The Asian Tribal Ministries (ATM) worker, Karenna Laklem, talks about what it was like helping rebuild Burma's Delta region, while distributing aid.
Photo Gallery: Burma Rebuilds
Photo Gallery: Karenna Laklem in the Dateline studio
Have Your Say: Should the international community step up its efforts to persuade Burma to allow in foreign aid?
While foreign aid is gradually flowing into Burma, UN Chief Ban Ki-moon has toured the the hardest hit areas to assess the damage. To this day some foreign nations such as the US and Sweden are still not allowed into the country by the ruling military junta.
So far only a handful of international aid agencies are providing relief efforts.
Headed by her father, Pastor Timothy Laklem, the ATM have been working in war zone areas of Burma along the Thai border for 30 years.
In response to the recent cyclone Nargis and the destructive stamp it left upon the Irrawaddy Delta region, ATM will be sending in relief teams to assist with medical needs, food distribution, water purification, and hope.
Furthermore, ATM is one of the very few international organisations which has been given permission by Burmese authorities to enter the region.
Find out more about the Asian Tribal Ministries here.
Burma: How you can help
* Aid groups ready to test Burma on access
* Australia to monitor its $25m Burma aid
* Burma agrees to allow 'all aid workers'
It is almost a month now since Cyclone Nargis ripped into Burma, with more than 130,000 dead or missing, and counting. We have all watched, of course, disgusted, as the country's military rulers have pussy-footed about opening their borders to international aid. Only yesterday were UNICEF finally allowed in, joining a small team of religious groups already working in the devastated areas. Earlier today, Karenna Laklem, an Australian from a Christian group, Asian Tribal Ministries, flew into Sydney with some remarkable footage from the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy delta. And a warning, there are graphic images in Karenna’s material.
GEORGE NEGUS: Karenna, you're looking pretty tired.
KARENNA LAKLEM, ASIAN TRIBAL MINISTRIES: Yes, I am.
GEORGE NEGUS: You've been through a terrible few weeks. You have arrived back here in Australia only this morning and you have seen probably the worst there is to see of what's been happening in Burma, the death and destruction.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: It's a silly question, I know, but how are you feeling, traumatised, shellshocked or what, having seen what you saw?
KARENNA LAKLEM: It is heartbreaking but it has made me motivated to do everything that I can to help.
GEORGE NEGUS: How long did you spend there on this occasion, this last time?
KARENNA LAKLEM: On this occasion, one week.
GEORGE NEGUS: One week, that was probably enough to see how bad things were.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, definitely.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you are part of this organisation which has been actually working in the area of Burma and Thailand for some time now.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, I have.
GEORGE NEGUS: So it would appear – and we're going to look at the footage that you have got in a moment – it would appear that you got pretty reasonable access, you were able to move around a lot, whereas international agencies weren't able to.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, we did have access because we've been working there for the last couple of years, and so we have connections with the authorities, they know our work there. And so we have built that relationship of trust between them so we've been able to get in straight away.
GEORGE NEGUS: Even with the generals themselves?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, with the generals themselves.
GEORGE NEGUS: I would like to talk about that, but before we do, why don't we see if we can't take our viewers with you and I on a journey almost like the one you took.
KARENNA LAKLEM: OK.
GEORGE NEGUS: Let's start with this footage we've got here. Where are you there?
KARENNA LAKLEM: We're in a town halfway to the port of Labutta, which is where the aid is reaching up to.
GEORGE NEGUS: So this is how far from Rangoon?
KARENNA LAKLEM: About five, six hours drive.
GEORGE NEGUS: So this is centre of the devastation or are you still only on the edge of it?
KARENNA LAKLEM: We're on the edge of it, but the devastation reaches right down from the most southern point right up to Rangoon. The whole area is devastated but this is sort of the middle in between.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right, but you were able to get there by road at this point.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: And this aid being distributed here, where is it from? It looks like I saw US aid on a box.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, these are the packages that the US cargo planes have sent in.
GEORGE NEGUS: But not the US themselves? They have just dropped off the aid.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, they have dropped off the aid.
GEORGE NEGUS: To be given to groups like yours.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, taken by the military trucks to these port towns.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right, so this is all done with the authorities' knowledge and approval.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: But they won't let the Americans themselves distribute it, but you are able to?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is this a normal village or is this a refugee camp?
KARENNA LAKLEM: This is a refugee camp which is halfway between the port town and Rangoon.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right. So how long have these people been without provisions, without any medicines, without anything at all, really?
