RANGOON–With detailed maps and charts on the walls, Room 309 of the Mee Ya Hta hotel is the command post for one of Burma’s private-sector operations providing a lifeline to thousands of cyclone survivors in the most remote – and hardest hit – southwest corner of the Irrawaddy River delta.
Mark Tippetts, a Briton who first came to Burma by Land Rover from Europe in 1964, introduces Burmese and expatriate members of his relief team working on laptops around a boardroom table.
They include former ambassadors to London and Washington, senior government officials, Asian investors, and Serge Pun, chair of Yoma Bank, Pun Hlaing Hospital and about 40 companies employing 4,500 people.
“These people can get things done in this country,” said Tippetts, director of the Pun Hlaing golf estate outside Rangoon, a favourite spot for Burma’s elite.
While aid groups and world leaders have been clamouring for greater access to those in need, the ruling Burmese generals have parceled out areas of the disaster zone to the country’s corporate leaders, who have marshalled relief efforts for an estimated 2.4 million people.
“There’s a misperception that no foreigners were there and that nobody has been helping people,” says Dr. James Kong, a Hong Kong-based surgeon and former head of Rangoon’s Pun Hlaing International Hospital, who has returned to help his native Burma, which the junta renamed Myanmar.
“People are being fed by private donors, through us.”
Five days after the May 2-3 cyclone killed at least 78,000 people, the military called on business leaders to spearhead relief operations, says Kong.
On May 12, a number of senior executives formed the Cape Negrais Committee, named after the site where Cyclone Nargis first slammed into the swamp land unprotected by the mangrove forests that line coastal areas elsewhere.
But even before the committee was formed, Burmese physicians led by Dr. Ye Moe Myint from the Pun Hlaing Hospital took overnight boats to make the first reconnaissance missions into the far southwest enclave of Ale Kyun, or Middle Island. The photos and reports they brought back had a particularly hard impact on Tippetts.
In 2005, he had joined in relief efforts in the delta after the tsunami.
“There are beautiful people there,” he says. “Their villages are clean and crafted. They live traditionally. It was heartbreaking.
“This was much worse than a tsunami, because of the wind and the slow movement of the storm. The water rose up a minimum of 15 feet (4.5 metres) and stayed there for two hours. Then it took three hours to recede. It just sucked everything back out into the ocean and many children perished in the darkness.”
Pun, who was born in Burma and lived in China before returning in 1991, decided to postpone all business and convert his staff into volunteer aid workers.
Staff had quick training on dealing with emergencies and trauma. After that, 12 doctors, 15 nurses plus five support staff headed into the delta, enduring eight-hour boat rides in treacherous currents, says Joseph Lopez, chief operating officer of the Pun Hlaing Hospital.
Pun himself has frequently gone to the airport in Rangoon, also called Yangon, to bring shipments of supplies through customs.
“Of all the operations and logistics centres I have visited, one of the most impressive was one run by my old friend Serge Pun who (founded) the Pun Hlaing Hospital,” writes Paul Strachan on his pandaw.com blog. A Burma historian, Strachan began operating tourist boats to the delta in 1995.
“NGOs who are stuck come to see Serge and he sorts them out … Aid is most definitely getting in and getting out there.”
The challenge now, says Kong, is to get more international aid money flowing into Burma.
“We want to keep interest going for a long time,” says Tippetts. “People have a short attention span. It’s going to take at least two years of rehabilitation.”