Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma

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Read Emma Larkin's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A deeply reported account of life inside Burma in the months following the disastrous Cyclone Nargis and an analysis of the brutal totalitarian regime that clings to power in the devastated nation.

On May 2, 2008, an enormous tropical cyclone made landfall in Burma, wreaking untold havoc and leaving an official toll of 138,300 dead and missing. In the days that followed, the sheer scale of the ...

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Read Emma Larkin's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A deeply reported account of life inside Burma in the months following the disastrous Cyclone Nargis and an analysis of the brutal totalitarian regime that clings to power in the devastated nation.

On May 2, 2008, an enormous tropical cyclone made landfall in Burma, wreaking untold havoc and leaving an official toll of 138,300 dead and missing. In the days that followed, the sheer scale of the disaster became apparent as information began to seep out from the hard-hit delta area. But the Burmese regime, in an unfathomable decision of near-genocidal proportions, provided little relief to its suffering population and blocked international aid from entering the country. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens lacked food, drinking water, and basic shelter, but the xenophobic generals who rule the country refused emergency help.

Emma Larkin, who has been traveling to and secretly reporting on Burma for years, managed to arrange for a tourist visa in those frenzied days and arrived hoping to help. It was impossible for anyone to gauge just how much devastation the cyclone had left in its wake; by all accounts, including the regime's, it was a catastrophe of epic proportions. In Everything Is Broken, Emma Larkin chronicles the chaotic days and months that followed the storm, revealing the secretive politics of Burma's military dictatorship and the bizarre combination of vicious military force, religion, and mysticism that defined its unthinkable response to this horrific event.

The Burmese regime hid the full extent of the storm's devastation from the rest of the world, but the terrible consequences for Burma and its citizens continue to play out months after the headlines have faded from newspapers around the world. In Everything Is Broken, Larkin-whose deep knowledge of the Burmese people has afforded her unprecedented access and a rare understanding of life under Burmese oppression-provides a singular portrait of the regime responsible for compounding the tragedy and examines the historical, religious, and superstitious setting that created Burma's tenacious and brutal dictatorship. Writing under an assumed name, Larkin delivers the heretofore untold story of a disaster that stunned the world, unveiling as she does so the motivations of the impenetrable generals who govern this troubled nation.

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Editorial Reviews

Wendy Law-Yone
Everything Is Broken is Larkin's eyewitness account of the cyclone's chaotic aftermath, both in Rangoon and throughout the devastated delta. Larkin's writing is graceful, and the final third of the book describing her work with the survivors is all the more powerful for her unobtrusive style.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Larkin (Finding George Orwell in Burma), an American journalist writing under a pseudonym, reports on the unreported (and suppressed) story of the May 2008 cyclone Nargis, which devastated southwestern Burma, causing over 100,000 deaths. Larkin, who has been covering the country for the past 15 years, visited Burma immediately after the storm to collect testimonies of the cyclone survivors and the horrific destruction they witnessed. Many of their harrowing stories surpass the images of the 2004 tsunami and the Haiti earthquake in terms of utter hopelessness, partly because the government did little to nothing to help cyclone victims, initially refused international disaster aid, and willfully withheld information about survivors and their needs. Once the regime began to allow aid into the country, weeks after the disaster, it siphoned off funds to fill its own coffers. With indefatigable shoe-leather journalism—she visits decimated villages one by one, even while hampered by her tenuous visa status and the government's suppression of free speech and the free press—Larkin reconstructs what happened in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis and indicts the insulated regime for creating a desperately untenable situation for its people. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
The pseudonymous Larkin (Finding George Orwell in Burma, 2005) exposes a totalitarian regime's obstacles to relief and recovery after the devastating cyclone of May 2, 2008. Because of her pseudonym and her skill at disguising her frequent visits to Myanmar-the country officially changed its name from Burma, although the author persists in using the British designation-the Bangkok-based American journalist was able to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the catastrophic damage of Cyclone Nargis. Satellite photos revealed that it had "significantly altered the landscape and must have caused substantial damage," yet the official acknowledgement of the storm by the country's leader Gen. Than Shwe was slow to emerge, and the government obstructed the relief efforts of the UN and other international-aid agencies. Larkin traces these early frantic efforts to distribute aid in spite of the government's resistance and obfuscation-no pictures of the damage were allowed in "the regime's de facto mouthpiece," the New Light of Myanmar, as the censors deemed them "negative." The author attributes this recalcitrance to the military regime's paranoia at being invaded. The official death toll was released on May 17 (77,738 dead 55,917 missing), but the author was unsure about the sourcing of the statistics. As there was no reliable news available, Larkin often relied on rumors ("Finding reliable sources of information in Burma has always been difficult"). The middle section of the book is a fascinating examination of the 20-year iron rule of the reclusive Than, who ascended the military ranks and effectively keeps the country together through fear of insurgents and invaders. He abruptly moved thecapital to Naypyidaw, keeps the opposition and monks jailed so there is no one to vote or demonstrate against him and operates under the guidance of astrology. Once again Larkin does a fine job exposing injustice in this impoverished, deeply troubled pocket of the world. An eye-opening, urgent look behind an official screen of lies.
From the Publisher
"Once again Larkin does a fine job exposing injustice in this impoverished, deeply troubled pocket of the world. An eye-opening, urgent look behind an official screen of lies." —Kirkus
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202575
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/29/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily Durante has narrated the Midnight Twins trilogy by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Casting Off by Nicole R. Dickson, and Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas, and directed the Earphones Award�winning performance of Heaven's Keep narrated by Buck Schirner.
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Read an Excerpt

Part One
Skyful of Lies

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.


A 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, nargis 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 longyi, 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 undemocratic, 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.

It was around that time 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 third 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.

Finding reliable sources 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.

The 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 not 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.”

One evening a friend took me to meet Chit Swe, who had just returned from traveling with a group of fellow businessmen to the southern stretches of the delta. Even before the storm, the lower regions of the delta were accessible only by boat, as no road network had ever been built there. Hardly any news had been heard from those areas, and it was believed that villages there must have taken the brunt of the storm. The businessmen had companies in the delta—fishing operations and rice- trading firms—and they had left the city soon after the storm, heading out to the villages in a large boat loaded with rice, drinking water, and tarpaulin sheets that could be used for shelter. Though the prime minister had warned members of the business community who were organizing similar donations that cameras were prohibited in the delta, Chit Swe had taken a camcorder.

