When the cyclone hit Myanmar

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Workers and refugees from Myanmar who are now in Malaysia have been agonising over the fate of their loved ones in the aftermath of the terrible cyclone that struck their homeland. In their sadness and grief, they have few Malaysians who can empathise with their plight, writes Angeline Loh. 

It was late afternoon and the crowd of Buddhist faithful intermingled with tourists on the eve of Wesak in the temple grounds. It was the normal hustle and bustle in anticipation of a big religious festival; no one would guess at the deep anxiety in the hearts of some Burmese faithful and clergy gathering in this temple.

I waited for friends in the shade of a small tree just outside the small temple car park watching the tourists and faithful come and go. It was hot and humid. An ice-cream seller did brisk business in the temple grounds and people with disabilities took the opportunity to fund-raise.

A small pile of boxes and plastic bags was stacked up against a temple pillar near the front gate over which a smallish handwritten notice in Burmese script was pasted to the pillar. From the few English words on the notice, I gathered that the boxes and plastic bags contained relief supplies donated by the public to the Myanmar government for victims of the recent Cyclone Nargis disaster.  I thought it a pitiful pile, as most of the public pouring in seemed unaware of the relief effort. Perhaps, it was because many of the visitors did not understand the language or it could have been a sign that the local public as well as foreigners did not take the Myanmar junta seriously. My reflections were broken by the sound of a motorbike near me. Recognising one of the couple on the bike, I smiled. My friend Anna alighted and introduced me to her new boyfriend in her usual bright way as soon as she took her crash helmet off.

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Anna and her boyfriend are both Burmese. Anna works in Malaysia and we came to know each other through my contact with refugees. Anna helps her countryfolk regardless of their ethnicity. She is helping an NGO relief effort for the Nargis victims in the Irrawaddy Delta region. This was the worst hit area in Myanmar.

Her boyfriend, Ben, parked the bike and the three of us went into the fan-cooled shelter of the temple canteen. The solid wooden tables and chairs seemed so welcoming and comfortable. We ordered some canned juice and chatted.

The conversation came round to the international relief efforts that appeared to have come to a standstill even before they had begun. The Myanmar military regime continued to resist offers of relief aid from outside the country although the aid was urgently needed to prevent further catastrophe in the aftermath of the devastation wreaked by the forces of Nature.

It was difficult for my Burmese friends to mask their anxiety and fear of what could have happened to friends and family in that region. I heard Ben, who was sitting beside me, say, “I’m worried about my relatives. I don’t know what has happened to them. Some of my family are all right; they are not near there.” Hearing this, I looked at him, and could not help notice his eyes become red and watery. Quickly, I turned away so it wouldn’t embarrass him that I had noticed the gathering tears.

Anna told me that a mutual friend of ours had also been resident in the vicinity of the cyclone-hit area. She was unable to contact him. There was no reply to her calls or messages. We could only speculate and hope for some response eventually.

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In their sadness, anxiety and helplessness, they turned to me, a Malaysian, a foreigner to them. How could one refuse to understand or empathise? Yet, there are those who continue to harden their hearts and minds to the plight of these who suffer, especially the refugees and the poor in our own country.

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