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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zen · 13 years ago
    I should stop being surprised at level of cruelty people can inflict on each other, but there somehow there something worse about the total disinterest the junta has for the plight of its people.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jon Jewett · 13 years ago
    The photos along with the text are important. They show the (in)human face behind the statistics we hear in the main stream media.

    For those that will look, they show the full glory of another Socialist Proletariat Paradise.

    Keep up the good work.

    May God Bless America.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mary g · 13 years ago

    God bless you, Michael Yon and your friends and your allies.
    a soldier's mom
  • This commment is unpublished.
    E. T. · 13 years ago
    I am grateful for your story and photos, but am concerned for the safety of the villages and individuals that were exposed (facial photos, etc.). It would not surprise me if someone in the regime is paying attention to the internet.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Russell C Wingate · 13 years ago
    I would be interested in the whole story. Thanks
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Occasus · 13 years ago
    The fact the generals are communists never seems to be mentioned.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lourdes · 13 years ago
    thanks again for this, I had almost forgotten about the victims of the cyclone, I pray that more help is headed their way, what a shame..
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ponch · 13 years ago
    Are there going to be additional parts to this story? Would love to read a part 2, or , or more!
    Great read.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tony · 13 years ago
    I was unable to make out the item in the first image of the sequence of the terrible photos of the dead people. Was it a mine?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hardtack · 13 years ago
    Thanks for reminding us of this tragedy. It has basically been forgotten by not only the MSM but almost all others.

    One of these days, payback will come. However, what the total cost of that payback will be is unknown.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Derek · 13 years ago
    MSF/Doctors Without Borders: Field News


    More photos and articles... another source advocating for people of Myanmar.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Derek · 13 years ago
    I thought this was important to share as well...

    http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/article.cfm?id=27 8

    Again, more related articles and photos. Good to see aid being given but as detailed much more is still needed.

    Since May 5, MSF teams have distributed:

    * 1,250 tons of rice,
    * 410 tons of beans,
    * 190,000 liters of cooking oil,
    * 70 tons of canned fish,
    * 1,400 kg of salt,
    * 125,000 packs of energy biscuits and therapeutic food,
    * 120,000 plastic sheets,
    * 20,000 mosquito nets,
    * 48,000 jerry cans,
    * ,000 blankets, and
    * 16,500 soap bars.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karl · 13 years ago
    Thank you, Mr. Yon, for your writings. I can't fully elucidate by appreciation for your courage, dedication, and writings.

    On a more pragmatic level, what agencies are doing the most good in Myanmar? i.e., where should I donate to help these people? Do -you- accept donations for these souls? (a few hundred dollars for a river boat is something I can d .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Freeman · 13 years ago
    As a representative of ShelterBox, I saw no mention or photos of our assistance in the country. The author of this story might want to check that out. We've delivered over 1,700 boxes each includes a tent for 10 people and survival supplies, with more on the way. It may be a "drop in the bucket", but it's a lifesaving and critical drop. For details go to www.shelterbox.org
  • This commment is unpublished.
    eyesopenwiderstill · 13 years ago
    I have been reading your contributions to truth since April 2005. No matter how much you as one man are able to write about, you still find no end to the scenes of life our 'news media' will not portray. And you seem to find no end to the motivation which drives you to serve us, your fans and followers. Thank you for yet another contribution to the effort of truth, Mr. Yon. And I am almost finished reading Moment of Truth in Iraq. You are a gift to the world.

    SPC -J. Robinson-
  • This commment is unpublished.
    poopie · 13 years ago
    Thanks to Charlie and you, Michael, for not letting us forget about what happens outside of our little sheltered world.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    kelvin parke · 13 years ago
    Until the force that dictators fear is greater than the force they infllict, they will kill without remorse for whatever their twisted ends. Withholding food and aid? Are you kidding me??!! We have the moral RIGHT to take these pieces of excrement out, wherever they are. Until the world confronts these barbarians in a way they understand, we will continue to be assaulted by the bloody corpses they leave behind. These "corpses" were mothers, fathers, and children and they had lives and a future! A murderer is not the moral equal of someone who kills him while defending the innocent. God bless you Michael Yon and God bless the United States of America! And God bless those who kill the killers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Smith · 13 years ago
    The author of your comment might want to R E A D the dispatch. You know? We're talking about one American with a camera on a very dangerous, clandestine trip down a river way, way beyond where he was supposed to be. You expect that he would go wandering all over Burma (yes, yes, I know) looking for your NGO's good works? Where was your volunteer photographer/reporter?

