It’s been over two months since Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, killing some 130,000—130,000—people, affecting 2.4 million, and wreaking havoc on the infrastructure and economy of an already suffering country. The effects of the cyclone are, fittingly and tragically, cyclical; the immediate destruction left in its wake is only the beginning of the catastrophic mark it will leave on Myanmar’s people.
Though media coverage of the cyclone’s aftermath has, both understandably and expectedly, declined since early May, the fall has been particularly precipitous because Myanmar’s military junta has closed the country to foreign journalists. Getting into Myanmar requires sneaking past the government; reporting on its plight requires the same. Covering the story is a dangerous endeavor—but one, of course, no less worth undertaking for the danger.
In light of that, in a week that finds many in the media consumed with talk of cartoons and testicles, we thought it fitting to offer a brief note of appreciation to the news organizations that have looked beyond the day-to-day of national reporting to give their audiences a fuller—if hard and haunting—view of the world. Kudos to the organizations below for keeping Myanmar’s story alive:
CNN: Last week, CNN anchor Betty Nguyen and a crew sneaked, “under cover of night,” over the Thai border and into Myanmar. This weekend, CNN began airing the results of their reporting: scenes of destruction and devastation, an interview with a farmer who lost his wife and only daughter to the storm (“he says if it weren’t for his two surviving sons, he’d have no reason to live”). We get footage of corpses rotting by the side of the river—“you can still smell the stench of death,” Nguyen says. As the camera pans over the image, Nguyen’s voice-over intones: “Villagers say there were simply too many bodies to bury. They believe this”—we’re shown a skull with its jaw agape, frozen in some unknown horror—“was a child. No one knows for sure.”
Watch the segment here.
The Washington Post: In a front-page article on July 6, the WaPo’s Foreign Service brought the cyclone’s tragedy into haunting relief with a 1,700-word report on the Irrawaddy Delta, where “one bamboo stick at a time, survivors in hundreds of flattened villages are struggling to rebuild their lives.” Among the details:
For shelter, they squeeze several families into a single tent. For drinking water, they collect monsoon rains that trickle off tarpaulin roof coverings into buckets or salvaged ceramic vases. For food, they cook communal meals with rice, beans and oil from handouts. Sometimes it is spoiled.
In Soe’s village, about four hours south of Bogalay, survivors gathered to greet a rare foreign visitor. About 30 crowded into a newly built hut to hear the headman tell their story.
During the storm, 26 entire families vanished, he said. None of their bodies has been recovered.
The rest of the villagers clutched floating wreckage or grasped at tree trunks or piled into a leaking boat and fled to a monastery in a distant village. Days later, local authorities told them to leave, handed them the equivalent of $10 per household and ferried them in military boats to another village hours upriver. Almost 300 have now made it back.
Online, the article is accompanied by a slideshow depicting the devastation in a way even the piece’s powerful words cannot.
See the article and slideshow here.
The Christian Science Monitor: Last month, Simon Montlake reported from Bangkok on the medical plight of the cyclone’s survivors, discussing healthcare shortages in Myanmar both in addition to and because of the junta’s ejection of foreign medics from the country.
The Associated Press: The AP has been prolific—relatively speaking, of course—in its on-the-ground coverage of the cyclone’s aftereffects. Between June 19 and July 4, the wire service produced eleven stories about the Myanmar’s devastation, datelined Yangon.
NPR: On June 16, Day to Day’s Alex Cohen interviewed Human Rights Watch’s David Mathieson about the junta’s attempts to stall aid efforts. On June 25, the CSM’s Montlake joined the Bryant Park Project to discuss the health threats facing cyclone survivors and the challenges faced by the medical aid workers trying to help them.
NPR’s stories are, perhaps, particularly instructive here. They don’t offer the type of costly and dangerous on-the-ground coverage that we so desperately need when it comes to Myanmar; as pieces of journalism, they are limited. Their value, rather, is memory. The stories counteract what has become the American media’s default treatment of tragedy abroad: saturate audiences with coverage of the event itself, and then, once the well of empathy for those who live half a world away is assumed to be tapped, move on. And, as such, forget. Not in my backyard, and all that.
The headline of the WaPo article on the cyclone’s aftermath is telling: “To Be Busy Helps Them Forget.” It describes, on the surface, the Burmese cyclone survivors’ attempts to move on from tragedy and begin to rebuild their lives. But it could just as easily refer to the American psyche: distracted by other things (the presidential campaign, the economy—in other words, ourselves), it’s easy to forget about Myanmar’s plight. Which makes it especially important for news organizations to keep reminding us.