Burma's fertile delta where death was the crop

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A cyclone killed 138,000 in the Irrawaddy Delta five years ago. Peter Popham returns to find angry survivors

Rarely does Burma look more idyllic than along the single-track lane, fringed by banana and rattan palms, that goes from Pyapon to Bogale in the Irrawaddy Delta. There is water everywhere: the stream that runs alongside the road, crossed by bamboo bridges, ponds full of ducks or pink lotus flowers, a river where black water buffalo wallow up to their shoulders. The flimsy wooden farmhouses, each with its big glazed pot to collect rainwater, are fronted by gleaming paddy fields and framed by coconut palms. Everything one's eye falls on shouts of life and fertility.

Yet, more than anywhere else in Burma, this is a place of death.

Two hundred years ago, the Delta was a huge malarial swamp, a wilderness. But after being drained during British rule it became the rice bowl and melting pot of the nation, home to hundreds of thousands of Burmese and Karen people, as well as many Hindu and Muslim migrants from the Indian subcontinent. Watered by Burma's greatest river, the fertile soil provides a living to farmers willing to brave a fierce climate and wandering water courses. But the Delta is too close to the sea ever to be truly safe – as its inhabitants found five years ago this week.

The cyclone they dubbed Nargis – a Hindi word meaning Narcissus – made landfall in the town of Pyapon at 6pm on the evening of 2 May 2008. "We heard the radio warning just 30 minutes before it arrived," says a young man in the office of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "The government said it was travelling at 40-50mph. But DVB [Democratic Voice of Burma, an alternative broadcaster based in Norway] – "said it was 120-150mph. It moved through the Delta like a snake. At 7.30, a huge wave crashed through the town with the eye of the cyclone swirling through. "

It was a disaster for which Burma was ill-prepared. The poorest country in South-East Asia, it had been ruled for half a century by a military junta whose priority was combating insurgencies on the borders, cutting lucrative secret deals with crony businessmen, and keeping the population in fear and ignorance. Civil defence was a long way down its list of priorities. And massive aid from abroad was not something Burma's ruling generals were likely to contemplate. Burma had gone into its shell after the coup that brought General Ne Win to power in 1962, and now it rivals North Korea as the hermit of Asia. Yet without outside aid it has struggled to recover from a blow like this.

The official death toll was 138,366, though many believe the figure to be much higher. Five years on, I am taking a boat trip through the Delta's waterways to hear the tales of Nargis survivors.

At Bogale, children bathe in the Gone Nyin Tan river, deep brown with silt, as we head south towards the village of Sat Saw, a two-hourboat journey through this web of vast rivers. Little has changed here in half a century of military rule. A fisherman throws his net from the stern of his small rowing boat. More rowers propel a boat stacked with logs upstream. On the breeze comes the smell of burning rice stubble.

As we head away from the Delta's small towns towards the sea, activity both on shore and on the water dwindles.

Then, at the far end of a narrow inlet, on the southern bank, we see the gleaming roofs of the little village of Sat Saw. Along the village footpaths – there are no driveable roads and no wheeled vehicles here – we are taken to meet a man called Phoe Swe, aged 50, in the dingy rattan hut that he and his surviving children call home. "Nargis hit this village at 8pm and it washed many people into the sea," he recalls. "I ran out of my house with my family to take shelter in a nearby Buddhist monastery, but after an hour another big wave came and smashed the monastery's pillars, so with one of my kids on my back and two in my arms I climbed a tree. We stayed up the tree all night and when the morning came we saw that everything was destroyed." Amazingly, eight of his nine children survived up that tree, clinging to each other. Only his wife and their youngest one, 10 months old, failed to make it.

For the next four or five days, they survived on coconuts. After that, help arrived from a Buddhist NGO. And the army? "They didn't help at all," he says. "We didn't even see them in the village." Five years on, he says: "I'm still struggling. It's hard to get back to a normal life. The year after Nargis, we had no rice crop as the fields were soaked in salt water."

In another hut nearby, Thein Win, 56, tells of his lucky escape. "We were all sleeping over in our hut by the paddy field when the cyclone struck," he says. "The cyclone didn't hit us there. But our house here was destroyed, and five of our friends who were staying in it all died."

In all, 530 villagers, more than one-third of the population, died. "It's because our village is so close to the sea," explains shopkeeper Tun Lin. "We are in the front line. Even now, if it rains hard, the children get scared and hide under blankets."

The military junta was slow to respond to the disaster, slow to release information – and slow allowing foreign aid agencies to help. They released bizarrely detailed casualty figures, they posed in front of Potemkin IDP camps for the cameras of the state-controlled media, but actually bringing aid to the hundreds of thousand of desperate survivors without food or fresh water – that did not seem a task worthy of their attention.

Instead, Burmese civil society, almost wiped out through the decades of army repression, leapt into the breach, with dozens of ad hoc groups organising missions to bring food, water, medicine and other necessities to the devastated communities. The Buddhist monks' organisation that saved the lives of Phoe Swe and his children was one of many. The most celebrated was the flotilla of boats organised by Zarganar, the nation's most popular and subversive comedian, which took aid to 42 remote villages. But when, in June 2008, he spoke to foreign media about the plight of millions of survivors in the Delta left to fend for themselves, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to 59 years in jail for "public order offences".

Some of the larger international agencies eventually prevailed on the generals to let them in, and in the village of Sat Saw, their legacy is plainly visible: solid concrete bridges over the waterways, courtesy of Care International; a new primary school, built on stilts to double as a refuge in the event of another disaster, thanks to Unicef. The Swiss Red Cross provided mosquito nets, a Japanese NGO gifted a water tank. The NLD, though at the time still a persecuted and semi-legal party, dug a drinking water pond, helped rebuild village houses and concreted the main pathway through the village.

And the military government? What was their contribution? "Nothing," says Tun Lin, the shore owner who today is head of the local branch of the NLD, established in December 2012. "On account of Nargis, they didn't tax the rice harvest that year. But they taxed us double the next."

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