    It's one thing to post a comment publicizing your own good work, which I'm sure is admirable. It's quite another to criticize others, and with such a sense of entitlement to his and Charlie's work, and on his blog.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gismo Fly, London · 13 years ago
    Dear Mike,

    Superb stuff. Your story reads like a Joseph conrad novel alright. The Burmese junta are beyond any comment or criticism. There's no point even talking about these Chinese finger puppets. What disgusts me is the inaction of the UN in this affair. That organisation seems to think that its only function is to provide soup kitchens and teach pacifism. It's gone beyond any really useful purpose in the world.

    The Burmese are quiet heroes. I'm going to buy shares in a thakka paste factory.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Grumpy · 13 years ago
    This post isn't about anything specific. I wanted to let you know that I still read every word you write (books to and I wanted to say thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tuptian · 13 years ago
    Thank you for your story and I hope to read more. As a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Thailand I must say your observations on Thailand in relation for Burma are very correct. While I have tried to keep up on events in Thailand via the English speaking press, available information still pails in comparison to what is available in the Thai language press. Thailand and Burma have had long and shaky history, you only need to travel a short ways up north from Bangkok to see a remnant of this history. That is not to include the Sha nor Karen civil conflicts along Thailandƒ??s northern boarder. However, I felt much sadness to see Prime Minister Samak interact so kindly to the Burmese junta, but not surprised because as you noted there is much business interest involved, some legitimate. While change will only come from within Burma, the opposition parties, with the exception of the secessionist groups, have rejected violent action. And with the junta showing no interest in the suffering of the people, this course will be very a slow and arduous undertaking.
    Best wishes
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ronald R Donais, Sr · 13 years ago
    I am a 61 year old veteran of the Vietnam conflict. It brings me back to so much of what I saw there on a daily, or almost daily, basis. I have the book "Moment of Truth" which I bought from the Concerative Book club. i wish I had waited to get a signed copy.
    The soldier on the cover is a member of the same outfit I was proud to be a member of back in 1966. It is a siduation we constantly saw. I never had the nerve to take a photo like that. I pray it gets to the minds and feelings of many Americans to show just how crual these people are.
    Thye story of little "Farah is not unusual as people think. I so wish I were 20 again and had the power to lead men into this mess and clean it up once and for all. God bless!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim Roesch · 13 years ago
    Make sure your underwear are clean ƒ?? Chapter 1
    I leave you now for the world to see,
    resplendent in your nudity.
    But, oops, so naughty, I caught you bare!
    Gosh, mom, they ainƒ??t wearinƒ?? underwear!

    When Natureƒ??s strife lays waste the land
    and forgotten humanity just canƒ??t stand,
    then lay yourself down and never wake.
    But remember the undies, for goodness sake!

    And if, forgotten, you rot away;
    dead youƒ??ll be and dead youƒ??ll stay.
    Remember that others might see you there.
    Remember to have clean underwear!

    Blame the victims! The dead donƒ??t care;
    scattered, tattered and everywhere.
    The tide goes in and the tide goes out.
    Boxers or briefs, the voters shout.

    Turn your eyes and avert your head.
    Ignore the piles of untimely dead.
    Forget the past, your future lies there!
    Lookit, ma, they ainƒ??t got underwear!

    The walking skeletons nude in Treblinka
    The storm tossed bodies of typhooned Burma
    Whatƒ??s worse; the nudity or tyranny there?
    Hitler died in his underwear!
    What more can be said, what more done?
    A good manƒ??s ignorance or an evil oneƒ??s care?
    Baked, bared bodies under the Son . . .
    Jesus Christ! Put on some underwear!

    Oh, I forgot, Jesus was a Jew;
    Crucified , yes, but wearing underwear too.
    How many sins can we not see
    past the bare naked nudity?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wendell Roy · 13 years ago
    Michael, I purchased MOMENT OF TRUTH from Barnes and Nobles. It was found under the stacks in a far corner of the store. America is in the throes of a major media blitz designed to insure the election of a Socialist by the name of Obama. While this takes place we are bombarded by hate America rhetoric from all directiions, internal and external. Our American people in the interior are good people who love their country but they have no voice, no lobbyists, no representation in Washington. Thank you for all your work.

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