Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma

Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma

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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, 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 had 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400147045
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 04/26/2010
Edition description: Library - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia and covers Asia widely in her journalism from her base in Bangkok.

Emily Durante has been narrating audiobooks for over ten years and is also an AudioFile Earphones Award-winning audiobook director. She has been acting since the age of seven and has performed in a number of stage productions at the professional, collegiate, and regional levels.

Read an Excerpt

Part One
Skyful of Lies

May 2008

The soldiers are moving cautiously through the gardens of the ShwedagonPagoda. They walk in solemn groups of three. The trousers of their darkolive-green uniforms are rolled up around their knees and they are barefoot.They shuffle their feet methodically through the undergrowth, squelchingtheir 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 standstraight and tall around manicured lawns are now bowed and broken.Other older and stiffer trees have been wrenched from the ground and liewith their tortured roots exposed above the churned-up soil. There is nolonger any semblance of the once lush gardens. The neatly trimmed shrubberyhas been ripped to shreds or flattened by fallen trees. The flower bushes havedisappeared entirely. But none of this concerns the soldiers as they fan outsilently across the gardens.

Looming high above them is the Shwedagon Pagoda, an ancient andmassive bell-shaped structure encased in gold—the most sacred and potentBuddhist site in all the land. As the soldiers circle the base of this reveredgolden mountain, they wield long scythes and use bamboo sticks to rakethrough the tangled debris. Occasionally they hoist aside a damp log andblinded beetles scuttle out of their way. When they hack through splinteredbranches, dead leaves are scattered in their wake.

One of the soldiers squats down suddenly, attracted by a flash of glimmeringred in the monotonous brown of soil and dying vegetation. The soldiersticks his fingers into the mud and lifts up a clump of earth. The others watchas 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-rankingsoldier holds open a drawstring sack. As soon as the ruby is placed inside, thesoldier ties a tight knot around the bag and slings it over his shoulder. It landsagainst his back with a soft jangling noise that seems to indicate it maycontain other precious stones salvaged from the gardens of the ShwedagonPagoda.

The man who found the ruby gets up and wipes the dirt off his hands,allowing himself a secret, triumphant smile. And, together, the soldierswalk on.


A few days after Cyclone Nargis made landfall at the southwestern tipof Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on Friday, May 2, 2008, NASA releaseda set of before and after pictures taken by satellite.

In the image taken before the cyclone, the delta’s myriad waterwayswere perfectly etched upon the landscape, like dark and delicate veins.Toward the lower edges of the delta, in the coastal stretches, these veinsbroadened and merged into the inky blue waters of the Andaman Sea.Large swaths of vibrant green indicated fertile rice-growing land. Deforestedareas and urban centers, like Rangoon and its surrounding sprawlof slums, showed up as dun-colored patches. In the delta, towns such asLaputta and Bogale were barely visible amid the pastoral palette of greens,browns, and blues.

The satellite image taken shortly after the cyclone depicted a landscapethat had been changed dramatically. The fact that the area aroundRangoon was now a marbleized swirl of aquamarine suggested that itwas heavily flooded. The waterways of the delta, so distinct in the earlierimage, had become blurred and hazy. The blue of the Andaman watersshowed up as a luminescent turquoise color that had seeped onto theland, an indication that parts of the delta now lay underwater. Comparingthe two images it seemed as if a bucket of water had been sloshedacross an ink drawing; the carefully marked lines had been erased andthe paper beneath was buckled and distorted.

These images showed that Cyclone Nargis had altered the landscapesignificantly and caused substantial damage. Yet, in those first days afterthe cyclone, hardly any news emerged from Burma. The storm severedphone lines and electrical wires, and it was almost impossible to get informationfrom 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 IndiaMeteorological Department named the storm “Nargis,” a moniker takenfrom a list of names provided annually by each of the countries in thecyclone band of the Indian Ocean (contributed by Pakistan, nargis is anUrdu word for the flower narcissus, which is more commonly known asthe daffodil). By the time Nargis reached the coast of Burma, it had growninto 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 highenough to engulf a two-story house. The storm charted a path across theIrrawaddy Delta, the vast flood basin for Burma’s main river that is populatedwith hundreds of farming and fishing villages, and directly throughRangoon, the country’s largest city and former capital, before finally dissipatingin the mountains along the Thailand-Burma border. With thehelp of regional and international weather-monitoring services, this muchwas known.

What was not known was what had happened on the ground andwhat had become of all the millions of people who must have been inthe cyclone’s path.

Over the following week, news began to trickle out from Burma, asgenerators were activated and electricity and phone lines were restored tosome parts of Rangoon. Photographs of the city looked as if they hadbeen taken in the aftermath of a massive explosion. Roads were blockedby fallen trees. Cars had been crushed by logs and telephone poles. Cementwalls had caved in and pavements were cracked open. The destructionin the city was catastrophic, but it soon became apparent that whathad happened in Rangoon was nothing compared to the devastation ofthe Irrawaddy Delta. Toward the end of the week, an e-mail from Burmacirculated some photographs taken in the delta; these were among theearliest harrowing glimpses of what had happened there.

The first image was a picture of two dead girls. One girl wore shortsand a bright orange T-shirt printed with a cheerful floral pattern. Theother had on only a frilly pale green top. They lay on their backs in anest of sodden palm fronds with their eyes closed and their heads turnedaway 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, perhapsa pond. One grouping looked like it could be a family—a woman withtwo children on either side of her. The children were faceup with theirarms flung out, as if reaching for their mother. The other figures couldbe seen only in parts: an exposed chest, a red T-shirt, a billowing bluelongyi, 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 scatteredacross paddy fields. They were swollen and black from sun exposure.Rigor mortis had locked the bodies into crooked postures; their legs andarms were spread wide, and they lay entangled in grotesque and awkwardembraces.

Within just a couple of days, the Burmese regime announced on statetelevision that as many as 10,000 people could have been killed. The verynext day, an official death toll was released that was more than doublethat figure with over 22,400 people declared dead and more than 41,000people missing. The majority of these lives were lost across the deltaregion, with Rangoon reporting only a few deaths.

From these initial snatches of information, it was clear that CycloneNargis had been a disaster of epic proportions. In the delta, tens ofthousands of people were dead, and many hundreds of thousands musthave been trying to survive without food, water, or shelter. As the horrendousscale of the disaster became apparent, foreign governments offeredaid and assistance. Astoundingly, the Burmese government turnedthem down.

In neighboring Thailand, the U.S. government had loaded a C-130cargo plane with lifesaving relief supplies that would have taken justunder an hour to reach Burma, but the craft was not given clearance toland at Rangoon’s airport. The United Nations World Food Programmehad three planes ready to fly in from Bangladesh, Thailand, and Dubaiin the United Arab Emirates. The planes were loaded with vitamin-fortifiedbiscuits for hungry survivors who may not have been able to eatfor some days and would be in need of instant nourishment. Thesebiscuit-laden planes were also denied clearance. A flight from Qatar carryingrelief materials and aid workers managed to land at Rangoon airportbut was immediately forced to take off again without unloading anyof its contents.

As international emergency response mechanisms kicked into action,UN staff and aid workers experienced in disaster response were mobilizedfrom around the world. Few of them were granted visas to enterBurma. Many aid workers assembled in Bangkok, Thailand, a practicalstopover for processing entry visas. The Burmese embassy, however, wasclosed on the Monday after the cyclone for a Thai public holiday. Whena UN team of four experts was finally allowed to travel to Burma towardthe end of the week, two were sent back after landing in Rangoon despitehaving valid visas.

