Part 2: Cylcone Nargis One Year Later: Understanding the Impact on Muslims in the Irrawaddy Delta

Burma3 Last year, we were faced with two disasters in Asia.  Many individuals, families, foundations and corporations in the U.S. stepped up and generously supported the disaster relief and recovery of Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan Earthquake in China.  In the same spirit of sharing, I had invited several authors to pick a topic that was not in the mainstream news but related to the disasters.  For the next several posts, we hope our readers will enjoy these stories.  The following is the continuation of Cyclone Nargis a year later: Understanding the impact on Muslims in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Considering the historical context and current climate for Muslims in Myanmar, I expected the worst when I began researching how Muslims fared Cyclone Nargis. To my pleasant surprise, I found out that Muslims, on the whole, fared no worse than any other group. In fact, as I’ll discuss later, there are even potentially a few silver linings. A Muslim man who was extensively involved in relief efforts explained that it’s useful to understand the effect of Nargis on Muslims by dividing the Delta region into two areas: Dalah, the area just across the Yangon River south of Yangon, and the coastal delta area focused around Bogale and Labutta.

The first area, Dalah, is a densely populated, urban area with a large Muslim population. While it did not suffer much loss of life from the storm, many thousands were left homeless. Dalah was particularly vulnerable because most of its residents live in poverty, many earning under a dollar a day, and residing in structurally weak, thatch residences. However, since this area did not experience the catastrophic loss of life that places like Bogale and Labutta experienced, Dalah was overlooked by many relief agencies and left largely to its own devices. For this reason, a consortium of Muslim organizations in Yangon that came together after the storm called the Muslim Nargis Relief Consortium (pseudonym) focused a lot of attention there, providing temporary homes for residents of the area. Traditionally, there has been a rivalry between different Islamic community organizations for influence over the Muslim community. But for the first time, the gravity of Cyclone Nargis brought these groups and their resources together to provide relief to those suffering in the Delta.

Burma5 The second major population center for Muslims in the Delta is the Bogale area, which is now famous for having experienced the brunt of the storm. Many Muslims in Bogale are fishermen or make a living extracting salt from the sea. Muslims throughout the Delta have been supported like others by the dozens of NGOs and UN agencies working there. There are also Muslim organizations that have joined the recovery efforts near Bogale, focusing their efforts on the areas with large Muslim populations. International Muslim organizations that have worked in the Delta include Muslim Aid and the Malaysian organization, Mercy. Unfortunately, both of these organizations cut back or terminated direct relief efforts after having difficulties getting permission to work in the devastated areas. The Muslim Nargis Relief Consortium has had more success because, as locals, they are not required to get permission to work in affected areas. The consortium has been busy providing medical supplies, clean drinking water, food, and water purification systems. They have replaced many draft animals that were killed in the storm with mechanized plowing equipment, although fuel shortages have prevented full utilization of this equipment.

Many of the villages in the area are still dependent on food donations because their fields have been inundated with so much salt that there soil can no longer support rice. The UNDP has helped to address this problem by providing farmers with more robust, saline-tolerant, rice seeds; but the distribution has been limited and has either not reached, or is not viable in many villages.  A Muslim man active in relief efforts also identified education as one of the major long term problems facing the Delta since so many schools were destroyed and teachers killed. The Muslim Nargis Relief Consortium is working with a development bank from the Middle East to fund the construction of schools that double as cyclone shelters, modeled after the successful shelters used in Bangladesh.

Another huge problem plaguing recovery in the Delta is inadequate or nonexistent transportation and communication infrastructure. There are few roads, and what few roads there are have been strained by the unprecedented traffic of supplies that has come since Nargis. Complicating the situation, one experienced local NGO hand explained that donors are pressuring NGOs not to build roads – because doing so would “help” the government. Alternatively, they spend thousands of dollars each week to rent boats and helicopters to reach areas to which roads could easily and cheaply be built. The local scholar I spoke with summed the situation up by saying, “Progress is being made, but it’s at a snail’s pace.”

Burma2 In spite of the slow pace of recovery and the myriad problems yet to be solved for Muslims in the Delta, there are glimmers of hope. As mentioned earlier, rival Islamic community organizations in Yangon are cooperating in an unprecedented manner in response to Nargis. In the Delta, the cyclone is bringing disparate groups together. Nargis did not discriminate on the basis of religion when choosing its victims: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims living in the Delta all suffered tremendously. The delayed and inadequate response forced these people to work together and cooperate in ways that give us reason to hope for future cooperation and improved relationships. Muslim organizations gave supplies and food to everyone, not just Muslims. Other religious organizations followed suit. In fact, the Muslim consortium went so far as to use Buddhist monasteries, which are often present in villages without mosques, as storage and distribution centers, delegating responsibilities to local monks. Everyone in the Delta, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims alike, has worked hand-in-hand to rebuild shattered villages. Struggling through this hardship together has created relationships and bonds of trust that were not there before and that cannot be broken by stereotypes and propaganda.  In terms of religious harmony, the local scholar said, “Nargis may have been a blessing in disguise.”

Author: Wesley Hedden