To see the footage, we went to Chit Swe’s house—a mansion with a sweeping teakwood staircase leading up from a high-ceilinged entrance hall. It was by far the grandest home I had ever visited in Burma, and it made me think that these men must be working closely with the regime to secure such profits. Regardless of their connections, they had gone against the prime minister’s orders to collect evidence of conditions in the delta that they now wanted to show to foreigners. We gathered around a flat-screen television. It was late at night, and Chit Swe—a bulky, overweight man whose chubby fingers were being strangled by golden, gem-studded rings—had cracked open a bottle of Johnnie Walker whiskey that he drank on the rocks as we watched the grim journey the businessmen had made to the delta.

Taken about a week after the cyclone struck, the images were staggeringly bleak. Most houses in the delta are built out of bamboo or wood and have palm-thatch roofs—in the event of a cyclone as powerful as Nargis, they are no better than origami huts folded out of paper. The first villages the businessmen arrived in had been completely demolished. Even the few concrete buildings in each village—often small monasteries or schools—had been reduced to heaps of rubble. Blank-faced survivors wandered aimlessly amid the wreckage, occasionally bending over to pick up a soggy scrap of cloth or a bamboo pole that might be useful for rigging up a shelter.

In one village along the Pyan Mae Law River, the businessmen came across a small gathering of people who had made a lopsided tent out of a ragged piece of tarpaulin and some planks. Chit Swe said somberly that at least 80 percent of the people living in the village were now dead or missing. The flooded paddy fields surrounding the makeshift shelter were littered with corpses of people and farm animals. Those who had survived had done so mostly by holding on to trees and managing to stay above the storm surge. One survivor commented that the dead were lucky compared to the living, who now found themselves trapped in a place that looked and felt like hell itself.

Chit Swe explained that they had to ration their supplies so that they could cover more ground and assess conditions in a number of villages. As they traveled farther south, the situation grew progressively worse. It was the ill-fated villages closer to the coast and those located along the banks of large rivers that appeared to have suffered the most. Wherever the boat docked, subdued groups of men would approach the vessel and quietly off-load whatever supplies the businessmen had to offer. In these areas, where the storm surge had been especially violent, there were often few women and children to be seen, because they hadn’t had the physical strength needed to hold on for the duration of the storm. When the boat left, the same men would stand in a row on the riverbank. They did not wave or smile or talk. They just stood there, silhouetted against the washed-out, monsoon sky and watched the boat sail away.

At the final village the businessmen went to before they ran out of supplies, they met a monk who showed them where the monastery had once stood. Though it had been made of concrete, only the foundations remained. The monk pointed to a large tree that was still standing and explained how thirty people had been saved by the tree as they clung to it while the water swirled around them. He directed the camera to a life-sized Buddha statue that was miraculously untouched by the storm. With its gentle half smile, the Buddha image looked incongruously serene and placid.

The camera panned out from the statue to take in a diabolical view of countless human corpses and the carcasses of farm animals that had swollen to twice their usual size. The monk said that the dead were not people from his village but had been washed up by the storm surge. Exposed to the elements for many long days, they had become unidentifiable and almost inhuman-looking. In Buddhist communities, the dead would customarily be cremated, but the land was saturated from the storm and the constant drizzle that followed it, and villagers had no wood or matches to construct funeral pyres. So the bodies remained, lying on the land and floating in the waterways.

The monk raised his arm and pointed into the gloom, across the flat, broken land. He indicated villages that were located farther south, and his voice seemed devoid of all emotion as he said, “Down there, it is even worse.”

The footage Chit Swe showed us from one short journey along a single river in the Irrawaddy Delta represented only a tiny fraction of the overall picture. There are innumerable waterways in the delta, and the cyclone-affected parts amounted to just over 9,000 square miles, a landmass over twice the size of Lebanon, that was home to more than seven million people. The townships around Rangoon were also known to be in bad condition, as people there live in flimsy slum housing on low-lying land that is vulnerable to heavy winds and flooding. The same scenes we saw at Chit Swe’s house could have been replayed over and over again just beyond the edges of Rangoon and out across the vast expanse of the delta.

During their journey, Chit Swe and his colleagues did not see any other assistance being delivered. There were no soldiers or Navy boats on the water and no aid workers in the villages. Many villagers said that the help the businessmen gave them was the first they had received.

The businessmen wanted to continue to help but were unsure what was needed, and the conversation in the room turned to a discussion of what they could do next. Someone in the room suggested that their footage of the delta should be taken to the U.S. embassy, as it was hard-to-get evidence of actual conditions after the storm that should be shown outside the country. Chit Swe quickly dismissed the idea; the film contained images of the businessmen delivering aid, and they did not want it to be seen beyond their own circle of trusted viewers. They wanted to help, but they didn’t want to anger the authorities. In this uncertain climate it was not yet clear whether donating aid and recording suffering caused by a natural disaster would be perceived by the military junta as a crime.

Despite the possible dangers, everyone I knew was doing something to help. With little visible government support and restricted assistance from abroad, private citizens were stepping into the breech. Throughout the city groups of Rangoon residents banded together to collect money and deliver much-needed supplies to the delta and the outlying areas around Rangoon. Relief missions were being coordinated by traders, doctors, schoolteachers, students, writers, actors, musicians, and just about anyone who had even the slightest means. Like many celebrities, the popular comedian and former political prisoner Zargana was organizing a team of volunteers to move lifesaving supplies to people in the delta. Leading monks and abbots, such as the revered Sitagu Sayadaw, activated their countrywide donor networks to support monasteries that were sheltering survivors. The expatriate community was also pitching in, with gutsy embassy wives whose spouses worked at foreign embassies making use of the diplomatic license plates on their cars to storm through checkpoints carrying food and medicine.

A couple of days after I arrived in Burma, I went to deliver some cash I had brought for a friend who ran a private school in Rangoon. All classes had been put on hold as the school’s teenage students were helping to coordinate their own small-scale emergency response. The school grounds had become the headquarters for the operation. Sacks of lentils, rice, and potatoes were piled up around the yard. Mud-splattered trucks were parked in the gateway. Students were sorting frantically through boxes of medicine and counting out sheets of tarpaulin. A map indicating the path of the cyclone had been pinned to a wall and next to it was a whiteboard charting the daily movements of relief teams being sent to the outskirts of Rangoon.

