In the wake of tragedy, international students reflect on Myanmar
RELEASED: May 15, 2008
Centre College seniors Thet Win, a financial economics major, and Thiri Myat, an international relations major, look to their native country of Myanmar with both dismay and sympathy, eager to shed light on a devastating tragedy made worse by what they view as their government's disregard for its people.
"I was here on campus when I found out about the cyclone," Win says. "I had tried to call home on the weekend but couldn't get through. So I called some of my friends in the States, and they told me about the cyclone. I figured it was probably small, not bad…not devastating."
Both Win and Myat are originally from Yangon, the Myanmar capital. Myat had been following news of the impending disaster and feared the worst. Before Cyclone Nargis made landfall, she called her mother.
"She didn't believe me," Myat says. "My mother said, 'No we'll be fine. We've never had that kind of experience.' I went to bed that night, woke up the next morning and couldn't get in touch with her for two days."
Myat eventually made contact with all of her immediate family.
"Most of the trees have been blown over and the roof is gone, but they managed to fix it," she says.
Win adds, "Most of the city cannot get electricity or running water sufficiently. Businesses are closed, and while some public transportation is working, I can't say where or how efficient it is."
Win says the government misled the people of Myanmar regarding the impact of the storm.
"The news is operated by the government in Myanmar," Win explains. "They said that the cyclone was weakened, that it wasn't going to hit the country."
While neither Win nor Myat know anyone in the delta region—the area hit hardest by the cyclone—their friends and families do. Myat's mother, unable to contact her cousins in the delta region, has sent a letter with a friend who is traveling to the area in hopes they'll be found. Win describes a similar situation with a friend whose 80-year-old father is still missing.
Especially frustrating for Win and Myat is how they describe their government's mishandling of international aid.
"Just recently the Myanmar embassy here in America asked me for money," Myat recalls. "But I said no. The government wants to seem like the hero. They take foreign aid and either replace it with poor products from their stores or simply put the names of top generals on it to give to the people for propaganda purposes. They set up televised ceremonies where they give this aid to the people so it looks like they are the only ones who can help."
Win adds, "If aid actually made it to the people, we would be so happy. It's so inhuman. How can they do this to human beings? They could save the starving and those dying from disease, but no."
What's worse, they say, is that spreading the truth to the people of Myanmar is virtually impossible.
"Most people don't have access to the media that we do," Win says. "We have the Web, the BBC, but they may not know."
Myat adds, "People in our country are naïve. The education system is flawed, and that's one of the reasons I came here. The government controls everything, the Internet even. I went back home a few years ago and not only were many websites like Yahoo and MSN blocked, it took five minutes for nearly any page to load."
"You can't even talk politics on the phone," Win says. "They have them tapped, which makes government criticism risky."
It might be considered dangerous to discuss issues of this nature so openly, but when asked if he was comfortable being quoted directly, Win confidently states, "I don't mind. I'm telling the truth."
Win and Myat use this principle to guide their lives. Upon graduation, neither plans to return to their homeland where they believe their voices would be silenced by military rule. Instead, they plan to serve as ambassadors for their people in the international community.
"A disaster such as this brings attention to the junta, but the attention probably won't last," Myat says. "I was hopeless last year when our monks were slaughtered for protesting against the government. We hoped things for our people might change, but they didn't. Interest faded away."
Win and Myat believe economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are only the first step, but that Myanmar needs pressure from neighboring countries to free itself of the junta.
"The government can ignore sanctions from the U.N., but sanctions from neighboring countries would affect them," Win says.
For now, Win and Myat say they count their blessings here in the United States and look forward to a day when they can hopefully bring their families out of Myanmar.
"There's nothing like the first amendment in Myanmar," Thet says. "I'm so lucky to be here and be able to talk about how I feel."
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