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Myanmar's top temple source of comfort

AP, May 20, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- As the steady rain that had been falling all day Monday eased off, the monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda began to chant and the worshippers prayed. Many brought their children, some of whom laughed and played marbles in the pavilion.

<< Shwedagon Pagoda itself was damaged by cyclone Nargis

Others just cried.

Despite the passage of more than two weeks, the reminders of Cyclone Nargis were everywhere. The winds damaged the stupas and pavilion roofs of the hilltop temple and tore off hundreds of gold leaf panels. Many precious stones fell off.

Still, the city's holiest shrine, which reopened over the weekend after being closed for repairs following the May 2-3 cyclone, drew thousands of worshippers who looked to it for solace.

While most people wore new and bright-colored clothes — Monday was a special Buddhist holiday — Kyaw Zaw Thanh and his 6-year-old son were wearing old, dirty white shirts. His wife and the child's mother were among the tens of thousands who remain missing after the storm.

"She went to visit her family in a village near Hpayapon three weeks ago," Kyaw Zaw Thanh said. "After the storm, I took a bus to the town and took a boat out to go see her family, but the house was completely flattened. We didn't find anyone there."

Another man and his son stood out in the crowd of thousands, sitting with a saffron-robed monk in one of the smaller pavilions that has not been fully renovated.

"He wouldn't eat, he wouldn't sleep. He wouldn't stop crying. He is afraid we won't find his mother," the man said, looking at the child, who stared at the floor as his tears fell.

"We pray for her. She might be in a camp. She may be trying to find her way," he said, his hand on the child's shoulder.

Worshippers chanted prayers, burned incense and released birds around the grounds of the temple, which is not only a religious center but also a historical focal point for social and political protests. Monks gathered here for last September's big pro-democracy protests, which were brutally crushed by the military.

Kyi Mien, a woman in her 30s, said she offered prayers for "our family, health, future ... for those who lost their families to Nargis," adding that she believed Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, was spared the worst of the cyclone's fury because of the holiness of Shwedagon.

"We pray that it will keep us safe," she added. "We keep hearing another storm might be coming. I am afraid it will hit without warning."

On a corner near the east gate of the pagoda, a notice board showed pictures of destroyed pagodas as volunteers asked pilgrims for money for renovation. A monk said they were not allowed by local authorities to put up pictures of cyclone victims or hungry and desperate survivors.

But since it's a religious site, pictures of destroyed pagodas were allowed.

"They don't want to upset people," he said.

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Myanmar Cyclone Disaster Fast Facts

Toll as at May 9, 2008

Dead (official)
Missing (official) 41,054
Dead (US estimate) 100,000 plus
Homeless (UN estimate) 1 million- plus

International contributors

$10 million
$3 million
UNITED STATES $3 million
AUSTRALIA $2.8 million
$2 million in aid.
CANADA $2 million
INDONESIA $1 million
SPAIN $775,000
GERMANY $775,000
CHINA $500,000
FRANCE $320,000
GREECE $300,000
JAPAN $267,570
THAILAND $100,000
$2.1 million
SRI LANKA $25,000

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