In addition to preventing aid workers from entering, the regime wasalso restricting the movement of foreigners already inside the country.International aid agencies that had been working in Burma before thecyclone had switched into emergency mode, but their foreign staff was notallowed outside of Rangoon; only Burmese employees were able to travelto the delta to begin distributing supplies and look for ways to set up reliabledelivery routes. It is an established procedure in Burma that foreignaid workers at international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)must apply for permits to travel outside of Rangoon (a process that cantake weeks, sometimes months); it was hoped that the authorities wouldexpedite travel requests after a natural disaster. Instead, they did just theopposite by slowing down the process and setting up checkpoints on exitroutes out of the city. Policemen were posted at the bridges and jettiesalong the Rangoon River where cars and ferries depart for the delta andprohibited foreigners from crossing over to the other side.

It was, by all accounts, a situation unprecedented in the annals of disasterresponse. The UN and international aid agencies started to issuefrantic and strongly worded warnings. OCHA, the UN Office for theCoordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that “thousands more coulddie” if assessments were not carried out that would enable the UN torespond effectively. Save the Children issued a press release stating thataround 40 percent of the dead were children and that more would die iffood and water did not reach them soon. A World Health Organizationreport warned that there was an immediate risk of waterborne diseasessuch as cholera and typhoid. UNICEF stated that one in five childrenalready had diarrhea. The Food and Agriculture Organization highlightedthe bigger picture, saying that the area affected by the storm was thesource of most of the country’s food (65 percent of the rice and 80 percentof the fishery products) and that Burma could face a food crisis in thenear future. “We are on the cusp of a second wave of tragedy,” the chiefexecutive of World Vision told the press. “It’s a race against time.”

Efforts were made to reason with Burma’s ruling generals through thehighest diplomatic channels. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon statedthat he had been trying to contact the country’s leader, Senior GeneralThan Shwe, to arrange a meeting; insiders at the UN said that the generalwas simply not returning Ban Ki-moon’s calls. George W. Bush, then thepresident of the United States, announced that the United States was willingto help and that U.S. Navy assets already present in the Southeast Asiaregion could be deployed to assist with search-and-rescue missions and aiddistributions; 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 toprotect” principle, a UN proposal that would allow for the delivery of aidand 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 Ministryof Foreign Affairs said that the country was “not yet ready to receivesearch-and-rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries.”According to the statement, the government was willing to accept provisionsbut would take charge of distributing them “by its own labors tothe affected areas.” Officials indicated that bilateral aid, assistance givengovernment to government, would be welcomed, but that meant placinga large amount of supplies directly into the hands of a rogue regime—asetup that was unacceptable for most Western donors, who require accountability,transparent procedures, and the ability to track the deliveryof the goods they donate.

As if to further infuriate those who were trying to provide help, theregime announced its plans to go ahead with an upcoming nationalreferendum to vote on the newly drawn up constitution. Scheduled forMay 10, the referendum had already been dismissed as a sham by mostBurma experts. Having ruled the country for almost fifty years, the militarygovernment has established a well-earned reputation for being willingto do whatever it takes to stay in power, and the referendum seemedlike just another piece of trickery, a grand subterfuge designed to givethe appearance of democracy without actually delivering any greater freedomto the people.

Indeed, the ruling generals have shown little interest in democracy andhuman rights. The regime’s current incarnation came into being after anationwide uprising against military rule in 1988, during which soldiersshot into the crowds and killed an estimated three thousand civilians. Inthe years that followed, the regime continued to quash any form of dissent.To this day, people perceived as a threat are imprisoned, and all criticismof the regime—be it spoken or written—is systematically silenced. Mostprominent among Burma’s political prisoners is the country’s iconic symbolof democratic values, Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to the fore duringthe demonstrations in 1988 and who has spent the majority of the interveningyears under house arrest.

Efforts made both inside and outside the country to unseat the juntaor coax out its softer side have so far failed. When Aung San Suu Kyi andher party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victoryin general elections held in 1990, the regime discounted the results andcontinued to rule. Economic sanctions imposed by the United Statesand Europe have been ineffective in eliciting any substantial concessionsfrom the generals. So when the regime launched its so-called Road Mapto Democracy in 2003, no one held their breath in anticipation of greatchanges. The Road Map, which includes the referendum as part of itsseven-step plan, is expected to lead to another general election in 2010and culminate in what the generals refer to as a “discipline-flourishingdemocracy”—a phrase that sounds distinctly undemocratic, especiallywhen used by a military junta that has demonstrated its enduring abilityto rule against the will of the people.

After the cyclone, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon issued a statementurging the regime to postpone the referendum and concentrate onthe relief effort, but the generals ignored him. Such was their determinationto proceed with their plans that preparations for the referendumcontinued in the wake of the worst natural disaster in the country’s recordedhistory.

An impending sense of anarchy seemed to emanate from Rangoon.With no electricity, whole neighborhoods were plunged into total darknesseach night. The cost of fuel was rising rapidly, and long queues hadformed outside gas stations as people raced to fill up their vehicles beforeprices became too high. Most parts of the city had no running water,and many residents had to purchase water from the owners of neighborhoodwells. In the markets, people who could afford to were buying uplarge amounts of food to stockpile at home. Commodity prices werespiraling ever higher, and there was talk that the city was running out ofmedicine, food, and water.

In the tumbledown outskirts of Rangoon, and farther afield in theIrrawaddy Delta, there was untold devastation. Everyone thought thatthe death toll was sure to be much higher than the figures stated by officialsources. Boats transporting aid to the delta were encountering waterwaysclogged with dead bodies. Weak and shocked survivors whosehomes and villages had been obliterated by the cyclone were beginningto congregate in bigger delta towns, where they sought shelter in monasteryand school buildings that were ill equipped and poorly preparedfor such large crowds. Thousands were camping alongside the roads. Inthe delta town of Laputta, shopkeepers and residents were said to bebolting their doors shut as gangs of survivors roamed the streets wieldingmachetes and demanding food.

An ominous story emerged from Insein Prison in northern Rangoon.A sprawling prison complex built by the British colonial administrationin the late nineteenth century, Insein (pronounced “insane”) is the country’smost notorious lockup and holds hundreds of political prisonersalong with other inmates. The cyclone had ripped off parts of the roof inthe prison and some one thousand inmates were moved by prison guardsinto an assembly hall. Wet and shivering, the prisoners lit a fire to warmthemselves, but the fire raged out of control and the prisoners panicked.Unable to quell what was threatening to explode into a full-scale prisonriot, the guards called in armed soldiers who reportedly shot into thecrowd, killing thirty-six prisoners and injuring at least seventy others.

The story of this prison massacre was like a microcosm, a bloody predictionin miniature, of what could happen on a far larger scale in Rangoonand across the delta. There was already speculation that riots wouldbreak out soon. If people began rioting, the soldiers would be deployedand—as reportedly happened in the prison and has happened manytimes before in Burma—the soldiers would start shooting people.

Given the ruthless track record of Burma’s soldiers, many thought themounting turmoil could only end in bloodshed. But among the voicesprophesying doom, there were also hopeful visions. Some believed thatthe regime would have to back down; this event was too big, too overwhelming,and sooner or later the regime would relent and accept foreignaid and assistance. The most hopeful went so far as to predict thatthe end result of all this mayhem would be the fall of the regime and theinstallation of a democratic government in Burma.