KARENNA LAKLEM: These people have been in this refugee camp probably for about 1.5 weeks. They're survivors right from the areas that were directly hit.
GEORGE NEGUS: This looks pretty normal, but these people have been packed into this one place where they got shelter.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: So they're after food, they are after shelter, medicines, everything, in fact?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, everything and not just for short-term but for long-term for at least six months and then after that more as well to help resettle them.
GEORGE NEGUS: They would be looking forward to this food?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, 'cause..
GEORGE NEGUS: Because I would imagine that because of devastation and then the death and all that went with that, the contamination, there was no food around that they could have got for themselves.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yeah, there was nothing. Yes, that lady that I was talking to, she told me about how when the water started to rise in their village, her husband, who was paralysed from the hip down, and her were trapped, but their son, who was fit and strong, saved his parents, taking them to a safe shelter area and then as the water was continuing to rise he kept going out to save different people and bringing them to that shelter, but in the end the water was just too strong and swept him away. But the people that he saved, they all survived.
GEORGE NEGUS: That's a paradox, isn't it. These refugee camps always look a bit cute, don't they? But in fact, these people's homes have been destroyed, I imagine.
KARENNA LAKLEM: The things that they had there, that is all that they have. The mats and the bamboo huts there, that has all been built for them but everything else they've lost.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right, so do these people have any idea of what the future holds for them? Are the officials telling them what might happen from this point on?
KARENNA LAKLEM: I think there are plans to resettle after, but this can only happen after the monsoon season. It would be impossible to do this during the monsoon season.
GEORGE NEGUS: No sign of the Burmese military around at any stage of these pictures, at least.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Not these ones, but they have been going around to visit the devastated areas.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right, so this of course is one example. There are probably lots of these sort of camps all over that area.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yep, all over.
GEORGE NEGUS: This is where you are able to pick up a boat?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yeah, this is the port Labutta, this is on mainland, the last town on mainland.
GEORGE NEGUS: And as you say, the only way of getting from this point to where – and we still have no idea how many people have been affected. I mean, 130,000 is today's figure of the number people we think are dead or missing, but we still have no idea beyond this point how many other – what, hundreds of thousands, do you think it might..?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Well, it said that there were over 100,000 missing, so we don't know how many of them have survived.
GEORGE NEGUS: And this was a boat you were able to get to put the aid on board?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, this boat was rented by another organisation that we're working with.
GEORGE NEGUS: Not exactly a giant freighter.
KARENNA LAKLEM: No, but it is it enough to hold 20 to 30 people and aid for one village.
GEORGE NEGUS: Heading off down into the actual estuary, into the actual delta. And there is a sign of things that happened just a few weeks ago. Those things look like they've been there forever, but three weeks ago, four weeks ago, life was quite normal there, wasn't it? So it really did hit them like a bomb, didn't it?
KARENNA LAKLEM: It did – their livelihood – most of this area the livelihood of these people was fishing, and so with their boats gone, their nets gone, that is their source of income and everything is gone.
GEORGE NEGUS: What are we seeing here?
KARENNA LAKLEM: These are the dead bodies that are along the way and this is only half-an-hour from that main port town.
GEORGE NEGUS: So dead animals… Dead humans… And as you said, this water is people's livelihood, so pretty smartly it became contaminated. So people were probably bathing in, washing in, cooking in, the same water that the..
KARENNA LAKLEM: Drinking the water, the kids play in the water.
GEORGE NEGUS: No choice, really, is there? They had either no water at all or drinking from contaminated water which would lead to disease… and so on goes the problem like a horrible snowball. Where are we now?
KARENNA LAKLEM: This is the village that we visited.
GEORGE NEGUS: This is one of the villages in the delta?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, in the delta that can be only reached by boat. And this is the first time they have received aid since the cyclone.
GEORGE NEGUS: I guess what I'm wondering again is, why were your group able to come and do this obviously good work when for three weeks the government, the military government were refusing entry by international agencies? What was the difference between your relationship with them and the international agencies from the UN, etc?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Our group, the three groups we were working with, they're all local. So the Adventist Relief aid group were already there, a lot of their team were caught in the cyclone and so they were there on the ground straightaway and able to help. Because they were locals, of course this gave them access to these areas, and also our mission's organisation Asian Tribal Ministries and the Karen Peace Council – all locals that have been working in this area for the last couple of years.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you said earlier, you had the special relationship with the junta that other people haven't had. This village here, how many people were there, do you know, how many families?
