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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.
One of the deadliest cyclones of all time, Nargis exposed Myanmar's extreme lack of infrastructure, killing an estimated 140,000 people. The Delta still hasn't recovered.
THA KHIN MA GYI, Myanmar — Without warning, it began at mid-afternoon with a howling wind. Five hours later, U Hla Kyi remembers, a tidal wave the height of a three-story building thundered in from the nearby sea, bursting into his home as its bricks, iron framing and cement blocks were blown skyward like feathers by the cyclone’s force.
Plunging into the surrounding water, U Hla Kyi tried to swim to safety, grasping for any anchor that could stop him from being swept away, when he heard a voice shouting, “Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
Near a riverbank, he saw his son clinging to a lone tree. Both almost naked, the two hung on together until the swirling waves and wind around them subsided in the early morning.
Within 12 hours Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s greatest natural disaster of modern times, had killed his wife and two daughters and robbed him of most of his livelihood. It destroyed every house in the village of Tha Khin Ma Gyi and caused the deaths of two-thirds of its inhabitants.
Like thousands of farmers and fishermen in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River Delta, through which the 2008 cyclone cut a swath of utter devastation and took an estimated 140,000 lives, U Hla Kyi hoped the government and foreign agencies would come to his aid in the tragedy’s aftermath, and then again following the more recent economic and political reforms of a civilian government. But these hopes have been often been dashed.
“In the Delta farmers remain poor. We feel that we have been neglected by the government.”~U Khin Maw
Some gains have been made in the Delta since Nargis, and President Thein Sein, who assumed power in 2010 after half a century of military rule, has vowed to invigorate the sorely neglected agricultural sector. Official reports show that quality roofing, drinking water and sanitation has improved and the presence of foreign and local aid agencies has upped the skills of villagers and emboldened them to voice their demands.
But according to the most recent statistics compiled by the government and international organizations, those living below the poverty line — defined as earning under $1.25 a day — doubled between 2005 and 2010 to 32 percent while landlessness and unemployment increased slightly in the same period.
With more farmers than cultivatable land and without jobs in manufacturing and other industries, wages have fallen, the average rural worker making about 2,100 kyat ($2.10) a day. The health and education sectors remain underdeveloped.
“The government talks repeatedly about ‘poverty eradication’ and international companies are eyeing investment in Myanmar, but nobody cares about agricultural sector even though 70 percent of country’s population lives in rural areas,” says U Khin Maw, who is teaching farmers about the proper use of fertilizer in the village of Khan Su West. “In the Delta farmers remain poor. We feel that we have been neglected by the government.”
Like many villages in the Delta, where the mighty Irrawaddy splits into half a dozen arms before emptying into the sea, Kan Su West can only be reached by boat, a 1 ½-hour trip from the nearest major town through tangled mangrove swamps and along the innumerable waterways that crisscross the region.
Home to 480 people dependent on farming, it’s a small cluster of thatch-roofed buildings along a riverbank with few trees to screen the parching summer sun or the monsoon rains, which turn its streets into mud.
With the rains now showering the community daily, its farmers are behind bullock-driven plows, preparing their vital rice paddies for planting, hoping for bountiful harvests but knowing they won’t prove sufficient to improve their livelihoods to any extent.
The village suffered no deaths during Nargis, but most of its houses were destroyed and its fields saturated by the surging salt water, and the expensive, time-consuming desalination of the soil, a major problem across the Delta, has yet to be seriously tackled by the government or foreign agencies.
Thus, salt-damaged fields lie fallow and others yield less than before the cyclone, while prices for essential inputs — seeds, fertilizer, gasoline, labor — have risen sharply. Two-thirds of Kan Su’s farmers are now landless, forced to seek a declining number of jobs as seasonal laborers. Average per family incomes have dropped from 3,000 to