On the morning I was there, a group of emergency experts had just arrived from Israel. The four-man team had traveled on tourist visas, as they would not have been allowed to enter the country in an official capacity as aid workers. Its members were well versed in the skills needed after a natural disaster, and the team leader had a PhD in disaster management. Trained to perform search-and-rescue missions and provide medical care in the field, these men had dealt with catastrophes across the globe in places as far afield as Turkey, Chad, and El Salvador. Here in Burma, however, they were rendered almost useless; their access to the disaster zone was blocked by military checkpoints, and they could not even publicly declare that they were there to try to help. If they wanted to contribute their expertise, they had to do so in a low-key, semi-secretive way.

To this end, the emergency team had come to the school as advisers, to brief the students on techniques that might be useful in the field. The team members sat on a low stage at the front of the school hall and talked to a crowd of around thirty people. It was Disaster Response 101, aimed at creating instant relief workers out of inexperienced but eager Burmese volunteers. The audience listened attentively, but the room was rustling with barely contained impatience. The speakers had to talk above a continuous percussion of tapping feet and muffled conversations.

The leader of the emergency team began by asking for information from anyone who had been to the cyclone-affected areas. “Give me only descriptions, no emotions,” he said. “Please try to separate your emotions.”

Most of the descriptions came from the edges of Rangoon, where sprawling shantytowns were hit hard by the cyclone. In these areas, thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed by the wind and floods had sought shelter in local monasteries, but the monasteries were filled to the bursting point, and there was no more space for people to sleep. Some monasteries had been stocked with food in preparation for Buddhist Lent, when resident monks remain inside the compound for three months during the rainy season, but within just a few days, these supplies had been depleted. The monasteries had run out of resources; they were feeding the hungry masses with watered-down rice gruel. In some areas, local authorities were trying to provide assistance but were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of need. A young medical student described how some seven hundred people were camped in and around a single-story school building that had only four bathrooms.

The reports were often confused and sometimes conflicting. One person described conditions in one neighborhood as under control; minutes later another person describing the same area said that the situation was deteriorating by the hour. The emergency specialists suggested that people take photographs wherever they went and mark down the time, date, and location so that they could monitor whether conditions were getting better or worse. The team leader had a reassuringly calm manner and offered up plenty of easy-to-follow practical advice. Most heads in the room were bowed over notebooks as people scribbled down his five-point checklist for assessing a disaster. He explained that the quality and quantity of the following necessities (listed in order of importance) were essential to survival:

1. Drinking water

2. Food

3. Shelter

4. Sanitation

5. Medicine and medical treatment

It sounded quite simple, but it was critical knowledge for first-time aid workers volunteering in extreme circumstances and it illustrated just how inexperienced they were in dealing with an emergency situation. I jotted it all down, just in case:

  • If there is no clean drinking water, carry purifying tablets or, in a worst-case scenario, use drops of iodine (five drops per quart).
  • People will also need something to hold the water—make sure to have a good supply of jerricans.
  • Remember that any kind of relief supplied should be complete. There is no point in giving rice if people don’t have a pot to cook it in. There is no point in giving pots if they don’t have matches to light a fire. Matches or a lighter are useless if people don’t have access to tinder.

The morning was wearing on and the hall began to heat up. A strong smell of onions permeated the room, coming from the sacks of produce that had been stacked against the walls. The audience became ever more restless; the foot tapping had increased, and every so often someone pushed back his chair and crept out into the yard, lured by the noise of activity outside as trucks were packed with commodities and students were chosen to accompany the vehicles. By the time the emergency team broached the topic of sanitation, the crowd had dwindled to about ten people, and the noise outside had reached a distracting crescendo of urgent voices and revving truck engines.

As the audience dispersed, the Israeli team talked to individuals who approached them with specific questions. The doctor offered to look at photographs of wounds and advise young medical students present on how to treat them and what medicines would be useful to carry. I picked up snippets from disparate conversations taking place around the yard; topics under discussion included the disposal of dead bodies using lime powder, the cooking time required for lentils, and how to diagnose the first symptoms of gangrene.

I chatted with a member of the emergency team who was morosely chain-smoking cigarettes. He explained that he was accomplished in search and rescue and could save people’s lives under the water, high on mountaintops, or wherever they might be in danger. Stuck here in Rangoon far from the scene of the emergency, he was not getting his adrenaline fix.

“This is not how I like to operate,” he said. “I do not want to be sitting here giving lectures. I want to be out there. I need action!” It was a sentiment that was shared by many foreigners itching to get into the field. Organizations like Médicins Sans Frontières and Save the Children were sending out teams of local staff but, because of the government’s restrictions on the movement of foreigners, the more experienced international staff had to stay in Rangoon coordinating efforts from a distance. As one aid worker I talked to aptly put it, they had been forced into conducting an emergency operation by remote control.

Unable to get to the places where they were needed, I saw aid workers killing time around the city. When I went to meet a friend at Monsoon, one of a handful of fancy restaurants in Rangoon, the place was packed. Monsoon is an elegant luncheon spot set in a row of renovated shop-houses. Black ceiling fans swirl the cool air-conditioned air, and the menu serves up Asian favorites made palatable for the Western tongue, from pad thai to nasi goreng. At one table a group of Red Cross workers, wearing the fire-engine-red vests that identify them in the field, lingered over a lunch of many courses. At another table I recognized some UN staff clinking beer glasses. It was not exactly where I had expected to see aid workers during an emergency operation. But this, clearly, was not your average emergency.

Even before Cyclone Nargis, the UN and NGOs operated under tight constraints in Burma. In addition to curtailed movement, there were limitations on what kind of programs could be conducted, and the authorities insisted on vetting and monitoring all proposed activities. In recent years there had been clashes between the regime and various aid organizations. In 2005, the regime decided to appoint its own representatives to observe International Committee of the Red Cross meetings with Burmese prisoners. As the ICRC upholds a policy of total confidentiality during its discussions with inmates, it has therefore been prevented from monitoring Burmese prisons since the end of 2005. In the same year, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria pulled out after promising more than US$98 million for disease control; the fund stated that its ability to manage programs was compromised by the ever-tightening travel restraints on international aid workers.

