everything is broken

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Finding George Orwell in Burma
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin
Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R
0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin
Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,
Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd,
11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ),
67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand
Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196,
South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2010 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Emma Larkin, 2010
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following
copyrighted works:
“Everything is Broken” by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1989 Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.
International copyright secured.
Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love
by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Used by
permission of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Larkin, Emma.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma / Emma Larkin.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-42736-1
1. Larkin, Emma—Travel—Burma. 2. Burma—Description and travel. 3. Cyclones—Burma.
4. Disaster relief—Burma. 5. Burma—Politics and government—1988- I. Title.
DS527.7.L368 2010
959.105’3—dc22 2010004029
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.


For friends in Burma,
and for Justin
Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones.
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’,
Everything is broken.
The ruling military regime exerts control over all media in Burma and suppresses any versions of the truth that are contrary to its interpretation of events. As a result, official sources of information are often unreliable; most government statistics and publications are little more than pro-regime propaganda and government staff is forbidden from talking to foreigners without prior permission. Burmese citizens who leak information to international news or other organizations do so under threat of imprisonment.
To research this book, I relied on the same truth-seeking methods used by people living in Burma. In addition to my own experience and impressions, I recorded other eyewitness accounts whenever possible. In order to protect my sources I have had to give people false names and limit certain biographical details that might make them identifiable to the authorities. During meetings in which anti-government sentiments are expressed, names are often not exchanged for reasons of safety and some people mentioned in the book remain anonymous. I also read between the lines of government propaganda, analyzed anecdotal evidence, and took into account the many rumors that are continuously circulating throughout the country. In a place where the truth of events is obscured by heavy censorship and propaganda, rumors act as an alternate source of news and, in some instances, can become as important as hard facts.
MAY 2008
The soldiers are moving cautiously through the gardens of the Shwedagon Pagoda. They walk in solemn groups of three. The trousers of their dark olive-green uniforms are rolled up around their knees and they are barefoot. They shuffle their feet methodically through the undergrowth, squelching their toes into the mud and grass. Their heads are bowed in concentration, as if in prayer.
The gardens they walk through are in ruins. Palm trees that used to stand straight and tall around manicured lawns are now bowed and broken. Other older and stiffer trees have been wrenched from the ground and lie with their tortured roots exposed above the churned-up soil. There is no longer any semblance of the once lush gardens. The neatly trimmed shrubbery has been ripped to shreds or flattened by fallen trees. The flower bushes have disappeared entirely. But none of this concerns the soldiers as they fan out silently across the gardens.
Looming high above them is the Shwedagon Pagoda, an ancient and massive bell-shaped structure encased in gold—the most sacred and potent Buddhist site in all the land. As the soldiers circle the base of this revered golden mountain, they wield long scythes and use bamboo sticks to rake through the tangled debris. Occasionally they hoist aside a damp log and blinded beetles scuttle out of their way. When they hack through splintered branches, dead leaves are scattered in their wake.
One of the soldiers squats down suddenly, attracted by a flash of glimmering red in the monotonous brown of soil and dying vegetation. The soldier sticks his fingers into the mud and lifts up a clump of earth. The others watch as he uses his thumb to swipe away the dirt and reveal a large, perfectly cut, bloodred gem—a Burmese ruby. Without saying a word, a higher-ranking soldier holds open a drawstring sack. As soon as the ruby is placed inside, the soldier ties a tight knot around the bag and slings it over his shoulder. It lands against his back with a soft jangling noise that seems to indicate it may contain other precious stones salvaged from the gardens of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The man who found the ruby gets up and wipes the dirt off his hands, allowing himself a secret, triumphant smile. And, together, the soldiers walk on.
few days after Cyclone Nargis made landfall at the southwestern tip of Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on Friday, May 2, 2008, NASA released a set of before and after pictures taken by satellite.
