Myanmar cyclone trauma haunts survivors

THA KYAR HIN O: Emotional survivors gathered in Myanmar on Sunday to remember the 138,000 people left dead or missing by Cyclone Nargis, despite authorities largely ignoring the storm’s first anniversary.

No official ceremonies were planned and state media made no mention of the deadly storm, which lay waste to large swathes of the country on May 2-3 last year and drew worldwide criticism for Myanmar’s military rulers.

Only the Myanmar language daily newspaper Myanma Ahlin made any reference to the 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone, with photographs of the new houses authorities have built for some of the survivors.

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on May 2 and 3 with wind speeds reaching 240 km an hour and storm surges up to four metres high.

Thousands of homes were swept away, rice fields were flooded with saltwater and schools and hospitals were ravaged in the storm.

A year later aid agencies say half a million people remain without adequate homes, while at least 250,000 people will require food handouts until the end of 2009 at the earliest.

But many survivors were more concerned with the dead as they marked the cyclone’s anniversary today, with those who could afford to paying about 100,000 Kyats (100 dollars) in donations for a monk-led ceremony at home.

Win Khaing, 22, from Tha Kyar Hin O, hosted his own memorial before visiting the unveiling of a new cyclone shelter in his village.

“We did a memorial for my mum and two-year-old niece by donating to Buddhist monks this morning. I think they are in peace now,” he said.

Most people in this predominantly Buddhist country believe that donations to monasteries can lead to a more peaceful afterlife for dead souls. But many of those still reliant on handouts of aid to survive said they could not afford to pay for their own ceremony.

“I want to hold a memorial for my parents. But I can’t help as we are also relying on donations,” said 38-year-old Aye Tint, from Shwe Magyikan village that neighbours Tha Kyar Hin O.

Aye Tint lost both her parents and two sisters to the cyclone, while nearly 60 residents from her village were killed.

She and her sister Thaung believe they have been possessed with the restless spirits of their dead relatives, who they said would not find peace until a monk-led memorial is held.

Myanmar’s military government faced international criticism for its immediate response to the storm, accused of stymieing emergency aid and initially refusing to grant access to humanitarian workers and supplies.

In late May UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon brokered a deal that allowed a group of officials from the UN, Myanmar’s government and regional bloc ASEAN to coordinate aid deliveries to the delta.