(This is a photo-essay. But I’m not good at web development, so there’s no fancy formatting. Do give some time for the pictures to load. Cheers.)
On 2 May 2008, the Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar. IFRC reported the official death toll as 84,500 with 53,800 missing. Wikipedia is less conservative, citing at least 138,000 dead with 80,000 in the Labutta Township alone. National Geographic called it the “worst disaster” in Myanmar. NBC News called it the “perfect storm”.
The junta carried on with politics.1
Three weeks ago, I spent a full day in Labutta. This excludes the seven-hour journey there (complete with bus breakdowns) and the five-hour journey back to Yangon.
It has been nine years since Nargis and the region has recovered somewhat. Telecommunication MNCs have even set up shop in the downtown district.
But the river tells the true story, for it is via the river that life in Labutta ebbs and flows.
So Br Thomas, his two colleagues, and I took a boat. We didn’t have much choice anyway because there are no roads linking the villages in Labutta. The river is the highway.
Br Thomas is a Jesuit. He was heading to Labutta to manage a micro-financing project, in which around USD100,000 had been loaned to 90 farmers. I tagged along.
Each farmer owns land ranging from less than 10 acres to 60 acres and is the head of a household of around five members. They cultivate rice paddy and sell their harvest to the rice mills. Last year — Br Thomas translated what a villager said — the paddy price was low but the rice price was high. So farmers received little for what they sold, but spent more to buy what they eat. It was not a good year.
The rice season begins with the rains in early June. The farmers harvest in November. So loans are collected around February. This means that, by this time, Br Thomas was mainly chasing for defaults. He wants to negotiate, he told me. He pities them. He is compassionate. He is a religious after all. But his colleagues told him that he had to be firm, or the farmers would climb over him.
Even so, the farmers are the lucky ones. They own land; they can cultivate. Other villagers fish. And the poorest are the laborers, whom one NGO describes as having “pay [that is] both low and erratic.”
In Labutta, these poor among the poor live in bamboo houses with roofs and walls made of dried leaves weaved together. They buy USD300 worth of bamboo and build the houses themselves. Neighbors help out for the price of a meal.
These houses do not last. After fours years or a violent storm, whichever comes first, the occupants pack up, move to an empty plot of land, and build another bamboo house.
Or they do not, and just continue living in dilapidation.
Wood, of course, is stronger. But wood is expensive and carpenters must be paid. So a simple barn like this costs USD5,700.
Concrete is the ultimate luxury. This is a school the Jesuits built. It costs USD9,800.
It is a single-classroom building that becomes a furnace in summer. But while concrete traps heat, it can weather the storms. And that is crucial.
Because everyone in Labutta has lost someone to Nargis. In the first village we visited, Nargis had claimed around 150 of them. The remaining 150 had either stood on the roofs of houses — those houses that did not get washed away at least — or climbed trees. Today, the village numbers 300 again.
People here are resilient. Consider the rightmost youth. His name is Nyein Chan Aung, and he is 19 years old. He teaches the children in his village all subjects: English, Burmese, Math. And he is supposed to receive USD150 per month — USD80 from the Jesuits and USD70 from the village. But the village does not pay regularly.
Physically, the people have a sinewy strength borne of an ascetic diet and manual labor. Even the women and children participate.
Sometimes, they have guests like us, and then only do they eat a little better. This is a meal cooked with rainwater, firewood, and selfless hospitality. The family that fed us likely killed their chicken for the meal. As we ate, they watched us. They only began after we had finished.
Suddenly, it struck me that maybe capitalism is this grand illusion that a Malevolent Being cast on us all. We once knew the things that mattered — living in community, being kind to foreigners, feeding the hungry. We once pursued happiness — not merely high dopamine levels, but eudaimonia. How did we end up pursuing wealth, status, and power?
Compare us to these people. If you give them more, they would probably share it with their neighbors. If you give them gold, they would build a pagoda.
But I cannot be romantic. Poverty is real; poverty is suffering. In a house built next to mirky waters, the villagers that had gathered to meet Br Thomas told me: they would leave their farms immediately if I were to invite them to Singapore for any kind of work.
And so I thought I had seen the worst in Labutta.
Then I went to Thingangyun.
The Thingangyun Township is located in the eastern part of Yangon. There is an international school in Thingangyun which charges more than USD20,000 per year for tuition. There is also a slum.
In Labutta, at least the beauty of the countryside is a reprieve to hardship.
But the slum in Thingangyun assaults your senses. Bodies are clammy with heat and sweat, streets are lined with trash, the air is stale with rot. I have never seen poverty like this, so raw, so visceral, so consuming.
I have since learnt that there are two types of poverty: rural and urban. One non-profit organization considers urban poverty generally “less severe”. They were not talking about Thingangyun.
“Why doesn’t the government do something?” I knew how naive the question was, but I had to release the thick helplessness stuck in my throat. The answer did not surprise me: the government was caught up in the peace process.2 They had bigger things to worry about. Conflict is more violent than poverty.
So NGOs try to fill in the gap between Yangon and Thingangyun — a gap that is geographically small but socioeconomically vast. The Jesuits have built several houses in the slums (though ‘house’ seems like a misnomer when it is simply a bedroom-sized space where families of five or more reside). Currently, there are 800 houses and 4,000 people in this slum. Not everyone has a roof over their head. And so the Jesuits continue saving starfish.
“But where do you see God in the lives of these people?” I asked Br Gopi, the Jesuit working in Thingagyun. (He is the third guy from the right in the top row.) How do people live like this? How can we not think that God has forsaken these people? Are there slums in heaven too?
Br Gopi responded with a multitude of defenses. But it is his first instinctive response that I keep returning to: that is a wrong question to ask.
Before I left for Myanmar, Fr Jude had expressed his fear that I would become a humanist.
On the contrary, my experiences have convinced me that we need Jesus all the more. Because these problems are beyond us. There are too many players, the systems are too complex, and we are too weak. In the end, our goal is not liberation, nor equality, nor democracy. Our goal is the Kingdom. And in this, we are only builders. Jesus is the architect.
But it is not just the weak; the poor need God too. In one village in Labutta, we chanced across a preparation for a wedding the next day. The wedding would be held in a wooden house, the decorations were simple, but there was joy in the air.
In another village, a monk was being cremated. Even those from neighboring villages had come to mourn his death and celebrate his life.
Jesus once said, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”3 Life, death, communion — these matter too. And these are the provinces of God.
And sometimes, the poor reside in these provinces so much more than we do. They have so much more faith, hope, and love than we do. They see beyond the trappings of this world so much more clearly than we do.
I don’t know if there are slums in heaven. And like Br Gopi said, maybe that is the wrong question to ask. Because what matters more is this: I know that there is heaven in the slums.
1.The junta carried on with politics as if nothing had happened, and proceeded with their constitutional referendum, which had been previously scheduled for 10 May 2008. The Constitution (currently still in force) — which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from presidency, reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military officers, and entrenches military control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, among other things — had been approved by 92.4% of voters with a 99% turnout. So the junta said.
2.Armed violence between the military government and ethnic minorities broke out after Myanmar attained independence in 1948. It continues till today. It is the world’s longest running civil war.