In the chaotic days after Cyclone Nargis, the mood of the countryseemed to teeter wildly between abject despair and a deliriously irrationalsense 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 theremany times before and, in the early 2000s, I had spent more than a yeartraveling back and forth to the country researching a book on the links—both factual and fictional—between Burma and the British writer GeorgeOrwell, who had been posted there as an imperial policeman in the1920s, when the country was part of the British Empire.

Though my travels to the various towns Orwell had lived in sometimesattracted the interest of government spies curious as to what a lonefemale was doing so far off the usual tourist routes, I was never caughtor questioned and have remained mostly below the radar. During thetime I was there, I went to considerable lengths not to draw attention tomyself; I conducted my research slowly and carefully, I was openly interestedin the country’s history, took Burmese language lessons, andspent time hanging out in tea shops with Burmese friends. If there everwas a file kept on my activities at the time, I like to think it was filledwith non-incriminating observations by bored spies (“the foreign womanhas just ordered her third cup of tea this afternoon”). I also disguisedpeople’s identities in my previous book, as I have done in this one. As aresult, I have been able to travel there over the intervening years to visitfriends, conduct further research, and write the occasional article.

Now, in the aftermath of Nargis, I wanted to return again to see whatI 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 applicationswere being turned down, I applied for a visa through a travelagency in Thailand, where I live. Three days later I received a call tellingme that I could pick up my passport, which was now stamped with afour-week tourist visa for the Union of Myanmar (as the regime renamedthe country in 1989). My travel agent told me I could choose the day andtime of my travel as, perhaps not surprisingly, commercial flights toBurma were mostly empty.

By then I was in fairly regular contact with friends in Rangoon andhad received various requests and recommendations on what I shouldpack. 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 matterof days. Another person advised me to fill my suitcase with drynoodles in case the shops started to shut down. Yet another told me tobring 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 intoprivate cars and hired trucks and driving to the outskirts of Rangoon anddown into the delta. Mass e-mails were sent out requesting critical suppliesto be carried in by anyone who was able to get a visa. There were endlesslists of medicines that were either unavailable or sold out in Rangoon, butthe most insistent requests were for cash. There are no international banksin Burma, and aside from those at a few of the bigger hotels, there are nocredit card or ATM facilities, so money must be carried in by hand. Nervousand bewildered by all the demands, I ended up packing my suitcasewith a mixture of my own survival kit (peanut butter, dried fruit, waterpurifying tablets, and a headlamp), over-the-counter medical items forfriends who were administering aid (electrolytes, Imodium, gauze), andhard cash (hundred-dollar bills stashed between the pages of a novel andhidden in boxes of pills).

On the day my plane landed at Rangoon airport, the runway wasempty. After a major disaster, a working airport situated in the disasterzone would normally be crowded with fraught officials trying to organizethe off-loading and onward transport of aid and equipment being flownin. But the airport was spookily quiet. It was a gray overcast day, and thecompound had a dejected feeling that seemed to imply nothing muchcould ever happen there. As the plane taxied down the runway, I sawonly two unused passenger planes and a lone soldier clad in the standardolive-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 planethrough lazy, half-closed eyes.

The atmosphere inside the airport terminal was no different from howit had been on previous trips I’d made. The Burmese people getting offthe plane were laden down with the usual array of duty-free goods: boxesof chocolates, makeup, and whiskey. The handful of foreigners, most ofwhom were probably undercover journalists or aid workers slipping intothe country on tourist visas, waited silently in the immigration queue,perhaps all sharing the same worry: I hope they don’t know what I reallydo; I hope they don’t kick me out before I even get in. Beyond the high glasswalls that separated the immigration checkpoints from the greeting area,there was the familiar tight throng of people waiting eagerly for returningfamily and friends.

The immigration officer stamped my passport without even glancingup at me, and within minutes I had collected my suitcase and was sinkinginto the mildewed backseat of a battered Rangoon taxicab. The drive intothe city used to be one of my favorite journeys. It was about a thirty-minuteride along tree-lined boulevards that skirted one of the city’spicturesque lakes, circled roundabouts with sculpted floral centerpieces,and passed the gardens that surround the majestic golden presence of theShwedagon Pagoda. Alongside the newer Chinese-style buildings, whichhad increased in number over recent years, there was still the architectureof bygone times. There were dark wooden houses half hidden behindforests of trees, ornate monastery buildings with strips of paint peelingoff the domed roofs, and brick-walled colonial homes set at the end ofovergrown driveways. The thick covering of greenery along the drive hadalways given the city a hushed and secretive atmosphere.

After the skyscrapers of Bangkok, driving down the low-rise leafystreets of Rangoon felt to me like slipping back in time, which, in somesenses, it was; my trips to Burma always meant relinquishing the modern-daytechnological gadgets I rely on at home. There is no internationalroaming service in Burma, and my cell phone was useless there. Internetproviders are heavily monitored by the regime to prevent antigovernmentmaterial from getting into or out of the country, and access through thecity’s cramped and crowded Internet cafés was often irregular and infuriatinglyslow. Unable to distract myself with sending SMS texts or callingpeople during the cab journey into the city, there was nothing to dobut sit back and watch the streets. And, always, there was the particularsmell of Rangoon rushing in through the taxi’s open windows—a familiardank and musty odor, like a room that has been shut up for a longtime and is in need of a good airing.

But this time, even during the short taxi ride, I could see that thecyclone had totally transformed the city. Enormous hundred-year-oldtrees had been uprooted and tossed onto their sides. Telephone andelectricity poles lay across the pavement, tangled up with wires and brokenbranches. Parts of the roofs of old houses had blown away, leavingbehind gaping holes. Advertising billboards had been wrenched out oftheir moorings, though some shreds of the posters remained—amongone set of twisted iron poles, a well-manicured hand held a steaming cupof coffee and a white-toothed smile fluttered in the breeze.

Before my arrival I had tried to book a hotel room, but with communicationsystems down after the cyclone, I had been unable to getthrough or even to ascertain if any hotels were still operating. Foreignersvisiting Burma are not allowed to stay in Burmese homes, where allguests and overnight visitors must be registered with the neighborhoodauthorities, so a friend of mine had arranged for me to stay at a housetemporarily vacated by an expatriate tenant. The house was a solid cementbungalow located in a well-to-do residential neighborhood and,apart from some minor damage to the overhanging roof, it had withstoodthe storm.

I spent my first few days in Rangoon checking on friends and deliveringthe supplies of cash and medicine I had brought. Though I knewthe city well, I became lost a number of times, as so many landmarkshad been altered; towering trees were no longer standing and buildingsonce obscured by greenery now stood out in the open. Having gone tothe trouble of getting myself to Rangoon, I felt disoriented and uselessonce I was there. When I had finished dropping off the items I hadbrought with me, there didn’t seem much for me to do. Being a foreignerI was conspicuous, so I wasn’t able to go down to the delta easily andreport 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 bestI 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 reassuringsounds of a home—no television, no music, no ringing telephone. Thehouse was located some distance from the main street, so even the soundof passing traffic was absent. At nighttime, the darkness was absolute.Each evening I would put on my headlamp and wander from room toroom in its feeble tunnel of light.

Finding reliable sources of information in Burma has alwaysbeen difficult. The regime exerts control over the country in part by attemptingto control the very reality in which people live. Everything thatis published in Burma must first pass through a government censorshipboard. Each day censors are hunched over their desks sifting out sensitivenews articles and searching for criticism of the regime that might bedisguised in an allegorical short story or hidden within the rhyming coupletsof a poem. To fill the gap left behind by the removal of independentnews and views, the regime produces its own version of events, energeticallyrewriting the news in its favor and eliminating any contrary views.