When viewed in light of the country’s extreme poverty, these controversies were tragic. UN reports show that more than 30 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished, and that Burma is the only country in the world where the vitamin deficiency beriberi still kills infants. The government’s will and ability to provide social services has been severely denuded over decades of military rule, and it has the lowest government health spending worldwide, with a meager 0.3 percent of the gross domestic product reportedly allocated to public health care.

Yet, due largely to the difficulty of working with the dictatorship, Burma receives far less international assistance than other countries in the region. The United Nations Development Programme recorded that people in Burma received just under US$3 worth of aid per year per capita—a shockingly low amount, especially when compared to the $38 per person received in Cambodia and $49 in neighboring Laos.

Aid workers responding to Cyclone Nargis who were not among the few international NGOs registered with and approved by the Burmese government had to keep a low profile and cover their tracks. At a hotel business center, I listened to a Western man talking on a long-distance telephone line about how many blankets and tents he had been able to send down to “the special place.” Though he had obviously been organizing aid deliveries, he never used the words “cyclone” or “delta” and must have been concerned that the phone line was being tapped.

Back at the school, the nervous energy spinning around the yard had been ratcheted up a few more notches. Rumors were spreading that the regime’s restrictions on the movement of foreigners would soon be extended to Burmese people as well. Already there were reports of trucks being stopped and soldiers at checkpoints taking down the ID numbers of anyone going to the delta. Though they had no assurance that vehicles carrying aid would even be allowed to leave the city, the students carried on loading food and supplies onto trucks as fast as they could.

There were no soldiers on the streets of Rangoon; I often wondered where they had gone. With between four to five hundred thousand troops, the regime has a huge source of able-bodied men at its disposal; why were they not more visible in the city clearing roads, restoring phone lines and electrical wires, or unclogging sewage pipes?

The first soldiers I saw involved in the post-cyclone mop-up were a ragtag band wandering around the smart Golden Valley neighborhood where houses set in large gardens are laid out along winding lanes. The area used to be shaded by trees, but the cyclone had stripped away the greenery and left the homes bare and exposed. The air smelled of freshly hewn wood and rotting vegetation, like a damp forest floor.

I had been in the neighborhood dropping off medicine and money for Rosalind Maung, a retired teacher of English literature who had helped me research George Orwell’s influence in Burma for my previous book. She was showing me the trees in her garden that had been uprooted or snapped by the storm (a mango tree planted by her grandmother, two hefty tamarind trees she and her brothers had played under as children). The gang of soldiers came up to her property and began banging rhythmically on the iron gate. I looked through the grilles in the fence and saw that their uniforms were stained and tattered. One carried a rusting scythe and another gripped a wood-handled machete. Rosalind reluctantly walked over to the gate to speak with them. It transpired that they were mercenaries of a sort, going door-to-door offering their services for hire to chop logs and dispose of trees that had been felled by the cyclone. Rosalind declined the offer. As soon as the soldiers walked on and began rattling her neighbor’s gate, she went into her house and brought out a padlock that she used to lock her gate from the inside. You can never be too sure, she explained, when Burmese soldiers are wandering around the city carrying weapons and offering help.

According to the state media, soldiers and policemen were being deployed throughout Rangoon and the delta to clear up the storm damage. But only very occasionally was there any evidence of these activities and, even then, they were never very industrious or effective. I saw a team of policemen tasked with cleaning up a park who were doing little more than leaning against piles of logs, smoking and joking. Four of the policemen were asleep on the ground, their bodies limp beneath the diminished shade offered by one of the few trees still standing. I wondered why they seemed so unconcerned about being reprimanded for their inaction, but then I realized that they had no tools. The team of twenty or so men had only one ax to chop the fallen logs and branches of an entire park.

Not long after that I saw a truck filled with soldiers driving down Bogyoke Aung San Road, one of the main streets in downtown Rangoon. The street is where the city’s most famous market for dry goods is located. Built during British times, the market has a high, gracefully arched roof, and it is still encircled by cobblestone side streets. The goods on sale are considered high-end commodities; stalls sell jade, jewelry, fabrics, imported cosmetics, and velvet slippers. Across the street from the market there is a row of colonial shop-houses that must once have been a prestigious address in the city, but years of neglect have taken their toll. Mold has stained the stucco façades and fluted Corinthian columns, and the fretwork balconies of the upper stories are knotted with weeds. Farther along the street are two of the city’s most modern structures, Traders Hotel and Sakura Tower. With twenty-plus floors, these buildings are skyscrapers by Burmese standards, and they tower above everything else in downtown Rangoon.

The soldiers were packed onto an unroofed truck and looked at their surroundings as if they were seeing them for the first time. They had probably been transported from some distant provincial outpost to do manual labor, and this may well have been their first trip to the historic city that was once the capital of Burma. They seemed excited to be in the city, about to undertake a heroic task in the wake of disaster, and many of them hung over the sides of the truck waving at pedestrians. No one waved back. Indeed, the response was so stony it was as if there had been some prearranged agreement for all passersby to ignore the soldiers. As I watched the enthusiastic young men drive by, I felt strangely sorry for them.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, it was not soldiers who people had seen in the streets. Instead, they saw their neighbors and monks from nearby monasteries as locals rallied together to repair their own communities. Civilians had done the best they could with household tools, piling up the debris and sawing larger trees into small pieces that could be lifted off the roads. No one in Rangoon had bothered to wait for soldiers; they knew better than to expect help from the regime.

At any rate, some of the soldiers may have been occupied with other tasks. One battalion had apparently been dispatched to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Considered to be the holiest site of Buddhist pilgrimage in Burma, the Shwedagon is usually open by four in the morning so that worshippers may climb the steps to the marble platform around the golden pagoda before dawn. In the days following the storm, however, the Shwedagon was closed to the public. The shopkeepers who sell religious wares—gilded Buddha images, laminated photographs of holy sites, fresh flowers, candles, incense—from stalls along the stairwells were prevented from entering. Soldiers stood guard at each of the four entry gates around the pagoda.