KARENNA LAKLEM: I can't say how many people, but there were 70 houses.
GEORGE NEGUS: So probably something, 300, 400 people. How many now?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Now there are 12, only 12 survivors left.
GEORGE NEGUS: And all of them men, by the look of it?
KARENNA LAKLEM: All of them men except for one woman. No kids, no any other women, they didn't survive.
GEORGE NEGUS: And this, of course, is just one village, just one example, there must be who knows how many others in the area.
KARENNA LAKLEM: That's right, this is only one village and this is the closest one, so you can imagine, for them it is easier to get back to the mainland. They are repairing some of their boats, but for those are deep inside who have nothing, no-one has reached them at all. No-one even knows what it looks like in there.
GEORGE NEGUS: And you talked to the survivors, I suppose, what might have happened to them, what their stories might have been.
KARENNA LAKLEM: We asked them to share about what happened and their situation and how they feel.
GEORGE NEGUS: Were they still shocked or was it easy enough to get them to talk about what happened?
KARENNA LAKLEM: They want to talk but I think they just cannot describe it. They want to talk, but they're shocked. A woman, she just told us how there's only one house left and they all share the same room and there is no mosquito nets, nothing there. The only thing that they eat were crabs and little fish. And she lost her two cousins when the water rose and they got swept away, all the children gone, and the first night she shared with us how the first three nights after the cyclone, you could hear screams of survivors out in the fields and in the water still alive, screaming out for help, but obviously wounded or too weak to be able… injured to be able to get out of it and they were screaming for help, but there's nothing that anyone could do.
GEORGE NEGUS: Yeah, I imagine 26 days later there is not much likelihood of many people surviving out there. So it's really what happens now in that particular part of the delta is a clean-up exercise, isn't it. I should thank you for giving us that footage to show people, but these photographs that you showed me earlier are interesting. These are very, very – they are almost happy snaps with members of the military junta. That man is quite a senior military official, isn't he?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: Speaking there with one of the Karen leaders, you told me. This is what I think people would find amazing. Because the rest of us have been wondering, what the heck is going on in Burma that they won't let the UN or other aid agencies in, but your religious groups were able to, is it because you did not pose a threat, or what?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yeah, because we're local, we're already in there.
GEORGE NEGUS: And you had locals working with you, you weren't bringing in teams of outsiders from other countries. So what do you think is happening now then, because they do appear to be softening their stance? Today we that six UNICEF people were able to get in – Medecins Sans Frontiers are getting in now, so they are finally waking up to the fact that the world is expecting them to let people in.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, they're starting to let people in because I believe we have been able to help convince them and encourage them that people – the world genuinely wants to help and is not trying to come in and take over and take advantage of the situation.
GEORGE NEGUS: You have got a relationship with them and the rest of us see them as paranoid, we see them as undemocratic, we see them as totally ignoring human rights and the like. Do you think the world maybe has approached the junta in Burma incorrectly and therefore they've not been able to help the way they'd like to because the junta has this attitude towards them that they are there to take over the country?
KARENNA LAKLEM: I believe in this situation, yes. I think that the only way to be able to work together with the government, which is what we have to do – we have to work together with the government.
GEORGE NEGUS: Whether we like them or not.
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, because it's about the people, right now it's not about politics or whatever their government is, it is about helping the people. So the international community should have an attitude of coming alongside them and encouraging them, which will soften their attitude, I think it's a lot to do with relationship. Past relationship between the Burmese Government and international community has not been a positive one. And so you can't just suddenly say, “Well, this day, yesterday, this is what I thought of you, and today this is what I am going to think of you.” You can't do that, it has to have some process of time and gaining of trust to be able to have that sort of relationship. But it will start only when there is encouragement. Encouragement for the sake of helping the people will help to get that started.
GEORGE NEGUS: Browbeating and criticism, endless criticism, you think, is possibly going to have the opposite effect. They're likely to dig their toes in and refuse I believe that – to accept help.
KARENNA LAKLEM: I believe that is the reason they are not accepting help.
GEORGE NEGUS: I will let you go because you're looking tired and deserve a rest. But thank you very much. Lovely meeting you. And you are going back?
KARENNA LAKLEM: Yes, next week.
GEORGE NEGUS: I thought you would say that.
She's only 20, by the way. There are more images from Karenna's journey on our website sbs.com.au/dateline. And yesterday, the generals extended the term of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest by another year.
PASTOR TIMOTHY LAKLEM
HSO HOM SAO