“Lightning” strike brings help to cyclone survivors

“Moegyo stands for thunder and lightning. Our humanitarian foundation responded to Cyclone Nargis with the speed of lightning,” said Maung Thant (not his real name), a Burmese national living and working in Bangkok, who does not want to be identified. He is one of 20 Burmese members of the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation, most based in New York City, with three in Bangkok.

Moegyo is a kind of fast-reaction assistance force, although small of scale. At the time of the December 2004 tsunami, it helped Burmese refugees injured in Phuket in southern Thailand.

“After Cyclone Nargis hit,” said Maung Thant, “all communication was down and it wasn’t until three days later, on 6 May, that I was able to make contact with friends in Yangon. Fortunately my family was safe, although the roof of their house was damaged and the windows blown out.”

In the days immediately after the cyclone, Maung Thant and his wife, who were in Bangkok and the closest Moegyo members to Myanmar, began planning with Burmese colleagues in New York, Virginia and Australia, what kind and how much immediate assistance they would provide.

“I took a week’s leave and was sleeping only four hours a night as we were so busy,” Maung Thant told IRIN. With existing savings and new donations, the foundation scraped together US$5,000 and decided much of it should be spent on water purification tablets.


Photo: Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation
In the Dedaye township area of the Ayeyarwady delta, people await a distribution of clothing and food in early May

“I arrived in Myanmar on 7 May, the second day after commercial flights resumed, with a hard-to-come-by stock of water purification tablets,” he said.

In addition, Maung Thant was able to purchase 100 sacks of rice at a below-market rate of $18 per bag from the rice traders’ association in Yangon.

It was hard initially for Maung Thant to find volunteers to distribute the water purification tablets and rice. “Everyone was in shock and busy caring for their own families,” he said. “But through friends of friends, we found people to help with distribution.” A stroke of luck was one of the volunteers making contact with the pilot of a government helicopter who agreed to deliver the water purification tablets to two hospitals in the hard-hit Ayeyarwady delta.

“I subsequently made two more trips to Myanmar and found groups to distribute medicines we purchased, such as oral rehydration salts and skin medications.”

Slow response

Maung Thant expressed surprise at how different conditions were between the 10 May drive to Bogalay and one a week later.


Photo: Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation
By 17 May, two weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit, relief assistance and traffic began to pick-up in Dedaye township in the Ayeyarwady delta

“On the first trip, it was bit strange as I was expecting lots of relief activity, cars full of donors and assistance on the main road,” he said. “But I didn’t spot any, other than the occasional Médecins sans Frontières [MSF] and Save the Children vehicles, and lots of military trucks, but no supplies from other donors.

“On the second trip, on 17 May, I saw convoys of cars and trucks with relief supplies, including water and water stations,” Maung Thant said. “We were told many people in remote areas were still in need, but it seemed as if most of them had congregated on the main road.”

Muung Thant said that on the second trip, Moegyo provided pre-cooked noodles, clothes and ovaltine, which volunteers distributed. “We also paid for medicines,” he said.

By the third week of June, the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation had provided more than $50,000 in relief assistance, most of which is helping to build temporary shelters, “budget huts”, with Handy Myanmar Youth, a local volunteer group. They cost $175 each and are constructed from tarpaulins and bamboo poles.

Maung Thant said what he witnessed did not come as a shock. “One thing I noticed is that these people in the remote areas have so little and have always had so little, they don’t know what they are missing; they don’t know what to ask for.”

The Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation has established a blog [www.moegyo.org] for members of the group to communicate with each other and to provide full transparency, showing that all donations are used effectively.

“In the blog, we have daily and weekly reports from Myanmar and also have a category listing immediate needs, for water, rice, etc.” Maung Thant said. “We even have a section called ‘Dos and don’ts’ - the site tells people to be sure to have a spare tyre and other provisions. It warns about taking photographs and also not to argue with the authorities.”

bj/mw