The story was just another Rangoon rumor, impossible to verify, but most people were convinced it was true and speculated that it must have had something to do with the jewels. At the very top of every pagoda in Burma is a conical structure known as a hti, or umbrella. The hti is traditionally draped with gems and serves as a crown for the pagoda structure. At nearly seventeen feet high, the hti at the top of the Shwedagon is an elaborate construction of multiple tiers, plated with gold and silver and hung with donations of personal jewelry. The structure reportedly holds some 83,850 pieces of jewelry. Among the treasures are rings embedded with clusters of sapphires and diamonds, ruby-studded earrings encased in precious metals, and prayers minutely etched in antique Pali script onto paper-thin sheets of gold. At the very pinnacle of the hti is a golden globe encrusted with 4,351 diamonds and topped by a single 76- carat diamond the size of a mandarin orange. It is an ostentatious and seemingly careless display of devotion; imagine the crown jewels of England strung together, hoisted up the steeple of Westminster Abbey, and allowed to twirl in the breeze above London.

Gazing up at the Shwedagon, it looked—amazingly—as if the hti had not been affected by Cyclone Nargis. Perhaps to quell suspicions, the New Light of Myanmar even ran an article describing how a survey team used Japanese technology to ensure that the hti had not been tilted and remained intact. But the shopkeepers who work in the stairwells of the pagoda said that many jewels had been shaken loose by the cyclone and that emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires were scattered across the gardens like fallen fruit.

Along with the general public, the ruling generals had also donated valuables for the hti. There is immense spiritual and symbolic significance in placing personal items at the highest point of the country’s most revered Buddhist site. The jewels are valuable in monetary as well as spiritual terms, and so it was said that the generals ordered their soldiers to retrieve the missing treasures. The soldiers were put in three-man teams, each composed of men from different battalions so that they would not be tempted to pocket any of their findings, as they would not know if they could trust their team members not to report them.

It was a sad but not implausible answer to the question of the soldiers’ whereabouts. While Rangoon struggled to overcome the battering it had received from Cyclone Nargis, and unimaginable miseries were unfolding in the delta, some of those soldiers had been sent to collect gems for the generals in the gardens of the Shwedagon Pagoda.


Over a fortnight had passed by the time the country’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, publicly acknowledged that a massive natural disaster had taken place in Burma. Than Shwe had sent felicitations to Israel for Independence Day and to King Harald V on Norway’s National Day. He had also remembered to convey a message of congratulations to the newly appointed Russian president, yet he had had no words for his own countrymen during this time of crisis. He and his wife had cast their votes in public on the morning of the referendum, which was held as scheduled on May 10 in parts of the country not affected by the cyclone. But it was not until May 18, sixteen days after Cyclone Nargis, that Than Shwe found time to inspect the emergency operation.

Than Shwe is a famously reclusive leader. He is never interviewed by journalists and rarely appears in public. Even the sound of his voice is unknown to most people, as recordings are prohibited; if he makes a speech at a live gathering, it will later appear in written form in the newspapers or recited verbatim by a news anchor on television. But even these speeches are few and far between, and on the rare occasion when the senior general deigns to appear in public, the event is a carefully scripted affair.

Than Shwe’s first appearance after Nargis began with an awkard posing at a relief camp in Dagon on the outskirts of Rangoon. The pictures were on the front page of the New Light of Myanmar the next day. Donations had been arranged in front of him like offerings at a pagoda; there were neatly stacked cooking pots, biscuits from China, bottles of orange soda, and platters of fresh fruit. Than Shwe walked along a row of blue tents, each one shaped like a house, complete with mock framed windows. The inhabitants of each tent stood to attention at the doorway, holding their hands together in front of their chests in a respectful position of prayer. “Senior General Than Shwe comforts storm victims,” claimed the captions, but Than Shwe clearly hadn’t memorized his lines or concentrated during the rehearsals, because his efforts at providing comfort looked most unconvincing. In one scene, a retinue of uniformed generals stood behind him looking on as he stretched out a stiff hand toward a baby. Most of the survivors appeared immobilized in his presence and stared straight ahead, as if they had been turned to stone.

It was hard to know what had triggered this belated and clumsy attempt at public relations. It may have been that the Chinese government provided a helpful lesson after being widely praised in the international media for its fast and efficient work in assisting victims of the Sichuan earthquake that struck on May 12, shortly after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma. One week after the earthquake a three-day period of mourning was declared in China, and the flag was flown at half-mast in memory of the tens of thousands who had been killed. The very next day the Burmese government copied the gesture by lowering flags and announcing its own three days of mourning.

I followed the Than Shwe Disaster Tour in the New Light of Myanmar as it unfolded across the delta throughout the rest of the week. At each stop Than Shwe provided what the newspaper referred to as “necessary guidance” for the government’s rehabilitation plans. He met the minister who had been put in charge of each delta township and inspected repair work conducted by selected companies known to be cronies of the regime. When Than Shwe arrived in Kunyangon, a township south of Rangoon, the minister for energy, Brigadier General Lun Thi, briefed him on the progress being made and listed the hospitals, schools, and government buildings already being repaired (courtesy of Asia World Co.). Farther along in the delta, at Pyapon, the senior general was briefed by the minister for hotels and tourism, Major General Soe Naing, and listened to similar tales of progress and reconstruction (courtesy of Dagon International Ltd. and Yuzana Co., among others). It didn’t matter where Than Shwe went in the delta, the script was always the same, and the model camps looked identical.

As I read the papers each day, I found little in the repetitive coverage that looked like anything other than theatrical performance. Nothing about the senior general’s tour had the ring of truth. The tents in the camps were too well appointed and the survivors too well dressed. There was none of the deprivation I had seen in Chit Swe’s film, and I was quite sure that the route the general had traveled had been cleared of any remaining corpses or people begging along the roadside. This may go some way toward explaining Than Shwe’s extended absence after such a cataclysmic natural disaster. He couldn’t have gone to the delta any earlier because the authorities there had been unprepared for a visit from the country’s leader; in the widespread havoc caused by Nargis, it took some time to make things presentable by erecting the necessary stage set and casting the required background actors. Urgently Needed: Fifty families (preferably with young children) and fifty tents (preferably new and matching) for one-week tour of the Irrawaddy Delta.

The monsoons arrived early in Burma, and by mid-May it was raining heavily every day. The storms were sudden and incredibly heavy. Umbrellas buckled under the daily downpours, and the roads of downtown Rangoon were transformed into dark, sludgy canals. Some parts of the city remained persistently flooded, and stones or planks were placed in areas where the water was too deep to wade through or too wide to jump across. Even when it wasn’t raining, water dripped incessantly off the plants and the eaves around the house where I was staying. Inside, the air took on the heat and humidity of a greenhouse. The moisture in the atmosphere seeped into everything; the sheets on my bed felt slightly damp and the pages of my notebooks curled up at the corners.

