YANGON, 23 February 2012 – Day three of the ASEAN Secretariat visit to Myanmar was a physically taxing day. The team of eight, led by ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, and joined by representatives of Dialogue Partners like Japan and the United States, covered more than 220 km outside Yangon for over 12 hours—from noon through midnight—on the rural roads of the fabled Irrawaddy Delta. It was not a sight-seeing tour to explore the beautiful landscape of Myanmar, but a reunion with charming old friends in two remote villages.
First stop was the village of Daw Nyein, some 110 km deep in the southern Irrawaddy region. In the aftermath of the Typhoon Nargis Disaster in 2008, Thai Princess Siridhorn donated funds to build a medical station here. The hospital covers an area measuring more than 50 square miles, standing proudly against the backdrop of wide, open rice fields. The Daw Nyein Station hospital now boasts facilities like 16 spacious airy bed spaces, delivery room, recovery rooms, an operating theatre, and a pharmacy. Saudi Arabia has donated an ambulance, a critically important contribution considering the long distance patients need to travel to make their way here, and the hospital could do with more transport back-up to operate even more effectively. It’s an area where any kind donations would be deeply appreciated by more than 56,000 villagers served by the hospital.
For around 500 villagers whom the team met with, the station hospital and the two-storey Cyclone Relief Shelter – which now doubles up as a school – are the most concrete signs that they were not left to fend for themselves when Cyclone Nargis devastated the region and killed over 140,000 villagers –young and old. While their lives may not be luxurious by many standards, the little shops that dot the Daw Nyein village; and the curious, shy, but absolutely adorable children lining the streets; are encouraging signs that the “Golden Village”, as the original Mon name means, are starting to rebuild their lives.
“Things are certainly so much better now,” said Dr William Sabandar, Director of Corporate Affairs of ASEAN Secretariat, as he recalled the deaths and destruction that confronted villagers and relief workers in 2008. Dr William was a point person at the ASEAN relief efforts in 2008. A disaster relief veteran who was baptized by the Boxing Day Tsunami that swept Indonesia’s northern Aceh province in 2004, Dr William, the Special Envoy of the ASEAN SG; and Adelina Kemal, Assistant Director of Disaster Management & Humanitarian of ASEAN Secretariat –
armed with the blessings of Dr Surin, the ASEAN Member States, as well as the Myanmar government, consequently spent two years personally directing the relief efforts in Myanmar.
This explains their delight in seeing the noisy, cheering children in not one, but two villages. The trip to the village of Tha Leik Gyi near the town of Phyar Phon, was a happy home-coming. For both, memories of their days here came flooding back. Seeing the villagers healthy and cheerful was the best assurance that the relief team had done good work here.
The entire village was there to greet Dr Surin and his delegation. Almost every adult and children squeezed into the village school but they showed no signs of fatigue. Everyone roared and screamed, as Dr Surin led them in cheering “Cyclone, No More!” and “ASEAN, Yes Yes !”
It may sound simple but the cheers had conveyed the good wishes of the delegation as well as the villagers. “This is what I call ASEAN for the people,” said a beaming Dr Surin. “When Cyclone Nargis hit you, all 10 countries of ASEAN were with you. Many friends – such as Australia, Norway, the EU, Japan, the UK, the US, and the World Bank – were also with you. The world rushed in at the first opportunity to help as much as we possibly could and we are happy to see that you are well today. That means a lot to us,” he expressed as the children jumped up, and broke into another round of wild cheering – even before the translator could finish. The message of good wishes and delight had crossed the language barrier, and the children obviously felt the caring smile and upbeat tone.
Earlier that day, the team was also encouraged when they called on Myanmar opposition leader, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. In a joint media interview with Dr Surin, Ms Suu Kyi said she does not believe in “retributive justice”.
“I am a great admirer of Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and I do not believe in retributive justice,” said Ms Suu Kyi, giving a clear indication that she would not pursue criminal trials against the military leaders.
As to Myanmar’s current reform efforts, she urged ASEAN to help bridge her country to the world. Despite being cautious about the pace, depth, and direction of current reforms, she was certain that Myanmar could easily be the most advanced and prosperous member of ASEAN.
“We have built bridges, and we are certainly ready to do that for any ASEAN member. Our reunion with our old friends in the Irrawaddy shows we have cultivated strong ties by changing people’s lives, and that has generated tremendous goodwill within our family, and with our partners. This experience will put us in good stead to do the same again when needed. At the end of the day, ASEAN exists to improve the lives of our people. That is the very foundation of our grouping,” said Dr Surin.