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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I'm leaving for Myanmar at long last

8 July 2008 - I kissed my Mommy good-bye today, looking into her 89-year-old eyes and praying that i won't come home an orphan.

I'm leaving for Myanmar at long last, 2 months after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, killing 130,000 people and leaving millions homeless and vulnerable as the monsoon season began in earnest to drench the region. Poor people who had very little before the storm have now lost everything. Thousands of children have been separated from their families with little hope of reunion. To make matters tragically worse, the military junta ruling Myanmar (formerly Burma) for the past 20 years have prevented international aid from reaching those most in need, in the remotest coastal areas of the country.

And that's where we're headed. If we are able to actually get there - and that remains to be seen - we'll be among the very first foreign medical people to access the area. Our plan is to arrive in Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma) on 10 July, and travel the next morning early to Bogalay and from there 5 hours by boat to Kadonkani, on the Bay of Bengal.

We are of a team 21, sponsored by Aloha Medical Mission headquartered in Hawaii. Most of us are from Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. our sponsor in Myanmar is a highly regarded monk, the Sitagu Sayadaw. Aloha Medical have sent 2 previous missions to Myanmar before the cyclone and were planning a third for October, which has been expedited. When Dr. Carl Lum, the "retired" surgeon and driving force behind many of ALoha Medical Mission's international efforts, sent out an email asking who wanted to go to Myanmar to help immediately following the cyclone, I was among the first to respond. I had last visited Burma in 1982, and was enchanted by the people and the place in the week-long tour. I felt i could live there forever. in the meantime, the junta took power and friends advised me to stay away. We are still concerned that they may get wind of our plans to work in the Irrawaddy Delta.

After a week in the delta providing direct medical services as teh Aloha Medical Mission hove done so well for many years, i return to Yangon to meet Deborah Quigley, my co-leader on the Airline Ambassadors International aspect of this journey, and Dr. David Ratnavale, with whom i worked in the Cambodian refugee relief effort in the 80's in Thailand, He is a psychiatrist with a specialty in mental trauma in disaster survivors AND in relief workers. We have excellent contacts inside Myanmar and will be gathering information to formulate an action plan to guide future mission, and strategic linkages in the work. We are especially interested in the children, many of whom who are in a very vulnerable condition. We are planning to send missions on a monthly basis, carrying aid to projects benefitting children, especially,

Airline Ambassadors International is receiving donations through their website, The website also contains information about upcoming missions.

It's already 9 July here in Japan. I sat next to a nice Irishman married to a Thai woman... His name is QUIGLEY, same as Deboarah! another in a long line of synchronicities which link Deborah and me for.. decades now!

in parting let me share a little bit of the writing of

An old friend from Hawaii, Dr. Alan Chun. He sent out the following message to his friends, and it's a pretty thorough summary of what's ahead, so I'll excerpt from it below:

July 7, 2008

I thought I had a leisurely day with some small errands to do, then pack tomorrow morning before my afternoon flight. But now it is the night before and I still have a couple surgical scrub outfits to treat with permethrin to discourage the mosquitos from sharing their malaria with me. I found out that most everyone is really bringing 6 days of food with them to Kadonkani, since we have no idea what the food or store situation will be. So now I need to figure out about power bars, canned sardines or some such to add to instant noodles or rice that we'll pick up in Yangon. Feeling a little stressed ....

I still need to go to the bank and get some cleaner bills to take with me, since the teller today was most unhelpful. There are no credit cards accepted in Myanmar and we have been told several times that only clean or new bills will be accepted. I'm sure travelers checks wouldn't be accepted (heck, they aren't even accepted in the Chicago!) so I am bringing all money in US cash. The official exchange rate between US $ and Myanmar kyat is 6 kyat per dollar. The blackmarket rate is around 1200 kyat per dollar. Hmmm, someone is making a lot of profit there!

One of my colleagues at work gave me a book by George Orwell, his first novel titled "Burmese Days." I'll be taking that along with a newer book called "Finding George Orwell in Burma" by Emma Larkin. which is a pseudonym for a journalist who writes about travel and the political situation in Myanmar. She says that the other books by George Orwell that he is famous for, "1984" and "Animal Farm" should really be considered a Trilogy with "Burmese Days." Though he died in 1950, Orwell lived in Burma early in his life and participated in the British domination of the country and watched the ensuing development of what would become the socialist government that would watch all and know all. She claims that "1984" is banned in Myanmar and I'm wondering if I should put another cover on her book.