One afternoon I was caught in a rainstorm while walking along Maha Bandula Garden Street in downtown Rangoon. The rain came down in such thick torrents that I could barely see across the narrow street and had to duck into a shop for cover. The shop was a general store on the ground floor of a colonial-era shop-house with its front wall open to the street. A single fluorescent bulb dangled from the cobweb-strewn ceiling and shed a sickly light across the interior of the shop and the goods for sale—mosquito coils, packets of roasted nuts, plastic combs. The proprietor sat in the back, obscured by shadows and engrossed in animated conversation with two other men. Though the men sat close together they had to shout to hear one another above the roar of the storm. When I heard them mentioning the now familiar names of Dedaye, Bogale, and Pyinzalu, I knew they were talking about Nargis. I had rarely heard these delta townships spoken of before the cyclone, but the names now had a horrible resonance, evoking images of desolation and death.

From my perch on a low wooden stool at the entrance to the shop, I gazed at the solid wall of water gushing down. The street beyond emerged in fleeting snapshots whenever the rain eased momentarily. A car drove at walking pace down the street, the top of its tires only just visible above the flood. A group of drenched pedestrians who had given up even the pretense of trying to stay dry waded through the murky water as if they were fording a river. Mostly, though, the streets were deserted, as the rain had driven everyone indoors.

Not long after I sat down the shopkeeper came over to me and, yelling above the noise of the storm, asked where I was from. When he heard I was American, he expressed surprise that I had been allowed into the country at a time like this and hurried to the back of the shop to fetch a digital camera, which he handed to me excitedly. The photograph showing in the display panel was of a human corpse lying facedown in a paddy field.

The man told me that he and his friends had been to Kunyangon to hand out rice and cooking oil to cyclone survivors. Pointing at the photograph, he said simply, “The dead are still waiting for peace.”

I asked about the living. The shopkeeper grabbed his camera back and clicked through an alarming number of dead-body photographs before coming to a picture that showed crowds of people squatting down on either side of a dirt road, holding their hands up toward the camera. “They have nothing. They have no money. They have no shirts. No shoes. Nothing. And there is no help for them. I saw no officials there to assist them. With nothing, how will they survive?” I thought it was a rhetorical question, but the shopkeeper seemed to be waiting for an answer. I couldn’t think of a reassuring response; it didn’t seem possible that people who had nothing left could survive without help. We sat in silence for a few moments and listened to the rain.

Photographs of dead bodies had become common in the city. Everyone I met who had been to the delta returned with at least one image of a corpse, if not many. When I was watching footage of the delta with Chit Swe and his fellow businessmen who had taken aid down there, they often paused the film on particularly gory images so that we could all take a good leisurely look. There was the body of a child protruding from beneath a dead buffalo; the toddler’s tiny feet made the beast on top of it seem abnormally large. There were arms and legs emerging from piles of rubble that had been twisted into impossible positions and corpses in various stages of decomposition. And there was one particular image that had generated much curiosity: The camera had captured the intact skin of a human hand, complete with fingernails, lying on the riverbank. After some discussion as to how the skin could become detached from flesh and bone, we eventually concluded that bodies floating for long periods in the river become soaked with water, and the saturated skin must somehow loosen, thereby enabling the encasing of a human hand to slip off and end up on a riverbank, like a discarded glove.

At first, I found these images and conversations deeply unsettling. But within just a week or so of arriving in Rangoon, I had seen so many pictures of dead bodies that it was hard to acknowledge each one for the individual tragedy it represented; a father who had left behind a wife and children or a child whose parents might be praying their firstborn would still be found alive. I was disturbed to notice that I became quite comfortable discussing the details of human decay. I easily flicked through photographs of dead people in the same way I might politely look through an album of someone’s holiday snapshots, asking questions and feigning interest but hoping there wouldn’t be too many more. Most of my friends in Rangoon felt the same; it was a necessary coping mecha- nism for processing the relentless horror of the images we looked at each day. And there would be no shortage of dead-body photographs for some time to come. By May 13, just over ten days after the storm, the official death toll had risen to more than 31,900, with a further 29,700 missing. There was little doubt in anyone’s minds that the numbers would continue to escalate.

Bootleg DVDs featuring the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis were available at streetside stalls and at traffic intersections, where boys walked between the vehicles parked at red lights and held the covers up for viewing. Most of the DVDs had simple titles, sometimes written in English (Cyclone Nargis, Nargis, Nargis Storm), though I came across one DVD poetically entitled Gone with the Wind. The DVDs were poorly packaged, wrapped in cheap color photocopies of photographs taken in the delta. Almost all the cover shots featured a corpse or two, a sort of gruesome teaser for the dead-body pornography on sale.

There was no voice-over or commentary on the DVDs, and they were often little more than compilations of mismatched footage. Most were filmed from boats sailing through the delta and depicted an unrelentingly miserable vista of broken homes and floating corpses. Riddled with waterways, the delta is a low and featureless terrain, and watching these films often felt repetitive: Haven’t we been down this creek already? Wasn’t that the dead body that was floating in the bend of the river the boat passed earlier? The amateur footage was filmed anonymously, probably by people who had taken donations down to survivors. There was also aerial footage that must have been taken by cameramen working for the regime who were allowed onto military helicopters and had later decided to leak their material.

With all other media in the country vetted meticulously, these DVDs were a welcome if dismal dose of reality. There are few other ways for people to get information that hasn’t first passed the censors. Many people listen to Burmese-language news broadcasts from radio channels such as the BBC and Voice of America and, in urban areas like Rangoon where there is access to the Internet, people can go to Internet cafés and use specially installed software to get past the regime’s firewalls and blocks on news channels. Still, at a time when few reliable reports were emerging from the delta, nothing quite matched the visceral visual content of the DVDs, and the films served an important function by documenting the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and capturing an uncensored record of the full extent of the damage it had caused.