The New Light of Myanmar, a newspaper published in both Englishand Burmese language editions, is the regime’s de facto mouthpiece.Printed on coarse paper in cheap black ink that rubs off onto yourfingers, the daily specializes in good news. Few people I know considerit to be anything other than pure propaganda, but I read it every daywhenever I am in Burma, not so much as a source of news but as a windowinto the point of view of the ruling generals. News as it is portrayedin 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 ofCyclone Nargis, the New Light of Myanmar portrayed a singularly uniquetake on events.

According to the official chronology of what happened after the storm,Burma’s prime minister, General Thein Sein, who was announced as thechairman of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee,convened a meeting in the new capital city of Naypyidaw at 8.30 a.m. onMay 3, while the storm was still raging in Rangoon. State media reportedthat Thein Sein traveled south immediately afterward to begin overseeingthe national relief operation. Almost every day the general was featuredon the front cover of the New Light of Myanmar. When he was not picturedtirelessly briefing other soldiers in a never-ending schedule of meetings,he was shown inspecting government-run camps that had been setup for storm victims. According to the New Light of Myanmar, the reliefeffort was already a laudable accomplishment. Private citizens and themilitary had banded together in the country’s hour of need and, with thehelp of global goodwill, this disaster would soon be overcome. In the pagesof the New Light of Myanmar, at least, everything was under control.

My Burmese friend Ko Ye, a publisher working in Rangoon, oncetaught 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 inthe pages of newspapers or seen on the nightly news, it is more likely tobe found in what is not published or broadcast—the stories, or bits ofstories, that are excised.

There were, for example, no disaster pictures in the New Light ofMyanmar or in any of the many private weekly publications. The imagesof bereft families and broken homes usually seen in the news after a majordisaster were absent. Though many Burmese publications had been ableto use the disorder that ensued after the cyclone to defy the censorshipboard, and had run stories and photographs of the destruction, by thetime 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 whichthe censors had scrawled hasty lines across all photographs consideredto be “negative” (images of collapsed buildings, sunken boats, unhappypeople, etc.). Out of some one hundred photographs, the censors hadonly approved four images. Less than two weeks after the cyclone, Burmesejournalists and editors were summoned to the central censorshipoffice, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and were told thatthe emergency period was over. From then on, all Nargis-related storiespublished in Burma had to focus on rehabilitation and convey only positivemessages.

It was impossible to see how the local media would be able to squeezeany positive stories out of the ongoing events. The conversations I hadwith friends and aid workers during my first few days revealed a realitythat couldn’t be more different from that described in the New Light ofMyanmar.

Aung Thein Kyaw, a middle-aged man who runs a tour company, hadtemporarily shut down his business and was making repeated trips to thedelta to hand out rice and medicine. The conditions he encounteredwere horrifying. In a tight and carefully measured voice he talked abouthow the boat he traveled in kept bumping against dead bodies. He describedsurvivors with ghastly injuries. During the cyclone, flying sheetsof corrugated iron had severed limbs and torn flesh from bone. Whiletrying to stay afloat in the choppy waters of the storm surge, people hadbeen battered by loose logs, boats, and planks of wood. Without medicalattention their gaping wounds were turning gangrenous. Survivors whohad held on to trees for the ten-to-twelve-hour duration of the stormhad 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 toa delta town to treat patients, described some areas where the roads werelined with thousands of desperate and homeless people begging for food.“There are so many, many people,” she said. “And they have nowhere togo. 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 returnedfrom traveling with a group of fellow businessmen to the southernstretches of the delta. Even before the storm, the lower regions of thedelta were accessible only by boat, as no road network had ever been builtthere. Hardly any news had been heard from those areas, and it was believedthat villages there must have taken the brunt of the storm. Thebusinessmen had companies in the delta—fishing operations and rice-trading firms—and they had left the city soon after the storm, headingout to the villages in a large boat loaded with rice, drinking water, andtarpaulin sheets that could be used for shelter. Though the prime ministerhad warned members of the business community who were organizingsimilar donations that cameras were prohibited in the delta, Chit Swehad taken a camcorder.

To see the footage, we went to Chit Swe’s house—a mansion with asweeping teakwood staircase leading up from a high-ceilinged entrancehall. It was by far the grandest home I had ever visited in Burma, and itmade me think that these men must be working closely with the regimeto secure such profits. Regardless of their connections, they had goneagainst the prime minister’s orders to collect evidence of conditions inthe delta that they now wanted to show to foreigners. We gatheredaround a flat-screen television. It was late at night, and Chit Swe—abulky, overweight man whose chubby fingers were being strangledby golden, gem-studded rings—had cracked open a bottle of JohnnieWalker whiskey that he drank on the rocks as we watched the grimjourney the businessmen had made to the delta.

Taken about a week after the cyclone struck, the images were staggeringlybleak. Most houses in the delta are built out of bamboo or woodand have palm-thatch roofs—in the event of a cyclone as powerful asNargis, they are no better than origami huts folded out of paper. The firstvillages the businessmen arrived in had been completely demolished.Even the few concrete buildings in each village—often small monasteriesor schools—had been reduced to heaps of rubble. Blank-faced survivorswandered aimlessly amid the wreckage, occasionally bending over to pickup a soggy scrap of cloth or a bamboo pole that might be useful for riggingup a shelter.

In one village along the Pyan Mae Law River, the businessmen cameacross a small gathering of people who had made a lopsided tent out of aragged piece of tarpaulin and some planks. Chit Swe said somberly thatat least 80 percent of the people living in the village were now dead ormissing. The flooded paddy fields surrounding the makeshift shelter werelittered with corpses of people and farm animals. Those who had survivedhad done so mostly by holding on to trees and managing to stay abovethe storm surge. One survivor commented that the dead were lucky comparedto the living, who now found themselves trapped in a place thatlooked and felt like hell itself.

Chit Swe explained that they had to ration their supplies so that theycould cover more ground and assess conditions in a number of villages.As they traveled farther south, the situation grew progressively worse. Itwas the ill-fated villages closer to the coast and those located along thebanks of large rivers that appeared to have suffered the most. Whereverthe boat docked, subdued groups of men would approach the vessel andquietly off-load whatever supplies the businessmen had to offer. In theseareas, where the storm surge had been especially violent, there were oftenfew women and children to be seen, because they hadn’t had the physicalstrength needed to hold on for the duration of the storm. When the boatleft, the same men would stand in a row on the riverbank. They did notwave or smile or talk. They just stood there, silhouetted against thewashed-out, monsoon sky and watched the boat sail away.

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

The camera panned out from the statue to take in a diabolical viewof countless human corpses and the carcasses of farm animals that hadswollen to twice their usual size. The monk said that the dead were notpeople from his village but had been washed up by the storm surge.Exposed to the elements for many long days, they had become unidentifiableand almost inhuman-looking. In Buddhist communities, thedead would customarily be cremated, but the land was saturated fromthe storm and the constant drizzle that followed it, and villagers had nowood 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 theflat, broken land. He indicated villages that were located farther south,and his voice seemed devoid of all emotion as he said, “Down there, itis even worse.”

The footage Chit Swe showed us from one short journey along asingle river in the Irrawaddy Delta represented only a tiny fraction of theoverall picture. There are innumerable waterways in the delta, and thecyclone-affected parts amounted to just over 9,000 square miles, a landmassover twice the size of Lebanon, that was home to more than sevenmillion people. The townships around Rangoon were also known to bein bad condition, as people there live in flimsy slum housing on low-lyingland that is vulnerable to heavy winds and flooding. The samescenes we saw at Chit Swe’s house could have been replayed over andover again just beyond the edges of Rangoon and out across the vastexpanse of the delta.