In the image taken before the cyclone, the delta’s myriad waterways were perfectly etched upon the landscape, like dark and delicate veins. Toward the lower edges of the delta, in the coastal stretches, these veins broadened and merged into the inky blue waters of the Andaman Sea. Large swaths of vibrant green indicated fertile rice-growing land. Deforested areas and urban centers, like Rangoon and its surrounding sprawl of slums, showed up as dun-colored patches. In the delta, towns such as Laputta and Bogale were barely visible amid the pastoral palette of greens, browns, and blues.
The satellite image taken shortly after the cyclone depicted a landscape that had been changed dramatically. The fact that the area around Rangoon was now a marbleized swirl of aquamarine suggested that it was heavily flooded. The waterways of the delta, so distinct in the earlier image, had become blurred and hazy. The blue of the Andaman waters showed up as a luminescent turquoise color that had seeped onto the land, an indication that parts of the delta now lay underwater. Comparing the two images it seemed as if a bucket of water had been sloshed across an ink drawing; the carefully marked lines had been erased and the paper beneath was buckled and distorted.
These images showed that Cyclone Nargis had altered the landscape significantly and caused substantial damage. Yet, in those first days after the cyclone, hardly any news emerged from Burma. The storm severed phone lines and electrical wires, and it was almost impossible to get information from inside the country.
The cyclone had been brewing in the Bay of Bengal for almost a week. When the tropical depression developed into a cyclonic storm, the India Meteorological Department named the storm “Nargis,” a moniker taken from a list of names provided annually by each of the countries in the cyclone band of the Indian Ocean (contributed by Pakistan,
is an Urdu word for the flower narcissus, which is more commonly known as the daffodil). By the time Nargis reached the coast of Burma, it had grown into a category four storm with wind speeds of up to 135 miles per hour. Cyclones of this magnitude can trigger a storm surge that would be high enough to engulf a two-story house. The storm charted a path across the Irrawaddy Delta, the vast flood basin for Burma’s main river that is populated with hundreds of farming and fishing villages, and directly through Rangoon, the country’s largest city and former capital, before finally dissipating in the mountains along the Thailand-Burma border. With the help of regional and international weather-monitoring services, this much was known.
What was not known was what had happened on the ground and what had become of all the millions of people who must have been in the cyclone’s path.
Over the following week, news began to trickle out from Burma, as generators were activated and electricity and phone lines were restored to some parts of Rangoon. Photographs of the city looked as if they had been taken in the aftermath of a massive explosion. Roads were blocked by fallen trees. Cars had been crushed by logs and telephone poles. Cement walls had caved in and pavements were cracked open. The destruction in the city was catastrophic, but it soon became apparent that what had happened in Rangoon was nothing compared to the devastation of the Irrawaddy Delta. Toward the end of the week, an e-mail from Burma circulated some photographs taken in the delta; these were among the earliest harrowing glimpses of what had happened there.
The first image was a picture of two dead girls. One girl wore shorts and a bright orange T-shirt printed with a cheerful floral pattern. The other had on only a frilly pale green top. They lay on their backs in a nest of sodden palm fronds with their eyes closed and their heads turned away from each other. They looked as if they had fallen, or been flung, from a very great height.
The next photograph showed seven bodies floating in water, perhaps a pond. One grouping looked like it could be a family—a woman with two children on either side of her. The children were faceup with their arms flung out, as if reaching for their mother. The other figures could be seen only in parts: an exposed chest, a red T-shirt, a billowing blue
, or sarong, beneath which a pair of legs disappeared into the still, brown-gray surface of the water.
The most gruesome photograph captured a row of bodies scattered across paddy fields. They were swollen and black from sun exposure. Rigor mortis had locked the bodies into crooked postures; their legs and arms were spread wide, and they lay entangled in grotesque and awkward embraces.
Within just a couple of days, the Burmese regime announced on state television that as many as 10,000 people could have been killed. The very next day, an official death toll was released that was more than double that figure with over 22,400 people declared dead and more than 41,000 people missing. The majority of these lives were lost across the delta region, with Rangoon reporting only a few deaths.
From these initial snatches of information, it was clear that Cyclone Nargis had been a disaster of epic proportions. In the delta, tens of thousands of people were dead, and many hundreds of thousands must have been trying to survive without food, water, or shelter. As the horrendous scale of the disaster became apparent, foreign governments offered aid and assistance. Astoundingly, the Burmese government turned them down.
