NEWS30 June 2008

Research team reunites to aid Burma cyclone victims

May Tha-Hla and her team are back in action – but this time the focus is on rebuilding not researching

UK— It’s been five years since May Tha-Hla’s research team has been active in Burma, but her “loyal band” of fieldworkers and family members was reunited more than a month ago to take on their biggest project to date – helping rebuild the devastated Irrawaddy Delta.

The old May Market Research team came together after Cyclone Nargis hit the region, killing at least 100,000 and wiping out homes and paddy fields.

Many former employees of the agency had their own homes damaged by the fierce winds of 2 May, but after repairing what they could they have now set about helping those that bore the brunt of the storm.

Tha-Hla – a former Research International and TNS researcher – was born in Burma, but moved to England soon after the military coup in 1962.

She set up May Market Research in Burma with her brother and sister-in-law in the early 1990s, working with clients such as Unilever and British American Tobacco until international sanctions forced businesses to withdraw from the country.

All work eventually dried up in 2003, but Tha-Hla remained a regular visitor to the country, returning to see family once or twice each year. After the storm hit, she said, “My first idea was to just go and secure my family home, but then I saw on the TV all the awful things that were going on.” Things like the slow response of the military junta to the crisis, and the obstacles they put in the path of aid agencies looking to bring medicine, food and supplies to the victims of the cyclone.

“I knew I could get to places these guys couldn’t get to,” says Tha-Hla. “When I’d decided I was going, I put out an email to some friends in Chiswick to see if they wanted to donate some money to help. I was expecting people to give £10 or £20 maybe – but I couldn’t believe the amount that was coming in. I was getting cheques for £1,000 here, £200 there.

“Then I thought I’d email the Independent Consultants Group” – a group of independent researchers – “and in 9 days I’d collected £20,000. Then Jon Wilkinson, my husband [and former Research International CEO], started sending some stuff out to contacts. This week, the money raised went past £41,000.”

The success of the appeal prompted Tha-Hla and Wilkinson to set up the charity Helping the Burmese Delta. Their aim is to go where others haven’t – to the villages and districts that have so far received little or no aid.

“We have a project happening this week, in the extreme far west of the Delta,” says Tha-Hla. “Some of our people went there and they said they had found these four villages, each completely flattened. The villagers are perching in a monastery and they have had no fresh food supplies since the storm seven weeks ago.

“The monks have been giving them some rice, some gruel from their food stores, but that’s dwindling down. And the villagers, they were just pleading with my team to find some way of providing them with roofing materials because the hurricane season is starting in a couple of weeks time.

“My team, their hearts just broke, so they spent a lot of money on buying materials and tools, and they’ve found a couple of carpenters and four workmates who they are taking back out there to help these people rebuild their huts.”

Tha-Hla intends to return to Burma at the end of July. Until then, her time will be spent drumming up money and support, and giving a series of talks where she hopes to convey to people the extent of the crisis facing the Burmese.

The pictures she has taken – “pictures that would make you cry” – not only capture the devastation, but the hope and optimism that remains, and the sacrifices ordinary people are making to help their fellow countrymen.

“As we drove out of Rangoon for the first time, to my huge astonishment and immense pride in the Burmese people, we were in a convoy at least 1,000 cars long. And that was just in the moment I was there,” she said. “Who knows how many others were there at other times of the day. All these people just buying whatever they could – clothes, food – and taking it to people who so desperately need it.”

• For more information, visit