But it turned out that the DVDs were only available for a limited period of time. One day in mid-May state media announced that foreign news agencies and local “destructive elements” were trying to manipulate public opinion by broadcasting false information. It was an oblique warning, but it was enough; the very next day the DVDs were gone. The boys who sold them at traffic intersections went back to selling garlands of flowers or cigarettes. I went to the movie vendor on a busy market street where I had previously bought copies. His stall was still there, but the only DVDs on display were Chinese and Korean soap operas with Burmese subtitles. I asked if he had any Nargis DVDs left. “DVDs of Nargis?” he asked, laughing loudly. “There are no such things.”

It was not at all unusual for the authorities to clamp down on these informally made films. The regime has always had an intense dislike of news outlets it cannot control. During times of political tension when events in Burma make international headlines, warnings are posted in the newspapers ordering people not to believe foreign news sources and not to listen to foreign radio channels that produce what the writers of regime propaganda refer to as a “skyful of lies.”

Yet the regime’s attempt to cover up the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Nargis was counterproductive. The initial images were a chronicle of nature’s fury, not of the regime’s misrule or brutality. By banning them and preventing the local press from running photographs deemed to be negative, the authorities were handling the disaster as if it was something that needed to be hidden from public view. As a result of this secrecy, the contraband images had taken on a different attribute; images of people killed by a natural disaster became atrocity pictures used as evidence to portray the callous neglect of an already vilified regime.

People were afraid that the decaying corpses could spread disease. This is apparently a common and enduring myth in the aftermath of large-scale disasters; though people using water sources contaminated by corpses can contract gastroenteritis, it is generally acknowledged by emergency experts that bodies, especially those killed by sudden trauma, do not cause cholera or typhoid epidemics. The greater concern is the psychological toll for survivors who must live in close proximity to the dead.

There was no widespread, concerted effort by the authorities to collect the corpses or to try to identify them. When a brigadier general was asked what should be done with all the bodies, he allegedly replied that there was no need to do anything: “The fish can eat them,” he said.

Back in the store, the shopkeeper who was sitting next to me told me that he did not believe the generals could be real human beings. “How can they witness such suffering and be indifferent to it?” he demanded. His friends had joined us at the front of the shop, and one of them said, “You’re right, brother. They are not human. They are devils. Only devils can ignore suffering so great.”

The rain continued to pour down, and I had to raise my voice to ask them what they thought about the U.S. government’s recent offer to send Navy ships to provide assistance. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and they all agreed that it would even be a good thing if the United States were to invade. Though it was a frequently expressed opinion, I was always slightly incredulous that people would welcome the idea of foreign troops in Burma. “Do you really want to be invaded by U.S. soldiers?” I asked. “Surely you don’t want Burma to become like Iraq is now. . . .”

“It would not be like that here,” one of the men replied. “The Tatmadaw [Burmese army] are not brave like those Iraqis. They would only have to see one American soldier on Burmese soil and they would run away.”

There was much laughter at the idea of Burma’s cowardly soldiers being chased by hulking American GIs, and our conversation became almost jolly as we talked about the possibilities of amphibious landing craft off-loading soldiers onto the muddy delta shores and U.S. helicopters air-dropping sacks of rice to hungry villagers. The talk seemed to me to be lighthearted fantasy, but the shopkeeper’s eyes had become wet with tears. “You must authorize the invasion,” he said to me earnestly, as if I was the admiral of the fleet and it was within my capability to issue such a command.

We stopped speaking for a while and I turned to look at the street. A sodden rat climbed out of the water and into the stairwell of a nearby shop-house, where it sat exhausted and panting. The floodwater had turned an ugly gray color and the consistency had thickened—a sign that the city’s sewage pipes were overflowing. As plastic bags and other scraps of rubbish floated past, a fetid, unhealthy smell began to rise off the waters.

There is a burmese phrase that perfectly described the limited amount of aid being delivered after the cyclone versus the enormity of the need: As the phrase goes, it was like tossing sesame seeds into the mouth of an elephant.

It took the regime almost a week to grant landing permission at Ran- goon airport for planes flying in aid supplies. The first flights that were allowed to land came from nearby Asian countries such as Thailand, China, and India, as well as cargo flights chartered by the UN. A few days later the regime began allowing U.S. Air Force planes carrying relief goods to land each day but only under the condition that the contents of the C-130 planes were unloaded by the Burmese military and distributed through the authorities.

It was clear to everyone involved that this small number of flights was not nearly enough to ferry in the supplies and logistical support needed to set up and maintain a major emergency operation. By comparison, the relief effort launched within forty-eight hours of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 involved aid from countries around the world, with more than thirty national militaries dispatching troops and providing helicopters, aircraft, and ships. The U.S. government alone had committed eighteen thousand soldiers, sailors, and Air Force personnel. Just a couple of weeks after the tsunami, a fleet of helicopters was flying over 430 sorties a day out of the airport at Banda Aceh, the capital of the worst-hit region of Aceh. In Burma, where it was feared the disaster could be of a comparable scale, there was hardly any activity at the airport, and the regime had so far prohibited the UN from bringing in helicopters to deliver aid.

The limitations were further exacerbated by a lack of speed. It could take an entire day to off-load the few planes able to land, as there was only one forklift available for use at the airport. Security personnel insisted on painstakingly combing through the cargo, filming and noting down exact quantities before letting it pass through customs. And some goods were brazenly confiscated by customs officials, such as communications and IT equipment flown in for UN agencies to use in the delta.

The New Light of Myanmar offered up a characteristically faultless version of the goings-on at the airport and documented the arrival of aid in detail. The newspaper ran numerous photographs of planes at the airport with the oft-repeated headline “International Relief Supplies Continue to Arrive.” The paper also displayed cargo lists for each craft. One U.S. plane, for instance, flew in 9 tons of relief supplies (including 6,340 bottles of water, 3,150 blankets, and 4,200 mosquito nets). Most of the descriptions ended with an unconvincing final sentence stating that all goods were being “immediately sent to the storm-hit regions.”

Few people were taken in by this alternative reality. Foreigners and Burmese alike had little faith that the authorities were able to conduct an adequate emergency operation or handle donated goods in a trustworthy manner. An American working at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon told me that even the embassy’s staff was unsure where the supplies were being taken. “Five C-130s landed yesterday,” he said. “Their contents should be loaded onto big trucks, taken down to delta towns, transshipped into smaller trucks or boats, and headed to villages. Instead, they are being loaded onto Burmese military vehicles, and we have no idea where they’re going. No one is telling us anything. We’re bringing in all this stuff and it’s all going into a big black hole.”