In neighboring Thailand, the U.S. government had loaded a C-130 cargo plane with lifesaving relief supplies that would have taken just under an hour to reach Burma, but the craft was not given clearance to land at Rangoon’s airport. The United Nations World Food Programme had three planes ready to fly in from Bangladesh, Thailand, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The planes were loaded with vitamin-fortified biscuits for hungry survivors who may not have been able to eat for some days and would be in need of instant nourishment. These biscuit-laden planes were also denied clearance. A flight from Qatar carrying relief materials and aid workers managed to land at Rangoon airport but was immediately forced to take off again without unloading any of its contents.
As international emergency response mechanisms kicked into action, UN staff and aid workers experienced in disaster response were mobilized from around the world. Few of them were granted visas to enter Burma. Many aid workers assembled in Bangkok, Thailand, a practical stopover for processing entry visas. The Burmese embassy, however, was closed on the Monday after the cyclone for a Thai public holiday. When a UN team of four experts was finally allowed to travel to Burma toward the end of the week, two were sent back after landing in Rangoon despite having valid visas.
In addition to preventing aid workers from entering, the regime was also restricting the movement of foreigners already inside the country. International aid agencies that had been working in Burma before the cyclone had switched into emergency mode, but their foreign staff was not allowed outside of Rangoon; only Burmese employees were able to travel to the delta to begin distributing supplies and look for ways to set up reliable delivery routes. It is an established procedure in Burma that foreign aid workers at international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must apply for permits to travel outside of Rangoon (a process that can take weeks, sometimes months); it was hoped that the authorities would expedite travel requests after a natural disaster. Instead, they did just the opposite by slowing down the process and setting up checkpoints on exit routes out of the city. Policemen were posted at the bridges and jetties along the Rangoon River where cars and ferries depart for the delta and prohibited foreigners from crossing over to the other side.
It was, by all accounts, a situation unprecedented in the annals of disaster response. The UN and international aid agencies started to issue frantic and strongly worded warnings. OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that “thousands more could die” if assessments were not carried out that would enable the UN to respond effectively. Save the Children issued a press release stating that around 40 percent of the dead were children and that more would die if food and water did not reach them soon. A World Health Organization report warned that there was an immediate risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. UNICEF stated that one in five children already had diarrhea. The Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted the bigger picture, saying that the area affected by the storm was the source of most of the country’s food (65 percent of the rice and 80 percent of the fishery products) and that Burma could face a food crisis in the near future. “We are on the cusp of a second wave of tragedy,” the chief executive of World Vision told the press. “It’s a race against time.”
Efforts were made to reason with Burma’s ruling generals through the highest diplomatic channels. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon stated that he had been trying to contact the country’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, to arrange a meeting; insiders at the UN said that the general was simply not returning Ban Ki-moon’s calls. George W. Bush, then the president of the United States, announced that the United States was willing to help and that U.S. Navy assets already present in the Southeast Asia region could be deployed to assist with search-and-rescue missions and aid distributions; first, though, the Burmese generals would have to allow U.S. disaster assessment teams to enter the country. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, went so far as to invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle, a UN proposal that would allow for the delivery of aid and assistance without the consent of the host government.
The generals were impervious to these pleas and threats. On May 9, a week after Cyclone Nargis, a statement was released in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the country was “not yet ready to receive search-and-rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries.” According to the statement, the government was willing to accept provisions but would take charge of distributing them “by its own labors to the affected areas.” Officials indicated that bilateral aid, assistance given government to government, would be welcomed, but that meant placing a large amount of supplies directly into the hands of a rogue regime—a setup that was unacceptable for most Western donors, who require accountability, transparent procedures, and the ability to track the delivery of the goods they donate.
