Shortly after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, a new name popped up in stories around the world: the Irrawaddy delta, where perhaps 100,000 people have died and 1.5 people are homeless.
But, what was the Irrawaddy delta like before Nargis devastated all the towns in its path, and sent refugees streaming into battered towns?
The delta is home to many ethnic groups, but is mainly made up of people of Burman, Karen, Arakan and Indian heritage.
The economy depends heavily on rice production, which accounts for 65 percent of Burma’s rice production, and fishing, especially around the towns of Bogalay and Laputta, two of the worst-hit areas.
Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, lies on the northeast corner of the delta region.
The delta is laced with dozens of large river channels flowing into the Andaman Sea from the Irrawaddy River, the country’s main waterway. It has seen many historical events, including the British army’s initial entry into the Burmese kingdom during the first Anglo-Burmese war in the 19th century.
When the kingdom lost lower Burma at the end of the second Anglo-Burma war, the delta became the “rice bowl” for the British empire.
The delta was the birthplace of many Burmese nationalists, who later led the struggle for independence. U Nu, who was elected prime minister after independence, and U Thant, the first Asian to become UN Secretary-General, were sons of the Irrawaddy delta.
The delta was the scene of the first violent riots between minority Karen and majority Burman citizens during World War II, which claimed dozens of lives. However, the people in the delta united and fought together in the resistance movement against the Japanese invasion in 1945.
During the civil war which erupted after independence in 1948, the delta was a stronghold of the communist insurgent movement and for Karen rebel groups. Rebellion and unrest continued in the delta for at least two decades.
Along with economic significance, the delta is important geopolitically. The position of military commander of the Southwest region, which includes the delta, is considered a prestige assignment with great power. Many commanders in chiefs of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese armed forces) have emerged from the Southwest command.
Gen Ne Win, the general who began the long line of generals who have ruled Burma since independence, launched the fight against British colonials in the early 1940s in the delta. Snr-Gen Saw Maung who led the 1988 military coup was once the regional commander of Southwest region. His successor, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the current head of the Burmese junta, was a commander of the region. A rising star in the Tatmadaw and a potential heir of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Gen Thura Shwe Mann, is also a former Southwest region commander.
The people of the Irrawaddy delta demonstrated their support of Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, when the junta’s soldiers attempted to stop a large mass gathering during her political campaign in 1989. Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide in the delta in the 1990 election.
The Tatmadaw conducted two large military operations in the delta against what it though were significant Karen ethnic insurgent groups. One operation was under the command of Lt-Gen Myint Aung, then the Southwest region commander.
The operations were launched after the Tatmadaw suspected members of the Karen National Union (KNU) were operating in the delta. It turned out that there were KNU members, carrying automatic rifles, in the delta. They had just delivered rifles there in preparation for a future rebellion in the delta. The delta is still a source for KNU recruits.
During the operation, the Tatmadaw conducted summary executions. Junta airplanes attacked and injured many innocent civilians in Bogalay Township. Dozens of villagers were believed killed in military operations. Hundreds of Karen villagers, including former insurgents from the 1950s and 60s, were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.