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

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

Despite the possible dangers, everyone I knew was doingsomething to help. With little visible government support and restrictedassistance from abroad, private citizens were stepping into the breech.Throughout the city groups of Rangoon residents banded together tocollect money and deliver much-needed supplies to the delta and theoutlying areas around Rangoon. Relief missions were being coordinatedby 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 wasorganizing a team of volunteers to move lifesaving supplies to people inthe delta. Leading monks and abbots, such as the revered Sitagu Sayadaw,activated their countrywide donor networks to support monasteries thatwere sheltering survivors. The expatriate community was also pitching in,with gutsy embassy wives whose spouses worked at foreign embassiesmaking use of the diplomatic license plates on their cars to storm throughcheckpoints carrying food and medicine.

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

On the morning I was there, a group of emergency experts had justarrived from Israel. The four-man team had traveled on tourist visas, asthey would not have been allowed to enter the country in an official capacityas aid workers. Its members were well versed in the skills neededafter a natural disaster, and the team leader had a PhD in disaster management.Trained to perform search-and-rescue missions and provide medicalcare in the field, these men had dealt with catastrophes across the globein places as far afield as Turkey, Chad, and El Salvador. Here in Burma,however, they were rendered almost useless; their access to the disasterzone was blocked by military checkpoints, and they could not even publiclydeclare that they were there to try to help. If they wanted to contributetheir 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, tobrief the students on techniques that might be useful in the field. Theteam members sat on a low stage at the front of the school hall and talkedto a crowd of around thirty people. It was Disaster Response 101, aimedat creating instant relief workers out of inexperienced but eager Burmesevolunteers. The audience listened attentively, but the room was rustlingwith barely contained impatience. The speakers had to talk above a continuouspercussion of tapping feet and muffled conversations.

The leader of the emergency team began by asking for information fromanyone 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, wheresprawling shantytowns were hit hard by the cyclone. In these areas, thousandsof people whose homes had been destroyed by the wind and floodshad sought shelter in local monasteries, but the monasteries were filledto the bursting point, and there was no more space for people to sleep.Some monasteries had been stocked with food in preparation for BuddhistLent, when resident monks remain inside the compound for threemonths during the rainy season, but within just a few days, these supplieshad been depleted. The monasteries had run out of resources; theywere feeding the hungry masses with watered-down rice gruel. In someareas, local authorities were trying to provide assistance but were overwhelmedby the sheer volume of need. A young medical student describedhow some seven hundred people were camped in and around asingle-story school building that had only four bathrooms.

The reports were often confused and sometimes conflicting. One persondescribed conditions in one neighborhood as under control; minuteslater another person describing the same area said that the situation wasdeteriorating by the hour. The emergency specialists suggested that peopletake photographs wherever they went and mark down the time, date,and location so that they could monitor whether conditions were gettingbetter or worse. The team leader had a reassuringly calm manner andoffered up plenty of easy-to-follow practical advice. Most heads in theroom were bowed over notebooks as people scribbled down his five-pointchecklist for assessing a disaster. He explained that the quality andquantity of the following necessities (listed in order of importance) wereessential 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-timeaid workers volunteering in extreme circumstances and it illustrated justhow inexperienced they were in dealing with an emergency situation. Ijotted 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 perquart).
  • People will also need something to hold the water—make sureto 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 cookit in. There is no point in giving pots if they don’t have matchesto light a fire. Matches or a lighter are useless if people don’thave access to tinder.

The morning was wearing on and the hall began to heat up. A strongsmell of onions permeated the room, coming from the sacks of producethat had been stacked against the walls. The audience became ever morerestless; the foot tapping had increased, and every so often someone pushedback his chair and crept out into the yard, lured by the noise of activityoutside as trucks were packed with commodities and students were chosento accompany the vehicles. By the time the emergency team broached thetopic of sanitation, the crowd had dwindled to about ten people, and thenoise outside had reached a distracting crescendo of urgent voices andrevving truck engines.

As the audience dispersed, the Israeli team talked to individuals whoapproached them with specific questions. The doctor offered to look atphotographs of wounds and advise young medical students present onhow to treat them and what medicines would be useful to carry. I pickedup snippets from disparate conversations taking place around the yard;topics under discussion included the disposal of dead bodies using limepowder, the cooking time required for lentils, and how to diagnose thefirst symptoms of gangrene.

I chatted with a member of the emergency team who was moroselychain-smoking cigarettes. He explained that he was accomplished insearch and rescue and could save people’s lives under the water, high onmountaintops, or wherever they might be in danger. Stuck here in Rangoonfar from the scene of the emergency, he was not getting hisadrenaline fix.

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

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

Even before Cyclone Nargis, the UN and NGOs operated undertight constraints in Burma. In addition to curtailed movement, therewere limitations on what kind of programs could be conducted, and theauthorities insisted on vetting and monitoring all proposed activities. Inrecent years there had been clashes between the regime and various aidorganizations. In 2005, the regime decided to appoint its own representativesto observe International Committee of the Red Cross meetingswith Burmese prisoners. As the ICRC upholds a policy of total confidentialityduring its discussions with inmates, it has therefore been preventedfrom monitoring Burmese prisons since the end of 2005. In thesame year, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malariapulled out after promising more than US$98 million for disease control;the fund stated that its ability to manage programs was compromised bythe ever-tightening travel restraints on international aid workers.

When viewed in light of the country’s extreme poverty, these controversieswere tragic. UN reports show that more than 30 percent of childrenunder the age of five are malnourished, and that Burma is the onlycountry in the world where the vitamin deficiency beriberi still kills infants.The government’s will and ability to provide social services hasbeen severely denuded over decades of military rule, and it has the lowestgovernment health spending worldwide, with a meager 0.3 percent of thegross 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 inthe region. The United Nations Development Programme recorded thatpeople in Burma received just under US$3 worth of aid per year percapita—a shockingly low amount, especially when compared to the $38per person received in Cambodia and $49 in neighboring Laos.

Aid workers responding to Cyclone Nargis who were not among thefew international NGOs registered with and approved by the Burmesegovernment had to keep a low profile and cover their tracks. At a hotelbusiness center, I listened to a Western man talking on a long-distancetelephone line about how many blankets and tents he had been able tosend down to “the special place.” Though he had obviously been organizingaid deliveries, he never used the words “cyclone” or “delta” andmust have been concerned that the phone line was being tapped.

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

There were no soldiers on the streets of Rangoon; I often wonderedwhere they had gone. With between four to five hundred thousandtroops, 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 phonelines and electrical wires, or unclogging sewage pipes?

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

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

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

Not long after that I saw a truck filled with soldiers driving downBogyoke 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 archedroof, and it is still encircled by cobblestone side streets. The goods on saleare considered high-end commodities; stalls sell jade, jewelry, fabrics,imported cosmetics, and velvet slippers. Across the street from the marketthere is a row of colonial shop-houses that must once have been a prestigiousaddress in the city, but years of neglect have taken their toll. Moldhas stained the stucco façades and fluted Corinthian columns, and thefretwork balconies of the upper stories are knotted with weeds. Fartheralong the street are two of the city’s most modern structures, TradersHotel and Sakura Tower. With twenty-plus floors, these buildings areskyscrapers by Burmese standards, and they tower above everything elsein downtown Rangoon.