As if to further infuriate those who were trying to provide help, the regime announced its plans to go ahead with an upcoming national referendum to vote on the newly drawn up constitution. Scheduled for May 10, the referendum had already been dismissed as a sham by most Burma experts. Having ruled the country for almost fifty years, the military government has established a well-earned reputation for being willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power, and the referendum seemed like just another piece of trickery, a grand subterfuge designed to give the appearance of democracy without actually delivering any greater freedom to the people.
Indeed, the ruling generals have shown little interest in democracy and human rights. The regime’s current incarnation came into being after a nationwide uprising against military rule in 1988, during which soldiers shot into the crowds and killed an estimated three thousand civilians. In the years that followed, the regime continued to quash any form of dissent. To this day, people perceived as a threat are imprisoned, and all criticism of the regime—be it spoken or written—is systematically silenced. Most prominent among Burma’s political prisoners is the country’s iconic symbol of democratic values, Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to the fore during the demonstrations in 1988 and who has spent the majority of the intervening years under house arrest.
Efforts made both inside and outside the country to unseat the junta or coax out its softer side have so far failed. When Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in general elections held in 1990, the regime discounted the results and continued to rule. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe have been ineffective in eliciting any substantial concessions from the generals. So when the regime launched its so-called Road Map to Democracy in 2003, no one held their breath in anticipation of great changes. The Road Map, which includes the referendum as part of its seven-step plan, is expected to lead to another general election in 2010 and culminate in what the generals refer to as a “discipline-flourishing democracy”—a phrase that sounds distinctly
democratic, especially when used by a military junta that has demonstrated its enduring ability to rule against the will of the people.
After the cyclone, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon issued a statement urging the regime to postpone the referendum and concentrate on the relief effort, but the generals ignored him. Such was their determination to proceed with their plans that preparations for the referendum continued in the wake of the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history.
An impending sense of anarchy seemed to emanate from Rangoon. With no electricity, whole neighborhoods were plunged into total darkness each night. The cost of fuel was rising rapidly, and long queues had formed outside gas stations as people raced to fill up their vehicles before prices became too high. Most parts of the city had no running water, and many residents had to purchase water from the owners of neighborhood wells. In the markets, people who could afford to were buying up large amounts of food to stockpile at home. Commodity prices were spiraling ever higher, and there was talk that the city was running out of medicine, food, and water.
In the tumbledown outskirts of Rangoon, and farther afield in the Irrawaddy Delta, there was untold devastation. Everyone thought that the death toll was sure to be much higher than the figures stated by official sources. Boats transporting aid to the delta were encountering waterways clogged with dead bodies. Weak and shocked survivors whose homes and villages had been obliterated by the cyclone were beginning to congregate in bigger delta towns, where they sought shelter in monastery and school buildings that were ill equipped and poorly prepared for such large crowds. Thousands were camping alongside the roads. In the delta town of Laputta, shopkeepers and residents were said to be bolting their doors shut as gangs of survivors roamed the streets wielding machetes and demanding food.
An ominous story emerged from Insein Prison in northern Rangoon. A sprawling prison complex built by the British colonial administration in the late nineteenth century, Insein (pronounced “insane”) is the country’s most notorious lockup and holds hundreds of political prisoners along with other inmates. The cyclone had ripped off parts of the roof in the prison and some one thousand inmates were moved by prison guards into an assembly hall. Wet and shivering, the prisoners lit a fire to warm themselves, but the fire raged out of control and the prisoners panicked. Unable to quell what was threatening to explode into a full-scale prison riot, the guards called in armed soldiers who reportedly shot into the crowd, killing thirty-six prisoners and injuring at least seventy others.
The story of this prison massacre was like a microcosm, a bloody prediction in miniature, of what could happen on a far larger scale in Rangoon and across the delta. There was already speculation that riots would break out soon. If people began rioting, the soldiers would be deployed and—as reportedly happened in the prison and has happened many times before in Burma—the soldiers would start shooting people.
Given the ruthless track record of Burma’s soldiers, many thought the mounting turmoil could only end in bloodshed. But among the voices prophesying doom, there were also hopeful visions. Some believed that the regime would have to back down; this event was too big, too overwhelming, and sooner or later the regime would relent and accept foreign aid and assistance. The most hopeful went so far as to predict that the end result of all this mayhem would be the fall of the regime and the installation of a democratic government in Burma.