July 6, 2008

So today is the calm before the storm. 2 more days till we leave for Asia, most of the major packing done. All that is left is to finish up some personal business, pay for my tickets, last minute shopping and worrying (do I have enough of …?, will I be seasick?, will my flights get delayed?, did I forget anything?)

I found a website with a 7 day forecast. Pretty consistent weather for this time of year (mid-monsoon season). Low 80's, humid, thunderstorms and rain shawls. I think I'm bringing boots.

It turns out that we had the wrong spelling for the place we are going to. There is actually a lot of available information about Kadonkani, Myanmar. I found an interactive map of Kadonkani, which is 155 km southwest of Yangon. It is very much on the coast of the Ayeyarwaddy delta, where it meets the Bay of Bengal and the Adaman Sea.

The delta is a rich deposit of silt from the river which originates in the mountain ranges on the Burma borders with China and India. The Ayayerwaddy river flows maximally in July and August. The seas may be very rough, and there are often strong winds from the south and southwest. This is a very flat landscape with mangrove forests that have been depleted due to over harvesting for fuel and clearing of land to produce rice. There is a rich ecosystem of wildlife and fishing. Tides can change up to 2.5 meters twice daily.

There are 29 mangrove species, 65 fish species, 13 shrimp species, 4 crab species and 9 other aquatic species found inside Ayeyarwaddymangrove area. Therefore, Bogalay and Laputta Townships are traditionally famous for a wide variety of fishery products. Besides, 6 mammals, 30 bird species and one crocodile species are also found as mangrove inhabitants. Crocodiles, sea turtles nesting, and a river terrapin (Batagur baska) are among the endangered species.

Local fishermen already complain about a reduction in their daily catches and they are well aware that the reason for this lies in the destruction of the mangroves. Other negative impacts of mangrove destruction are increased bank erosion along the main rivers and thus reduced coastal protection especially during period of heavy storms.

Actually there is a fair amount of other information from my Google search of Kadonkani. In a report from The Irrawaddy (which is published by Burmese journalists who left the country) found in ReliefWeb dated June 4th quoted,

"Tin Tin Win, a villager from Kadonkani, Bogalay Township, said his family felt ill after eating rice handed out by the Ward Peace and Development Council. Villagers say there is no sign of any international aid workers. Private donors are being told to hand relief supplies to local authorities for distribution, while local people waiting at the roadside for aid are being dispersed by the police. A Rangoon-based journalist who visited the region said police were monitoring the roads from dawn to dusk. One donor who visited the Dedaye area in the Irrawaddy delta said he had been angered by the sight of armed police stopping cyclone victims from seeking aid." -- Click here

A different point of view is seen in The New Light of Myanmar, which is the government run newspaper. The front page headlines read "Vice-Senior General Maung Aye visits relief camps in Kyaiklat, Pyapon, Satsan and Kadonkani in Ayeyawady Div."

There are lots of photo-ops with the top generals overseeing relief efforts to residents in the affected areas. And I like this summary on page 2 of:

"People's Desire
  • Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
  • Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
  • Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
  • Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy."
Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to not oppose the People's Desire while providing medical support to those who have suffered twice, once from Cyclone Nargis and again with negligence and deception. Is that a plot for Mission Impossible?

Alan Chun, MD

Here are two ways you can help if you feel you would like to support our efforts. You can make a tax-deductible contribution to Sitagu Sayadaw's online website that will accept donations.

You can also contribute to:

Aloha Medical Mission Burma Fund
810 N. Vineyard Blvd.
Honolulu, HI 96817
website: www.alohamedicalmission.org
The fund is used for the purchase of our meds and supplies, and for humanitarian aid to the people in the Delta.

Here are two ways you can help if you feel you would like to support our efforts. You can make a tax-deductible contribution to Sitagu Sayadaw's online website that will accept donations.


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Name: Daniel Susott
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii, United States

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