Theories as to where the aid was ending up abounded. Some thought the goods were being repackaged and sold off as regular commodities at distant markets in places like Mandalay, a day’s journey north of Rangoon. Many believed the regime was letting soldiers hand out the aid so that the military could take credit for the donations. It was also suggested that the wives of the ruling generals were out at the airport laying claim to the imported goods, though it was hard to picture the well-heeled women standing on the tarmac picking over stiff blankets and vitamin-fortified biscuits.

Once aid supplies made it past overzealous customs officials and covetous wives, it was still a long and convoluted process to reach survivors. My friend Ko Ye, who had an encyclopedia of stories to share each time I met him, told me about a gem company owner who had raised K40 million (in the Burmese currency, kyat, around US$40,000) for donations but had been forced to give K10 million to the Rangoon regional commander. The commander promised him that the money would be turned into aid. (“Yeah,” smirked Ko Ye. “Aid for his own family.”) On his way down to the delta, the donor had to hand over sacks of rice at military checkpoints in order to be allowed past. Disgusted by their greed, he eventually gave up and returned to Rangoon.

Donors who did persevere were careful not to channel any donations in cash or kind through the authorities, preferring instead to work with monks and monasteries. Aung Thein Kyaw, the man who had closed down his tour agency to help with the relief effort, described how he had gone to a delta hospital to donate medicines and was told by the nurses to come back at night, because during the day soldiers were often sniffing around for commodities they could sequester. To avoid having large amounts of food snatched by the authorities, one crafty restaurant owner in Rangoon divided her donation of rice and curries into five thousand small bags to hand out to individual recipients.

In addition to hurdles set up by the government, aid agencies also had to deal with the formidable logistical challenges of delivering supplies across a vast flooded area where much of the infrastructure had been damaged or totally destroyed. As there were no roads in the southern stretches of the delta, a significant portion of the deliveries had to be made by boat, but many boats had been sunk or rendered useless during the cyclone. The daily storms also conspired to make water routes dangerous, and there were frequent reports of smaller vessels capsizing due to waves or unpredictable currents. The roads and bridges that did exist before the storm were deteriorating rapidly under the traffic of aid convoys and the constant rain.

I kept thinking back to the shopkeeper’s question: With nothing, how will they survive?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 26, 2012

    Great Book! You Should Read It!

    Emma Larkin’s book, Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, is an extremely detailed and horrific story of the months following Cyclone Nargis that struck Southern Burma and the policies and decisions of the Burmese Regime during these times.
    On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in Burma and devastated Southern Burma. Emma Larkin reports the aftermath of the Cyclone from the effects of the Cyclone to the unimaginable decisions of the Burmese Government. After Nargis, Larkin visits Burma to collect information of what has happened. She learns from friends in Burma that the Irrawady delta, Rangoon and the surrounding areas are destroyed. She also learned that the Burmese regime declined foreign aid. Larkin also discussed the history of Burma and she discussed the isolated, totalitarian regime that rules. She includes a lot of details about what happened in Burma that was related to Nargis, some Burmese political history, as well as the effort to recover.
    A theme I see in this book is that if a country faces a catastrophe, the country as a whole should try to help each other and make necessary fixes. I also saw the theme of never lose hope because there is always light down the road. Additionally, I saw the message from Emma Larkin saying that if a government denies help from other countries but it is not in the best interest of the country, other countries should intervene.
    I liked a lot of things about this book. The book was very insightful and factual. I learned a lot from the book. Another thing I liked about this book was that it was interesting and not boring. It kept me engaged. This was a compelling story from a unique perspective that I loved. Finally, I loved the detail in the book.
    There were two small things that I did not like. The book was, at times, slow moving and dragged on and on. The topics were always interesting but sometimes, Larkin talked about certain topics too much. The other thing I didn’t like was that the book’s flow wasn’t the best. It sometimes jumped from topic to topic. Other than these two things, I really enjoyed the book.
    You should read this book because it is very insightful and interesting. It keeps you interested and although very factual, the horror of the events and the content keeps the reader interested. It will teach you a lot about Burma and about Cyclone Nargis.
    A book I recommend is Finding George Orwell in Burma, also by Emma Larkin. This is a good book also about Burma and if you’re interested in Burma, definitely read it.
    Overall, I would rate this book a 9 out of 10. It gives an amazing amount of insight into an extremely isolated country and government. This book will be great if you are a history buff or for anyone interested in state related matters. READ IT!

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  • Posted May 12, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This is the account of the tragedy that took place in the city of Burma in 2008!

    On May 2, 2008, an enormous tropical cyclone made landfall in Burma, wreaking untold havoc, and leaving the official toll of 138,000 dead and missing. In the days that followed , the sheer scale of the disaster became apparent as information began to seep out of the hard-hit delta area. But the Burmese regime, in an unfathomable decision of near-genocidal proportions, provided little relief and blocked international aid from coming into the country. Hundreds of Burmese citizens lacked food, drinking water and basic shelter, but the xenophobic generals who ruled the country refused emergency help.

    In the book, Everything is Broken, A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, by Emma Larkin who had been traveling to and secretly reporting on Burma for years, managed to arrange a tourist visa in those frenzied days and arrived hoping to help. What she discovered during her time there is chronicled in this book. It is sad and tragic to learn of the international aid that was launched by so many countries willing to help and sadly turned away by the government of Burma. Meanwhile people went hungry, and bodies lay decomposing in the water ways, while the survivors scrambled for any available help from the kindness of strangers and people working together to survive.

    This book was an eye opening account of just how strict some countries can be and how the military runs the country and does what is best for them instead of helping the people. Bribes were common and while the death count continued to rise daily, the government staged theatrical performances for the local news and media to report that things in Burma were not as severe as previously thought. It is a sad reminder that unlike the United States, the basic human rights are still being overlooked.

    I would highly recommend this book as a true account of what happened to a little known country that was devastated by a natural disaster. While the world intervenes in some countries we did little to help the people of Burma in the wake of being at war in Iraq.

    I was provided with this book compliments of TLC Book Tours and once again would recommend it to anyone looking for true stories of our earth's history. I can only hope that as more people become aware of these situations like Burma, North Korea and even China, that basic human rights can not continue to be overlooked.

    For more information on this book, the author and where to pick up a copy for yourself, please click on the link below:


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    Posted January 7, 2011

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    Posted May 12, 2010

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