The soldiers were packed onto an unroofed truck and looked at theirsurroundings as if they were seeing them for the first time. They hadprobably been transported from some distant provincial outpost to domanual labor, and this may well have been their first trip to the historiccity that was once the capital of Burma. They seemed excited to be inthe city, about to undertake a heroic task in the wake of disaster, andmany 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 therehad been some prearranged agreement for all passersby to ignore thesoldiers. As I watched the enthusiastic young men drive by, I felt strangelysorry for them.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, it was not soldiers whopeople had seen in the streets. Instead, they saw their neighbors and monksfrom 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 belifted 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 othertasks. One battalion had apparently been dispatched to the ShwedagonPagoda. Considered to be the holiest site of Buddhist pilgrimage in Burma,the Shwedagon is usually open by four in the morning so that worshippersmay climb the steps to the marble platform around the golden pagodabefore dawn. In the days following the storm, however, the Shwedagonwas closed to the public. The shopkeepers who sell religious wares—gildedBuddha 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 thepagoda.

The story was just another Rangoon rumor, impossible to verify, butmost people were convinced it was true and speculated that it must havehad something to do with the jewels. At the very top of every pagoda inBurma is a conical structure known as a hti, or umbrella. The hti is traditionallydraped with gems and serves as a crown for the pagoda structure.At nearly seventeen feet high, the hti at the top of the Shwedagonis an elaborate construction of multiple tiers, plated with gold and silverand hung with donations of personal jewelry. The structure reportedlyholds some 83,850 pieces of jewelry. Among the treasures are rings embeddedwith clusters of sapphires and diamonds, ruby-studded earringsencased in precious metals, and prayers minutely etched in antique Paliscript onto paper-thin sheets of gold. At the very pinnacle of the hti is agolden globe encrusted with 4,351 diamonds and topped by a single 76-carat diamond the size of a mandarin orange. It is an ostentatious andseemingly careless display of devotion; imagine the crown jewels of Englandstrung together, hoisted up the steeple of Westminster Abbey, andallowed to twirl in the breeze above London.

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

Along with the general public, the ruling generals had also donatedvaluables for the hti. There is immense spiritual and symbolic significancein placing personal items at the highest point of the country’s mostrevered Buddhist site. The jewels are valuable in monetary as well asspiritual terms, and so it was said that the generals ordered their soldiersto retrieve the missing treasures. The soldiers were put in three-manteams, each composed of men from different battalions so that theywould not be tempted to pocket any of their findings, as they would notknow 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 hadreceived from Cyclone Nargis, and unimaginable miseries were unfoldingin the delta, some of those soldiers had been sent to collect gems for thegenerals in the gardens of the Shwedagon Pagoda.


Over a fortnight had passed by the time the country’s leader, SeniorGeneral Than Shwe, publicly acknowledged that a massive naturaldisaster had taken place in Burma. Than Shwe had sent felicitations toIsrael for Independence Day and to King Harald V on Norway’s NationalDay. He had also remembered to convey a message of congratulations tothe newly appointed Russian president, yet he had had no words for hisown countrymen during this time of crisis. He and his wife had cast theirvotes in public on the morning of the referendum, which was held asscheduled 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 ThanShwe found time to inspect the emergency operation.

Than Shwe is a famously reclusive leader. He is never interviewedby journalists and rarely appears in public. Even the sound of his voiceis unknown to most people, as recordings are prohibited; if he makesa speech at a live gathering, it will later appear in written form in thenewspapers or recited verbatim by a news anchor on television. But eventhese speeches are few and far between, and on the rare occasion whenthe senior general deigns to appear in public, the event is a carefullyscripted affair.

Than Shwe’s first appearance after Nargis began with an awkard posingat a relief camp in Dagon on the outskirts of Rangoon. The pictureswere on the front page of the New Light of Myanmar the next day. Donationshad been arranged in front of him like offerings at a pagoda; therewere neatly stacked cooking pots, biscuits from China, bottles of orangesoda, and platters of fresh fruit. Than Shwe walked along a row ofblue tents, each one shaped like a house, complete with mock framedwindows. The inhabitants of each tent stood to attention at the doorway,holding their hands together in front of their chests in a respectfulposition of prayer. “Senior General Than Shwe comforts storm victims,”claimed the captions, but Than Shwe clearly hadn’t memorized his linesor concentrated during the rehearsals, because his efforts at providingcomfort looked most unconvincing. In one scene, a retinue of uniformedgenerals stood behind him looking on as he stretched out a stiff handtoward a baby. Most of the survivors appeared immobilized in his presenceand stared straight ahead, as if they had been turned to stone.

It was hard to know what had triggered this belated and clumsy attemptat public relations. It may have been that the Chinese governmentprovided a helpful lesson after being widely praised in the internationalmedia for its fast and efficient work in assisting victims of the Sichuanearthquake that struck on May 12, shortly after Cyclone Nargis hitBurma. One week after the earthquake a three-day period of mourningwas declared in China, and the flag was flown at half-mast in memoryof the tens of thousands who had been killed. The very next day theBurmese government copied the gesture by lowering flags and announcingits own three days of mourning.

I followed the Than Shwe Disaster Tour in the New Light of Myanmaras it unfolded across the delta throughout the rest of the week. Ateach stop Than Shwe provided what the newspaper referred to as “necessaryguidance” for the government’s rehabilitation plans. He met theminister who had been put in charge of each delta township and inspectedrepair work conducted by selected companies known to be croniesof the regime. When Than Shwe arrived in Kunyangon, a townshipsouth 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 AsiaWorld Co.). Farther along in the delta, at Pyapon, the senior general wasbriefed by the minister for hotels and tourism, Major General Soe Naing,and listened to similar tales of progress and reconstruction (courtesy ofDagon International Ltd. and Yuzana Co., among others). It didn’tmatter where Than Shwe went in the delta, the script was always thesame, and the model camps looked identical.

As I read the papers each day, I found little in the repetitive coveragethat looked like anything other than theatrical performance. Nothingabout the senior general’s tour had the ring of truth. The tents inthe 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 Iwas quite sure that the route the general had traveled had been clearedof any remaining corpses or people begging along the roadside. This maygo some way toward explaining Than Shwe’s extended absence after sucha cataclysmic natural disaster. He couldn’t have gone to the delta anyearlier because the authorities there had been unprepared for a visit fromthe country’s leader; in the widespread havoc caused by Nargis, it tooksome time to make things presentable by erecting the necessary stage setand 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 theIrrawaddy Delta.

The monsoons arrived early in Burma, and by mid-May it wasraining heavily every day. The storms were sudden and incredibly heavy.Umbrellas buckled under the daily downpours, and the roads of downtownRangoon were transformed into dark, sludgy canals. Some parts ofthe city remained persistently flooded, and stones or planks were placedin areas where the water was too deep to wade through or too wide tojump across. Even when it wasn’t raining, water dripped incessantlyoff 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 inthe atmosphere seeped into everything; the sheets on my bed felt slightlydamp and the pages of my notebooks curled up at the corners.

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

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

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

The man told me that he and his friends had been to Kunyangon tohand 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 backand clicked through an alarming number of dead-body photographsbefore coming to a picture that showed crowds of people squatting downon either side of a dirt road, holding their hands up toward the camera.“They have nothing. They have no money. They have no shirts. Noshoes. Nothing. And there is no help for them. I saw no officials thereto assist them. With nothing, how will they survive?” I thought it was arhetorical question, but the shopkeeper seemed to be waiting for ananswer. I couldn’t think of a reassuring response; it didn’t seem possiblethat people who had nothing left could survive without help. We sat insilence for a few moments and listened to the rain.

