowed 138,000 lives in the cyclone have receded. Seen from above, where there had been a monolith of shimmering water was now a patchwork of rice field and border, river and shoreline, muddy pond and gray cloud.

Gone were the endless stretches of flooded rice fields and islands of destroyed homes with a few people standing on the rooftops. It affected more than two million, leaving a quarter-million homeless.

Threats to health linger
The biggest health threats remain HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, according to the International Organization for Migration, which began partnering with Myanmar's government in 2005. In the past year IOM-led medical teams treated 110,613 people in 858 of the affected villages.

Local medical officials in Kyon Da Village began to explain to a reporter last Saturday how the clinics were all busy, with the village and the broader Irrawaddy Delta region suffering from a high number of respiratory infections.

But after government minders began listening in, the medical officials suddenly seemed to lose their ability to speak English. End of conversation.

Residents spoke of some improved health conditions — fewer cases of diarrhea and several new clinics nearby. Some other improvements were obvious, but this was the camp that the xenophobic junta that rules Myanmar, also known as Burma, wanted the world to see.

"Clearly, they are living in their own world," a senior U.N. official along for the village inspection said of Myanmar's ruling junta, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid angering authorities.

Countries hesitant to provide aid
Many Western nations haven't fully opened their wallets to the U.N.'s three-year, $691 million recovery plan, lacking trust in Myanmar or not wanting to provide too much help to an authoritarian regime, a senior U.N. humanitarian official said on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with Myanmar authorities.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's first trip to Myanmar more than a year earlier helped overcome the reluctance for which the junta was widely condemned in granting foreign aid agencies access in the first weeks after the disaster, which almost certainly added to the death toll.

But to focus on securing cooperation from Myanmar's government with various humanitarian agencies, Ban dropped any appeals to the ruling generals to improve their human rights' record or to release jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong sahn SUE CHEE) and thousands of other political prisoners.

Ban's visit last weekend was meant to make up for that. He held two rare meetings with the junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe (pronounced TAHN SHWAY), but was not allowed to see the 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been detained by the ruling generals for nearly 14 of the past 20 years.

Suu Kyi is now on trial, charged with violating her house arrest, and faces five years in prison if convicted in a trial that has sparked global outrage.

On a brief visit to Kyon Da Village carefully scripted by Myanmar's government, the U.N. chief was haunted by the memory of a baby girl he encountered here a year ago. "She was only one day old," Ban mused aloud.

He had seen the mother living in a tent with the girl, hours after her birth. He'd seen another girl, too, just 19 days old, sick and clinging to life, but lacking medical support. He'd told the mothers not to lose hope, the United Nations was there to help.

Relief programs short on funding
But the U.N.'s World Food Program, which has operated in Myanmar for 15 years, still cannot muster 44 percent of the $79 million it says is needed over three years. The World Health Organization still lacks 57 percent of $42 million in projected needs for 325 townships.

Ban wasn't able to determine the whereabouts of those fledgling lives he'd seen the year before. Instead, he and his entourage — top aides and two journalists — got a snapshot that showed some improvements while masking remaining problems.

Ban, who carried the same message as last year that the U.N. was there to help and keep hope alive, said he was satisfied "the government has taken necessary measures."

Nearly a quarter-million people in remote villages rely on boat deliveries of clean drinking water, rice fields remain bare or contaminated with salt from the floodwaters, and food handouts are increasingly scarce.

Schools are rebuilt but short of teachers, and a half-million people still live in the most basic of shelters.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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