Michael's Dispatches

The River - Part II


The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with the location where each photograph in this dispatch was taken.  Red marks the path of the journey.


“It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body curving at rest afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Journey Into Darkness

July 2008

There were informers everywhere. In the hotels, in the restaurants, near the docks and on the river. And so, in addition to the natural dangers of the journey, there were the dangers of the military junta.

The team would consist of eight people: seven Burmese and one American. I was supposed to be part of the team, but was stuck in Thailand after having been refused a visa.

At the arranged time, on 10 June, the first coded message pinged out from the American, whom I will call Charlie Marlow. "Charlie" was in Yangon when he sent the message to "Translator", who contacted "Manager", who contacted "Cook", as well as the four other crew members. At about 10:30 p.m., all had assembled in the darkness on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The Burmese Navy was patrolling the Irrawaddy further downstream, and a number of foreign journalists had been recently deported after broadcasting embarrassing stories from the delta. There were stern warnings to the locals not to facilitate entry or movement of foreigners to the region. There was talk that the military had stationed at least one soldier in nearly every village to report on any contact with outsiders.

The secret boat journey began after dark.

The engine on the small boat was loud; it hammered away in the dark. For the next six nights the engine would provide the background music for uneasy slumber where in some places only the ghosts of the victims accompanied these travelers. The riverboats in southeast Asia are legendary for the vermin residing in their cracks and holds. At night the roaches, spiders, and sometimes even snakes, crawl out of their hiding spaces, sometimes causing panic to uninitiated travelers. Charlie had been doing business in forlorn places like this for almost twenty years, and had developed a healthy fear and respect for tropical insects and rodents, so he had the boat fumigated before the journey.

Approaching government or Navy checkpoints, Charlie would hide beneath the tarp, but nobody was manning the checkpoints, and the boat passed without incident downriver, pulled by a current which originated far to the north, conveying the occupants toward an uncertain fate. By sunrise they had traveled dozens of miles farther than the military rulers permitted foreigners to go unescorted. The Cook, a superstitious Catholic of Tamil Indian descent, made breakfast, and then at about 8 a.m., the team had their first landing at a village on the eastern edge of the disaster zone.

The Manager filed this after-action report:

We left Yangon on the 10th of June at 10:30 pm. We arrived at Alpha village at 7:45 a.m. At 8 am we held a meeting at Alpha monastery.

After a long discussion which took about 3 hours, we came to an agreement on the following point.

(1) Rice seeds are desperately needed so, we promised to donate then 40 bags of seeds. Each bag full of seeds cost 10000.00 Kyats.

(2) School was completely destroyed students had nowhere to attend school. The solution-to convert the monastery into a make-shift school after making some repair work. I think around about $700 US.

(3) Small tractor needed. We didn’t promise to give on as our budget is limited.

The villagers had been very happy to see help coming, and to see an American delivering aid from his own pocket. And so they gave the visitors a mess of crabs, as well as a humble and heartfelt farewell, and the team boated to the next village, another 3 hours south.

The Manager wrote:

In the second village called "Bravo" village. We held a meeting round about 2 hours on the boat with monk leader "Zulu" and 2 head men. They needed fishing boats.

(1) We’ll give them 3 boats on lucky draw system to those fishermen whose boats were damaged beyond repair. (Boat price round about $500 US)

(2) To give 500000.00 Kyats for repairing the damaged monastery.

Note: 30.5.2008 private donation 5 small tractors.

Tractor parts (photo taken before the journey).

And so going into the second night, the boat had traveled about 107 miles in the first 24 hours, and the Cook and been cooking along the way.

That night, he boiled the crabs, which the Burmese crew did not eat, but Charlie and the others enjoyed. It reminded Charlie of his childhood on the east coast of the United States, where children gathered crabs from the estuaries. Charlie waxed nostalgic with the crew, all the while being pulled by forces both man-made and natural to the southwest, under the melancholy, hazy eye of a half-moon, in which no sign of things to come could be ascertained.

On 11 June, the team stopped at several villages. The locals were friendly and welcoming. Despite the reports, in most of the villages there were no soldiers. In the villages where there had been a soldier, Charlie stayed hidden on the boat. In most villages the radios had either been destroyed during the massive tidal surge or their batteries were dead, but the people knew that the United States Navy had been waiting with ships and helicopters. Charlie could only imagine the images in these villagers’ minds of giant men with giant machines, poised just beyond the nautical horizon, who could deliver them from the repressive grip of a decaying regime in the blink of an eye. To a man, the villagers very much wanted to see the United States come in to help, and were disappointed to learn that the American Navy had sailed away after the Myanmar government did not allow them to deliver aid, which was pre-positioned in the holds of ships in the thousands of tons, with twenty-two helicopters on board the flotilla ready to act. But American and other international assistance were turned away by the junta.

The local people, even the monks, expressed open hatred for the government of Myanmar. The people wanted guns as badly as they wanted shelter. They had no idea what to do with the guns, yet Charlie was deeply moved by the robust character of these people, to whom democracy and freedom were not cynical conceits argued over coffee or crumpets, but ideals for which these simple denizens of the river yearned, believing deep in their hearts that the United States of America could bring change to this far-off corner of the world. They hoped that the U.S. would swoop in and bring justice to the Irrawaddy by deposing the Myanmar military regime. But these hopes would be dashed by real-politik and shifting geo-strategic priorities. Something about the universality of man’s desires occurred to Charlie, how, he thought, we all want the same things—freedom, dignity, a chance to make our own way in this world. Between village visits and dodging patrols he would sit quietly on the bow of the boat and ruminate under the same night sky full of stars that had witnessed men struggle through folly, fiasco, and victory in the pursuit of these very ideas.

Meanwhile in the delta, many feared that the government was using the disaster to make a massive land grab from the people. The crony companies of the junta had been installed in the storm-affected area, ostensibly to deliver aid to the population. But this was Burma, and it seemed clear to the ravaged citizens that they would again be pawns to be used for enriching powerful men.

Along the Irrawaddy.

Typical village children.  Floods always push massive numbers of snakes into the open, and though the waters had receded, there were many stories of snake bites.

Smearing ‘Thanaka’ bark on their faces.

The women tend to be sturdy and strong.

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