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

At first, I found these images and conversations deeply unsettling. Butwithin just a week or so of arriving in Rangoon, I had seen so manypictures of dead bodies that it was hard to acknowledge each one for theindividual tragedy it represented; a father who had left behind a wife andchildren or a child whose parents might be praying their firstborn wouldstill be found alive. I was disturbed to notice that I became quite comfortablediscussing the details of human decay. I easily flicked throughphotographs of dead people in the same way I might politely lookthrough an album of someone’s holiday snapshots, asking questions andfeigning interest but hoping there wouldn’t be too many more. Most ofmy friends in Rangoon felt the same; it was a necessary coping mecha-nism for processing the relentless horror of the images we looked at eachday. And there would be no shortage of dead-body photographs for sometime to come. By May 13, just over ten days after the storm, the officialdeath 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 continueto escalate.

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

There was no voice-over or commentary on the DVDs, and theywere often little more than compilations of mismatched footage. Mostwere filmed from boats sailing through the delta and depicted an unrelentinglymiserable vista of broken homes and floating corpses. Riddledwith waterways, the delta is a low and featureless terrain, and watchingthese 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 boatpassed earlier? The amateur footage was filmed anonymously, probablyby people who had taken donations down to survivors. There was alsoaerial footage that must have been taken by cameramen working for theregime who were allowed onto military helicopters and had later decidedto leak their material.

With all other media in the country vetted meticulously, these DVDswere a welcome if dismal dose of reality. There are few other ways forpeople to get information that hasn’t first passed the censors. Manypeople listen to Burmese-language news broadcasts from radio channelssuch as the BBC and Voice of America and, in urban areas like Rangoonwhere there is access to the Internet, people can go to Internet cafés anduse specially installed software to get past the regime’s firewalls andblocks on news channels. Still, at a time when few reliable reports wereemerging from the delta, nothing quite matched the visceral visual contentof the DVDs, and the films served an important function by documentingthe aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and capturing an uncensoredrecord of the full extent of the damage it had caused.

But it turned out that the DVDs were only available for a limitedperiod of time. One day in mid-May state media announced that foreignnews agencies and local “destructive elements” were trying to manipulatepublic opinion by broadcasting false information. It was an oblique warning,but it was enough; the very next day the DVDs were gone. The boyswho sold them at traffic intersections went back to selling garlands offlowers or cigarettes. I went to the movie vendor on a busy market streetwhere I had previously bought copies. His stall was still there, but theonly DVDs on display were Chinese and Korean soap operas with Burmesesubtitles. 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 theseinformally made films. The regime has always had an intense dislike ofnews outlets it cannot control. During times of political tension whenevents in Burma make international headlines, warnings are posted inthe newspapers ordering people not to believe foreign news sources andnot to listen to foreign radio channels that produce what the writers ofregime propaganda refer to as a “skyful of lies.”

Yet the regime’s attempt to cover up the destruction wreaked byCyclone Nargis was counterproductive. The initial images were a chronicleof nature’s fury, not of the regime’s misrule or brutality. By banningthem and preventing the local press from running photographs deemedto be negative, the authorities were handling the disaster as if it wassomething that needed to be hidden from public view. As a result ofthis secrecy, the contraband images had taken on a different attribute;images of people killed by a natural disaster became atrocity picturesused as evidence to portray the callous neglect of an already vilifiedregime.

People were afraid that the decaying corpses could spread disease. Thisis apparently a common and enduring myth in the aftermath of large-scaledisasters; though people using water sources contaminated by corpsescan contract gastroenteritis, it is generally acknowledged by emergencyexperts that bodies, especially those killed by sudden trauma, do not causecholera or typhoid epidemics. The greater concern is the psychologicaltoll for survivors who must live in close proximity to the dead.

There was no widespread, concerted effort by the authorities to collectthe corpses or to try to identify them. When a brigadier general wasasked what should be done with all the bodies, he allegedly replied thatthere 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 methat he did not believe the generals could be real human beings. “Howcan 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 devilscan ignore suffering so great.”

The rain continued to pour down, and I had to raise my voice to askthem what they thought about the U.S. government’s recent offer tosend Navy ships to provide assistance. They were enthusiastic about theidea, and they all agreed that it would even be a good thing if the UnitedStates were to invade. Though it was a frequently expressed opinion, Iwas always slightly incredulous that people would welcome the ideaof 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 Iraqis now. . . .”

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

There was much laughter at the idea of Burma’s cowardly soldiersbeing chased by hulking American GIs, and our conversation becamealmost jolly as we talked about the possibilities of amphibious landingcraft off-loading soldiers onto the muddy delta shores and U.S. helicoptersair-dropping sacks of rice to hungry villagers. The talk seemed to meto be lighthearted fantasy, but the shopkeeper’s eyes had become wetwith 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 issuesuch 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 nearbyshop-house, where it sat exhausted and panting. The floodwater hadturned an ugly gray color and the consistency had thickened—a sign thatthe city’s sewage pipes were overflowing. As plastic bags and other scrapsof rubbish floated past, a fetid, unhealthy smell began to rise off thewaters.

There is a burmese phrase that perfectly described the limitedamount of aid being delivered after the cyclone versus the enormity ofthe need: As the phrase goes, it was like tossing sesame seeds into themouth 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 wereallowed to land came from nearby Asian countries such as Thailand,China, and India, as well as cargo flights chartered by the UN. A fewdays later the regime began allowing U.S. Air Force planes carrying reliefgoods to land each day but only under the condition that the contentsof the C-130 planes were unloaded by the Burmese military and distributedthrough the authorities.

It was clear to everyone involved that this small number of flights wasnot nearly enough to ferry in the supplies and logistical support needed toset up and maintain a major emergency operation. By comparison, therelief effort launched within forty-eight hours of the Indian Ocean tsunamiin December 2004 involved aid from countries around the world,with more than thirty national militaries dispatching troops and providinghelicopters, aircraft, and ships. The U.S. government alone had committedeighteen thousand soldiers, sailors, and Air Force personnel. Just a coupleof weeks after the tsunami, a fleet of helicopters was flying over 430 sortiesa day out of the airport at Banda Aceh, the capital of the worst-hit regionof Aceh. In Burma, where it was feared the disaster could be of a comparablescale, there was hardly any activity at the airport, and the regime hadso far prohibited the UN from bringing in helicopters to deliver aid.

The limitations were further exacerbated by a lack of speed. It couldtake an entire day to off-load the few planes able to land, as there wasonly one forklift available for use at the airport. Security personnel insistedon painstakingly combing through the cargo, filming and notingdown exact quantities before letting it pass through customs. And somegoods were brazenly confiscated by customs officials, such as communicationsand IT equipment flown in for UN agencies to use in the delta.

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

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

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

Once aid supplies made it past overzealous customs officials and covetouswives, it was still a long and convoluted process to reach survivors.My friend Ko Ye, who had an encyclopedia of stories to share each timeI met him, told me about a gem company owner who had raised K40million (in the Burmese currency, kyat, around US$40,000) for donationsbut had been forced to give K10 million to the Rangoon regionalcommander. The commander promised him that the money would beturned into aid. (“Yeah,” smirked Ko Ye. “Aid for his own family.”) Onhis way down to the delta, the donor had to hand over sacks of rice atmilitary checkpoints in order to be allowed past. Disgusted by theirgreed, he eventually gave up and returned to Rangoon.

