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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.
3,500 kyat ($3-5) a day before the tragedy to some 2,000 to 2,500 ($2-2.50) at present.
U Than Htwe, the 44-year-old village chief and father of three young children, said the bitter experience after Nargis has brought sorrow rather than anger to his family and neighbors — who focus more on their own precarious lives than on what has not been done for them.
The 47 acres of farmland he owned before the cyclone have now shrunk to 11 after selling off salinated land to repay debts.
Growing an acre of rice, he said, costs 150,000 to 200,000 kyat ($150-200), but last year, even with a slight increase in rice prices, his per acre profit of 100,000 kyat ($100) was not enough to meet debt repayments.
“The number of farmers are declining gradually since the capital investment is out of balance with rice yields,” he says, speaking in a meeting room before taking reporters on a tour of his native village.
After Nargis, the government’s Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank provided loans — 40,000 kyat ($400) an acre — at a low interest rate, but it wasn’t enough to meet costs, forcing farmers to turn to usurious money lenders who have demanded an interest rate of as much as a 20 percent from U Than Htwe and others.
This post-Nargis erosion of agriculture — the village’s traditional way of life — is increasingly transforming Kan Su and many other Delta villages into habitations for children and older men and women.
“All our young people want to go to cities to find jobs because fewer and fewer farms can operate,” said 56-year-old farmer U Tin Shein, whose four young sons are still at home, helping out on his 11-acre farm.
Education in Kan Su ends with the seventh grade, and 60 percent of the students don’t go beyond that. What learning is available in the school, rebuilt in brick after Nargis by a non-governmental organization, is of low standard, says teacher Daw Yin Nwet, stressing the lack of teachers — just four to teach 50 students in seven grades.
Medical care is also rudimentary: a single, two-room government clinic with no doctors and only one nurse — 56-year-old Daw Tin Myaing — for 4,600 people in the village and surrounding communities to treat everything from dengue fever to goiters to snake bites. Those suffering from serious illnesses or who need emergency care during pregnancies must, like the children who seek higher education, undertake the long, expensive journey to the town of Bogalay from their isolated world.
Bogalay is hardly a godsend. It was and remains a ramshackle town with basic infrastructure — no hotels, reliable electricity or local public transport and almost no internet connection — suggesting the economy has remained generally stagnant. The finest buildings are religious — Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu. The town is located in the southern part of the Delta, the country’s rice bowl and before the disastrous half-century of military rule, one of the greatest rice exporting regions in the world.
Encompassing nearly 600 villages, Bogalay Township suffered heavily during Nargis: more than 36,000 dead or missing. And in its aftermath the township seat became a key hub for relief operations, remaining so today although some two-thirds of the NGOs have now withdrawn from the Delta.
Nargis, some say, has become “a forgotten crisis” as foreign agencies focus on more recent humanitarian disasters around the world and the post-military government becomes embroiled in a host of leftover problems and new challenges.
In one of the cruelest acts of the former regime, foreign aid and workers were hindered, sometimes blocked, from reaching the desperate cyclone victims. By contrast, the new government is welcoming NGOs, both Burmese and foreign, and local officials are normally cooperative. Foreign journalists, once barred from the Delta, have generally easy access.
"Now, they [local government officers] ask us 'Can I help you?' It was different two years ago,” says Ko Nay Tun, Delta program director of Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, or LIFT, under which local and international NGOs establish demonstration farms and rice banks, help boost agricultural output and provide microfinancing.
This and similar help, although limited and not covering many areas, has offered some hope