On 2nd May 2008, Cyclone Nargis (the name is the Urdu word for 'daffodil') struck the delta region of Myanmar (formerly Burma) causing major flooding and terrible damage with winds peaking at about 135 miles per hour. The devastation was unimaginable and the world turned in sympathy to provide aid. Whilst the military junta which rules Myanmar was happy to accept finance, it was reluctant to allow foreign national aid workers into the country and an already disastrous position was exacerbated.
International relations are normally predicated on the absolute sovereignty of the effective rulers of a nation state to control their borders, however unappealing those rulers may be to the rest of the world. Whilst such delicacy may be normal, events in Iraq show that it is not universal. There is a concept of 'Responsibility to Protect' (which, in the dreadful modern idiom, enjoys the acronym 'R2P'). This seeks to classify the circumstances in which unauthorised external interference might be justified. 'Natural disasters' are not currently one of the justifications. Until recently, it probably didn't appear likely that problems such as have occurred in Myanmar (and Zimbabwe) would arise.
Earlier in the year, I was in Myanmar on an Orient Express cruise on their ship 'Road to Mandalay'. I learned about the educational and medical charitable work sponsored by Orient Express staff and their passengers. No Orient Express staff were injured in the Cyclone, but the cruise ship, which was in dry dock at Yangon at the time, was badly damaged. Having met the Orient Express staff, it came as no surprise to receive reports of humanitarian work being carried out by them.
On 10th May 2008, the Ship's Doctor went to Bogalay Township in the Delta Area of Myanmar - one of worst-hit areas. The volunteer team comprised two doctors and a health assistant. They provided medical treatment to refugees, using Monasteries as a makeshift hospital and moving to a new Monastery each day.
Many refugees had lost families and all their possessions except the clothes they were wearing. Some had no clothes at all. Refugees reported that many villages had been completely obliterated. By the 15th May, this one volunteer team had treated 649 patients. They distributed food, water, clothing and first-aid materials both during treatment and using Monks based in remote villages. Some medicines were supplied to another doctor and midwife to allow treatment in other villages.
On 29th May 2008, the Ship's Doctor returned to the Delta Region and, assisted by a Local Health Assistant, treated 491 patients in four days. He also distributed food, blankets and medicines to Health Workers, Midwifes or Nurses at four different villages.
The reluctance of Myanmar's rulers to allow foreign media to report on progress within the country means that the disaster has been pushed from the front pages and the news bulletins. We must not let the plight of the people of Myanmar be forgotten.
(Photographs are by courtesy of the relief teams involved).