In the chaotic days after Cyclone Nargis, the mood of the country seemed to teeter wildly between abject despair and a deliriously irrational sense of hope.
that time, just over a week after the cyclone, that my request for a tourist visa for Burma was granted. I had been there many times before and, in the early 2000s, I had spent more than a year traveling back and forth to the country researching a book on the links—both factual and fictional—between Burma and the British writer George Orwell, who had been posted there as an imperial policeman in the 1920s, when the country was part of the British Empire.
Though my travels to the various towns Orwell had lived in sometimes attracted the interest of government spies curious as to what a lone female was doing so far off the usual tourist routes, I was never caught or questioned and have remained mostly below the radar. During the time I was there, I went to considerable lengths not to draw attention to myself; I conducted my research slowly and carefully, I was openly interested in the country’s history, took Burmese language lessons, and spent time hanging out in tea shops with Burmese friends. If there ever was a file kept on my activities at the time, I like to think it was filled with non-incriminating observations by bored spies (“the foreign woman has just ordered her
cup of tea this afternoon”). I also disguised people’s identities in my previous book, as I have done in this one. As a result, I have been able to travel there over the intervening years to visit friends, conduct further research, and write the occasional article.
Now, in the aftermath of Nargis, I wanted to return again to see what I could do to help and to try and catalog events from inside the country. Though I was doubtful that I would get in at a time when so many applications were being turned down, I applied for a visa through a travel agency in Thailand, where I live. Three days later I received a call telling me that I could pick up my passport, which was now stamped with a four-week tourist visa for the Union of Myanmar (as the regime renamed the country in 1989). My travel agent told me I could choose the day and time of my travel as, perhaps not surprisingly, commercial flights to Burma were mostly empty.
By then I was in fairly regular contact with friends in Rangoon and had received various requests and recommendations on what I should pack. The most important thing to bring was water purification tablets, wrote one friend in an e-mail, as the city was going to run dry in a matter of days. Another person advised me to fill my suitcase with dry noodles in case the shops started to shut down. Yet another told me to bring candles and matches, as there were none left in the city.
Many Burmese people I knew in Rangoon were organizing aid convoys. They were loading food, medicine, blankets, and drinking water into private cars and hired trucks and driving to the outskirts of Rangoon and down into the delta. Mass e-mails were sent out requesting critical supplies to be carried in by anyone who was able to get a visa. There were endless lists of medicines that were either unavailable or sold out in Rangoon, but the most insistent requests were for cash. There are no international banks in Burma, and aside from those at a few of the bigger hotels, there are no credit card or ATM facilities, so money must be carried in by hand. Nervous and bewildered by all the demands, I ended up packing my suitcase with a mixture of my own survival kit (peanut butter, dried fruit, water purifying tablets, and a headlamp), over-the-counter medical items for friends who were administering aid (electrolytes, Imodium, gauze), and hard cash (hundred-dollar bills stashed between the pages of a novel and hidden in boxes of pills).
On the day my plane landed at Rangoon airport, the runway was empty. After a major disaster, a working airport situated in the disaster zone would normally be crowded with fraught officials trying to organize the off-loading and onward transport of aid and equipment being flown in. But the airport was spookily quiet. It was a gray overcast day, and the compound had a dejected feeling that seemed to imply nothing much could ever happen there. As the plane taxied down the runway, I saw only two unused passenger planes and a lone soldier clad in the standard olive-green uniform. The soldier’s crumpled shirt was open at the neck, and he leaned against a tree, smoking a cheroot and gazing at the plane through lazy, half-closed eyes.
The atmosphere inside the airport terminal was no different from how it had been on previous trips I’d made. The Burmese people getting off the plane were laden down with the usual array of duty-free goods: boxes of chocolates, makeup, and whiskey. The handful of foreigners, most of whom were probably undercover journalists or aid workers slipping into the country on tourist visas, waited silently in the immigration queue, perhaps all sharing the same worry:
I hope they don’t know what I really do; I hope they don’t kick me out before I even get in
. Beyond the high glass walls that separated the immigration checkpoints from the greeting area, there was the familiar tight throng of people waiting eagerly for returning family and friends.