Donors who did persevere were careful not to channel any donationsin cash or kind through the authorities, preferring instead to work withmonks and monasteries. Aung Thein Kyaw, the man who had closeddown his tour agency to help with the relief effort, described how he hadgone to a delta hospital to donate medicines and was told by the nursesto come back at night, because during the day soldiers were often sniffingaround for commodities they could sequester. To avoid having largeamounts of food snatched by the authorities, one crafty restaurant ownerin Rangoon divided her donation of rice and curries into five thousandsmall bags to hand out to individual recipients.

In addition to hurdles set up by the government, aid agencies alsohad to deal with the formidable logistical challenges of delivering suppliesacross a vast flooded area where much of the infrastructure hadbeen damaged or totally destroyed. As there were no roads in the southernstretches of the delta, a significant portion of the deliveries had to bemade by boat, but many boats had been sunk or rendered useless duringthe cyclone. The daily storms also conspired to make water routes dangerous,and there were frequent reports of smaller vessels capsizing dueto waves or unpredictable currents. The roads and bridges that did existbefore the storm were deteriorating rapidly under the traffic of aid convoysand the constant rain.

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

What People are Saying About This

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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Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
writestuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In May of 2008, a Category 4 cyclone dubbed ¿Nargis¿ reached the coast of Burma and charged through the Irrawaddy Delta (a flood basin for Burma¿s main river). Hundreds of farming and fishing villages which were home to thousands of people were devastated. In some cases, 90% of the people living in a village were killed. But it was not the storm itself which shocked everyone, but the response of Burma¿s government.The Burmese government denied foreign aid in the critical weeks following the storm ¿ a time when most experts believe people might have been saved. Instead tens of thousands perished. Even when aid was allowed into the country, the regime restricted the movement of aid workers into the hardest hit areas, allowing only untrained Burmese employees to distribute supplies and provide assistance to the people in the Delta area.Burma is controlled by a military regime headed by Than Shwe, an uneducated village boy who rose through the ranks to become the country¿s top leader. Fueled by the need for complete control over its people, the Burmese regime ignores human rights, restricts freedom of speech, quickly eliminates any organized protests, and imprisons anyone who dares stand up against its actions.Emma Larkin has been traveling to Burma over the last fifteen years. She writes under an assumed name to protect her contacts there. In Everything is Broken, she reveals the history of the Burmese government and how that history impacted the response to cyclone Nargis. Not only does Larkin cover the nationwide uprising against the government in 1988 (where soldiers shot into crowds of people killing an estimated three thousand citizens), but she also takes a look at the events of September 2007 when a mass protest by Buddhist monks ended in a government crackdown where monks and citizens were beaten, killed and imprisoned ¿ made more shocking because of the revered status of monks in Burmese society. She also introduces readers to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Noble Peace Prize winner (1991) and Burmese opposition party leader (she won the general election for Prime Minister in 1990 but has never been allowed to serve), who has spent most of the last twenty plus years under house arrest because of her political stance.But perhaps the strongest element of Larkin¿s reportage is when she illuminates the people and culture of Burma. In the months following the storm, Larkin managed to travel through some of the most devastated areas. She spoke with villagers who had lost everything, and recorded their stories. She experienced first hand the grief and loss.The dead had become indelibly etched into people¿s memories and onto the landscape. The bodies of people and carcasses of farm animals that floated in the waterways during the weeks after the cyclone had now sunk beneath the surface, but at low tide the waters would recede and reveal anonymous piles of bones slick with the fertile, alluvial mud of the delta.¿ from Everything is Broken, page 196 -In a country where speech is controlled, and even the peoples¿ memories of events are rewritten, Larkin¿s dedication to giving voice to the people of Burma is moving. The Burmese government does not allow for collective memory because to do so might give the people power to rise up. Larkin eloquently writes of the effect this silencing has on the Burmese people:By maintaining a effective gag order on all public forums, the regime ensures that there is no space for any collective remembrance. Only the regime¿s version of the truth remains to be seen or read. As a result, recent historical events ¿ no matter how earth-shattering or all-consuming ¿ are remembered only in private. Because people cannot compare their experiences easily or openly, past events become distorted and intensely personal. In isolation, these memories evolve into the kind of twisted secrets that can end up breaking people. ¿ from Everything is Broken, page 219 -Larkin is a gifted writer who writes with se
thelittlereader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
i don¿t read a lot of non-fiction. i am also notoriously bad at keeping up with current events. so, it isn¿t a surprise that i missed hearing about the storm that this book was written about, or that i was completely unaware of the political turmoil within the country of Burma. to be honest, before reading the book, i wouldn¿t have been able to point Burma out on a map, but, i did grow up in Florida and have many hurricane filled memories, though none with any devastation resembling that experienced by those struck by the major hurricanes of the recent past. i am very familiar with the power of natural disasters and can absolutely appreciate what it meant for a nation that was unprepared and unresponsive in its wake.in my ignorance, this is what i was absolutely shocked to learn: Cyclone Nargis was the second deadliest named cyclone of all time and it was the worst natural disaster in Burma¿s history. it struck the Irrawaddy Delta of Burma two years ago this month, on May 2, 2008, resulting in over 130,000 deaths and another 55,000 missing ¿ making it nearly as deadly as the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia and India. and yet, it went vastly unnoticed by national media in large part due to the restrictions set by the Burmese government on foreign aid, as well as the censorship of information entering or exiting the country.shortly following the disaster, Emma Larkin managed to gain access to the country, where she had done research for her first book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. though it had been weeks since the actual disaster, she was able to discreetly travel through the delta and witness firsthand the long lingering effects of the cyclone, from the devastatingly poor conditions to the oddly impassive media representation (or mis-representation). villages were lacking in even basic needs ¿ clean water, food, medicine, and shelter and very little relief was being offered. and yet, the media was already indicating that the country was recovering successfully. it became clear that much of what was communicated publicly was unreliable, due to strict regulations on media representations and ¿staged¿ appearances of political figures in areas that were cleaned up prior to their arrival. as such, stories circulated by word of mouth and had varying degrees of truth and reliability."Perhaps none of these stories were true; perhaps all of them were. In the hothouse environment of Rangoon, where the truth was malleable and facts and figures could be plucked out of thin air, anything seemed possible. A there are so few reliable sources of news in Burma, rumors take on an added significance and act as a barometer of people¿s hopes and fears. What becomes important in this context is not whether they are true but whether people believe them to be true."through her conversations with survivors, Larkin uses her descriptive and sharp, journalistic writing style to give a vivid portrayal of the tragedy and unbounded optimism of the people of Burma, despite the circumstances. though many had lost their entire families or villages, they managed to have hope for a better future, both for themselves and for their country. by reading the heavy imagery used to describe the aftermath of Hurricane Nargis, a clear picture can be brought to mind of the wreckage strewn throughout the flooded plains. be prepared for the graphic details, because this book wouldn¿t be honest if it didn¿t include them. but, also be prepared for an underlying sense of joy in life, because it is also part of the honesty of the people of Burma.in addition to the detailed account of the disaster itself, Everything is Broken spends some time delving into the history and political situation of Burma, as well as the cultural innuendos that significantly impact the nation and its citizens. the book was well researched, but Larkin herself admits that so little of the information is considered reliable, so it leaves a feeling of uncertainty and mistrust tow
trivk96 More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Heart2Heart More than 1 year ago
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: http://tlcbooktours.com/2010/04/emma-larkin-author-of-everything-is-broken-on-tour-june-2010/
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago