Outside Hlaing township municipal courthouse a man plinks away on a Burmese typewriter in the shade of a broadleaf tree, typing up documents from handwritten notes for a small fee. Inside the building sits Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, 43, father of three, charged with defamation for a Facebook post depicting a man in Kachin ethnic dress stepping on a photograph of Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief.

It is January 19, 2016: the day of the final argument. In a small, dark room, a judge in a yellow silk hat sits on a big raised chair, flanked by his clerk. The female prosecutor and three junior defense attorneys are just in front of him, seated facing each other. Opposite the judge, at the other end of the room and maybe 10 yards away, Patrick slumps red-eyed and handcuffed, surrounded by armed police. He is losing weight, and his asthma and blood pressure have been acting up in prison. After much debate, the judge allowed the prison doctor to testify, but rejected Patrick’s bail request despite his poor health. Because standard procedure in Myanmar compels the court to hear witnesses one at a time, a week or two apart, Patrick has waited, behind bars, over three months for his sentence.

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While car traffic on major roads has spiked in recent years, rickshaws still trawl the alleys of Yangon’s old downtown. Photograph: Hilary Faxon

Patrick is Kachin, an ethnic minority people concentrated in Myanmar’s north, and has made a career as a humanitarian aid worker, working with international and local organizations to coordinate supplies to camps for people displaced by what is sometimes called the world’s longest-running civil war, a prolonged and bitter struggle over natural resources, cultural integrity, and political autonomy between Myanmar’s government and the Kachin Independence Army. Now, Patrick has been charged under the 2013 Telecommunications Law, promulgated to regulate the burgeoning mobile phone industry in a country where, until mid-2014, few could afford a SIM card, which costs upwards of $100. The Law contains a clause, 66d, that threatens up to three years in prison for “Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network.” Patrick and another activist, Chaw Sandi Tun, were both charged for Facebook-related crimes in October, just weeks before the country’s much heralded democratic elections.

That day we wait two hours, crunching potato chips on a bench in the shade of the court porch. When it starts, the defense attorney’s argument invokes international human rights law to protect Patrick, alleges the statute under which he has been charged is unconstitutional, and points out the faulty proceedings and insufficient evidence for conviction. He speaks for maybe ten minutes. The prosecution says nothing.

The judge schedules the date for the sentencing, and as we leave the tiny courtroom the media mobs Patrick’s wife, the well-known peace and women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu. She and the women I came to court with are my former colleagues and continuing friends from a year I spent working with their organization, the Gender Equality Network, in 2014. I went to court three times last January, and every time was like this: chit-chat and snacks in the dry winter heat, uncertainty about what is happening and what comes next, Patrick taking the hands of their friends and smiling and saying thank you, and Phyu managing reporters while the armed van loads up her husband to take him back to Insein Prison, whose conditions are internationally condemned, and design is inspired by Bentham’s panopticon, a “perfect prison” because the residents see the threat of constant surveillance, and discipline themselves.

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Yangon Division court, the highest in the region, occupies a crumbling colonial building near Yangon’s port. Patrick’s case was tried in a more modest structure several miles north, at Hlaing municipal court. Photograph: Robin Lenahan
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Yangon’s rooftops. Photograph: Hollis Coats
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Photograph: Hollis Coats

I’m not here to write about Patrick, I’m here to write about a cyclone. In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar’s Delta, just south of the commercial center and former capital of Yangon, where I used to live and work, and Patrick’s trial takes place. Myanmar is wedged between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, with a low-lying region in the south where agriculture has historically flourished – the area is sometimes referred to as the country’s rice bowl. But the Delta’s low, flat land criss-crossed with rivers is prone to flooding and storms, contributing to the Myanmar’s extreme climate risk. With a changing climate comes more natural disasters, like Nargis.

The cyclone’s impacts were environmentally and socially devastating, by any account. Over 100,000 dead, maybe many more. Around 2.4 million people affected. 65% of the country’s rice paddies damaged, and the 2008 and 2009 harvests for the region lost completely. More than one thousand temples destroyed. Many of Yangon’s big old trees were uprooted and crashed through cars and windows. In the city, people lost power and roads closed. But in the Delta, roads and lights were scarce to begin with, and, according to one estimate, during Nargis 95% of buildings collapsed.

In the wake of so much immediate and ongoing destruction, this was perhaps the one positive legacy of the cyclone: it catalyzed the development of local civil society groups after a long period of repression.