The immigration officer stamped my passport without even glancing up at me, and within minutes I had collected my suitcase and was sinking into the mildewed backseat of a battered Rangoon taxicab. The drive into the city used to be one of my favorite journeys. It was about a thirty-minute ride along tree-lined boulevards that skirted one of the city’s picturesque lakes, circled roundabouts with sculpted floral centerpieces, and passed the gardens that surround the majestic golden presence of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Alongside the newer Chinese-style buildings, which had increased in number over recent years, there was still the architecture of bygone times. There were dark wooden houses half hidden behind forests of trees, ornate monastery buildings with strips of paint peeling off the domed roofs, and brick-walled colonial homes set at the end of overgrown driveways. The thick covering of greenery along the drive had always given the city a hushed and secretive atmosphere.
After the skyscrapers of Bangkok, driving down the low-rise leafy streets of Rangoon felt to me like slipping back in time, which, in some senses, it was; my trips to Burma always meant relinquishing the modern-day technological gadgets I rely on at home. There is no international roaming service in Burma, and my cell phone was useless there. Internet providers are heavily monitored by the regime to prevent antigovernment material from getting into or out of the country, and access through the city’s cramped and crowded Internet cafés was often irregular and infuriatingly slow. Unable to distract myself with sending SMS texts or calling people during the cab journey into the city, there was nothing to do but sit back and watch the streets. And, always, there was the particular smell of Rangoon rushing in through the taxi’s open windows—a familiar dank and musty odor, like a room that has been shut up for a long time and is in need of a good airing.
But this time, even during the short taxi ride, I could see that the cyclone had totally transformed the city. Enormous hundred-year-old trees had been uprooted and tossed onto their sides. Telephone and electricity poles lay across the pavement, tangled up with wires and broken branches. Parts of the roofs of old houses had blown away, leaving behind gaping holes. Advertising billboards had been wrenched out of their moorings, though some shreds of the posters remained—among one set of twisted iron poles, a well-manicured hand held a steaming cup of coffee and a white-toothed smile fluttered in the breeze.
Before my arrival I had tried to book a hotel room, but with communication systems down after the cyclone, I had been unable to get through or even to ascertain if any hotels were still operating. Foreigners visiting Burma are not allowed to stay in Burmese homes, where all guests and overnight visitors must be registered with the neighborhood authorities, so a friend of mine had arranged for me to stay at a house temporarily vacated by an expatriate tenant. The house was a solid cement bungalow located in a well-to-do residential neighborhood and, apart from some minor damage to the overhanging roof, it had withstood the storm.
I spent my first few days in Rangoon checking on friends and delivering the supplies of cash and medicine I had brought. Though I knew the city well, I became lost a number of times, as so many landmarks had been altered; towering trees were no longer standing and buildings once obscured by greenery now stood out in the open. Having gone to the trouble of getting myself to Rangoon, I felt disoriented and useless once I was there. When I had finished dropping off the items I had brought with me, there didn’t seem much for me to do. Being a foreigner I was conspicuous, so I wasn’t able to go down to the delta easily and report on events. I had few other skills applicable to a disaster zone, so, for the time being, I had to content myself with following events as best I could from within the city.
The house I was staying in was almost unbearably quiet in the evenings. Without power and phone lines, there were none of the reassuring sounds of a home—no television, no music, no ringing telephone. The house was located some distance from the main street, so even the sound of passing traffic was absent. At nighttime, the darkness was absolute. Each evening I would put on my headlamp and wander from room to room in its feeble tunnel of light.
of information in Burma has always been difficult. The regime exerts control over the country in part by attempting to control the very reality in which people live. Everything that is published in Burma must first pass through a government censorship board. Each day censors are hunched over their desks sifting out sensitive news articles and searching for criticism of the regime that might be disguised in an allegorical short story or hidden within the rhyming couplets of a poem. To fill the gap left behind by the removal of independent news and views, the regime produces its own version of events, energetically rewriting the news in its favor and eliminating any contrary views.