The situation was made substantially worse by government inaction. The military government, which has dominated Myanmar in various guises since the socialist coup in 1962, refused international aid for several weeks after the disaster. They denied visas for humanitarian workers, turned away helicopters and boats carrying relief supplies, and blocked NGO workers and journalists trying to travel to the affected areas. As the government carried out its own lame relief campaign, the disaster stretched on and intensified: disease arrived; pockets of villages languished without any help.

Often, it was local Burmese, from Yangon and from other parts of the country, who got there first, before government officials or foreigner professionals. They drove out to the Delta in their own cars with supplies, joined together in groups, rebuilt structures, and assessed needs and advocated for particular populations. In the wake of so much immediate and ongoing destruction, this was perhaps the one positive legacy of the cyclone: it catalyzed the development of local civil society groups after a long period of repression. With an outpouring of local support came a need for coordination: in Yangon, international and national groups came together after Nargis to form the Local Resource Centre to coordinate and organize local and international aid to the Delta. In a nation where the government was so adverse to civil society activity that it had responded to peaceful protests led by monks with a violent crackdown less than a year earlier, the emergence of a new coordination body for local non-governmental organizations marked a major shift. The Centre’s mission quickly expanded from coordination to advocacy. In 2014 and 2015, Centre staff met with government officials and led workshops about the reform of statutes commonly used to prevent formation of, and punish, humanitarian and activist groups. This trajectory – from ad hoc aid to multi-pronged advocacy – is not always smooth, or easy. But the development of new, experienced civil society organizations was inadvertently enabled by the cyclone: the silver lining in the storm cloud.

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Rice paddies outside Pantanaw in the Delta. Photograph: Hilary Faxon
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Photograph: Hilary Faxon

In the years since that report, many of the groups that got their start just after the cyclone have grown into far more ambitious entities. Take, for example, the group I worked with in Yangon, the Gender Equality Network. When Cyclone Nargis hit, its wrath was indiscriminate: it destroyed everything and everyone in its path. But in the days and weeks that followed, certain groups fared better than others. Help reached those near roads first. Tens of thousands of children were orphaned. Those with wealthy family in Yangon, or connections to local officials, had a better chance of rebuilding their old lives or creating new ones. And the cyclone brought particular challenges to women: some were stripped naked by the winds, left without anything to cover themselves or serve as sanitary supplies. Myanmar relief workers told me about numerous reports of rape in the days after the storm (talking openly about rape is still taboo, though a major Myanmar paper, The Irrawaddy, reported briefly on the issue). When humanitarian supplies arrived from the government, they lacked reproductive health and women’s health items. A group of UN and NGO workers formed a working group in Yangon focused on women’s and children’s protection in the relief effort, and tried to advocate, among other issues, for the government to include sanitary napkins, women’s clothing, and birth control in the aid packs. According to one former member of the group, at first the government officials, predominantly male, didn’t listen. It was only after local women swarmed an official’s car in one village in the Delta, demanding help, that they considered the working group’s suggestions, and admitted women’s particular needs.

Yangon’s new class of reformists, bent on improving not only humanitarian response, but also food security, women’s rights, environmental awareness, and civic education, are qualitatively different from, though often daughters and grandsons of, the protestors and armed leaders that contest the country’s past and present.

Working with the government, rather than against it, potentially enables reform, but it arguably narrows revolutionary vision. Myanmar’s history is populated with sporadic and radical protests – student demonstrations; monk marches; farmers rebellions. Yangon’s new class of reformists, bent on improving not only humanitarian response, but also food security, women’s rights, environmental awareness, and civic education, are qualitatively different from, though often daughters and grandsons of, the protestors and armed leaders that contest the country’s past and present. The political opportunity for reform comes, in part, from the more liberal parts of Myanmar’s objectionable 2008 Constitution, hastily passed just two days after Nargis hit the Delta. The chance for change also stems from the upsurge in international offices and social justice and reform-minded organizations birthed from Cyclone recovery efforts: for better or worse, Nargis ushered in the era of the NGO.

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Yangon, September 2015. Photograph: Hollis Coats

Sanitary napkins and women’s clothing have rarely been lauded as the stuff of women’s rights revolution, but it’s hard to imagine spurring change without them.

Beyond Yangon, hard-hit areas of the Delta are still rebuilding. It is hard to judge recovery without a sense of where we started: because local curiosity and international access was so long repressed, and national statistics were bogus, we do not really know how much rice was produced in the region, who had land, and what proportion of the population was caught up in owing various local moneylenders at astonishingly high interests rates before the storm hit. But it seems that salty rice paddies and tremendous loss of life and property had enduring consequences: local hunger, landlessness, and debt rose in Nargis’ wake.

While Nargis was particularly intense, and provoked an unprecedented response, it was certainly not the first or last time locals dealt with catastrophe. When I visited a friend’s inland village in the Delta this past January, locals told me Nargis was nothing; it was the floods last August that wiped out their roads and food supplies so that they had to leave their homes in canoes to paddle in search of something to eat. These floods, which lasted from late July through September and affected approximately 1.6 million people in the Delta and across Myanmar, despite being more dispersed and drawn out than Nargis, were met with a faster and more focused response from local groups, international aid and the government. The Gender Equality Network, for example, coordinated a working group to distribute Dignity Kits with reproductive health supplies to women across the country within weeks of the floods’ start. Sanitary napkins and women’s clothing have rarely been lauded as the stuff of women’s rights revolution, but it’s hard to imagine spurring change without them.

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There are assumptions embedded in the idea of recovery – that a disaster has occurred, and that (the old) order must be restored. The past is something to be reclaimed. But when the status quo is both dynamic and abhorrent, what does “recovery” mean?

In January, no one I ask in Yangon is particularly interested in talking about Nargis. “That was a long time ago,” says one Myanmar NGO staffer who worked on the relief effort. The World Bank has written a report; she suggests I read it. I do. It focuses on the typical disaster metrics: number dead and missing; estimated percentage of projected GDP affected. Most of the hundreds of articles, reports and factsheets written after the disaster focus on numbers like these. Only a few examine more complex consequences, perhaps because, with time, it’s hard to trace particular conditions back to Nargis. All those I read are depressing, in spite of the occasional celebration of local activists, and the more common self-congratulation by humanitarian agencies (“About 45,768 school children have access to clean water thanks to the construction of rainwater collection tanks and wells in school compounds.”) It is easy to see why elections are a more popular topic of conversation in Yangon than the residual toughness of a long-ago storm.

Between chatting with aid workers and visiting the Delta, I find myself at court to hear Patrick’s case. In these waits, I think about other aspects of Myanmar’s recent history one might consider disasters – ongoing fighting; an economy fueled by natural resource extraction controlled by “cronies” with military ties; the decades of suppressed free speech and shuttered universities; heroin, meth, and the damages wrought both by the drugs, and the war upon them. Political prisoners, too, are part of this story: Patrick is one of thousands or more to face trial, or simply be thrown in jail, for protesting, talking, or simply being something the government does not like. How does a country “recover” from all of these simultaneously? There are assumptions embedded in the idea of recovery – that a disaster has occurred, and that (the old) order must be restored. The past is something to be reclaimed. But when the status quo is both dynamic and abhorrent, what does “recovery” mean?

Reports on Nargis often aggregate physical destruction among accusations of government negligence, while the recent election coverage highlights military persistence and focuses on the charismatic political leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi; we tend to tell history in big numbers and big names. But these accounts ignore the banal, the personal, and the persistent. They obscure the long drives to the capital and the experience of endless waiting in the string of trial dates. They often neglect, and occasionally fetishize, individuals like Patrick, entangled in a set of local and global technologies, cultures, and ideals as he works for recovery from the war in Kachin, and lives life as a Myanmar father, husband, and citizen. NGOs and activists in Myanmar today might start with rebuilding homes wrecked by Nargis or helping to resettle villagers fleeing war in Kachin, but it’s clear their work looks far beyond these tasks. As Patrick told me from his holding cell at the court, they aim at uncovering the truth. In changing and complex circumstances, the methods for doing so vary, and demand that advocates adopt a shifting range of strategies. This is the work, sometimes dangerous, sometimes mundane, of social transformation.

Patrick was sentenced to 6 months in Insein Prison on January 23, a few hours after the government pardoned over 100 prisoners. It could have been up to three years; I was relieved, disappointed, and not surprised. Around back of the courthouse, we wait to see him in his holding cell. Crows squawk. Against the green cement walls in the shadow of leaves, Patrick’s lawyer stands apart, and smokes a cigarette.

On the 1st of April, 2016, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was released from Insein Prison after serving his backdated 6-month sentence. 

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Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. Photograph Samyuktha Varma
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On the Dala Ferry. Photograph: Samyuktha varma