New Light of Myanmar
, a newspaper published in both English and Burmese language editions, is the regime’s de facto mouthpiece. Printed on coarse paper in cheap black ink that rubs off onto your fingers, the daily specializes in good news. Few people I know consider it to be anything other than pure propaganda, but I read it every day whenever I am in Burma, not so much as a source of news but as a window into the point of view of the ruling generals. News as it is portrayed in the
New Light of Myanmar
does not represent how things actually are; it represents how the generals want things to be. And, in the case of Cyclone Nargis, the
New Light of Myanmar
portrayed a singularly unique take on events.
According to the official chronology of what happened after the storm, Burma’s prime minister, General Thein Sein, who was announced as the chairman of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee, convened a meeting in the new capital city of Naypyidaw at 8.30 A.M. on May 3, while the storm was still raging in Rangoon. State media reported that Thein Sein traveled south immediately afterward to begin overseeing the national relief operation. Almost every day the general was featured on the front cover of the
New Light of Myanmar
. When he was not pictured tirelessly briefing other soldiers in a never-ending schedule of meetings, he was shown inspecting government-run camps that had been set up for storm victims. According to the
New Light of Myanmar
, the relief effort was already a laudable accomplishment. Private citizens and the military had banded together in the country’s hour of need and, with the help of global goodwill, this disaster would soon be overcome. In the pages of the
New Light of Myanmar
, at least, everything was under control.
My Burmese friend Ko Ye, a publisher working in Rangoon, once taught me that if I wanted to know what was really going on in Burma, I should look for the absences; as the truth of events cannot be read in the pages of newspapers or seen on the nightly news, it is more likely to be found in what is
published or broadcast—the stories, or bits of stories, that are excised.
There were, for example, no disaster pictures in the
New Light of Myanmar
or in any of the many private weekly publications. The images of bereft families and broken homes usually seen in the news after a major disaster were absent. Though many Burmese publications had been able to use the disorder that ensued after the cyclone to defy the censorship board, and had run stories and photographs of the destruction, by the time I arrived in Rangoon the censors had regained control of the news.
The editor of a weekly news journal showed me a recent issue in which the censors had scrawled hasty lines across all photographs considered to be “negative” (images of collapsed buildings, sunken boats, unhappy people, etc.). Out of some one hundred photographs, the censors had only approved four images. Less than two weeks after the cyclone, Burmese journalists and editors were summoned to the central censorship office, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and were told that the emergency period was over. From then on, all Nargis-related stories published in Burma had to focus on rehabilitation and convey only positive messages.
It was impossible to see how the local media would be able to squeeze any positive stories out of the ongoing events. The conversations I had with friends and aid workers during my first few days revealed a reality that couldn’t be more different from that described in the
New Light of Myanmar
Aung Thein Kyaw, a middle-aged man who runs a tour company, had temporarily shut down his business and was making repeated trips to the delta to hand out rice and medicine. The conditions he encountered were horrifying. In a tight and carefully measured voice he talked about how the boat he traveled in kept bumping against dead bodies. He described survivors with ghastly injuries. During the cyclone, flying sheets of corrugated iron had severed limbs and torn flesh from bone. While trying to stay afloat in the choppy waters of the storm surge, people had been battered by loose logs, boats, and planks of wood. Without medical attention their gaping wounds were turning gangrenous. Survivors who had held on to trees for the ten-to-twelve-hour duration of the storm had clung on so tightly and for so long that the skin on their arms, chests, and legs had been rubbed away.
Wa Wa Myint, a doctor working in Rangoon who had been down to a delta town to treat patients, described some areas where the roads were lined with thousands of desperate and homeless people begging for food. “There are so many, many people,” she said. “And they have nowhere to go. They have nothing left. Some of them were naked after the storm. They have no home left and no family—they have absolutely nothing, not even their clothes.”