Hidden behind a stack of pornographic video discs, Yangon street vendor Mg Zaw has even more sought-after contraband: Footage of the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, which cut a deadly path through Myanmar’s heartland two weeks ago.
The storm ripped into Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon itself, but did most of its damage in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta to the southwest. People are generally barred from traveling to the area and the state TV monopoly mostly has shown more upbeat scenes of the country’s military leaders handing out aid to survivors.
The gruesome pictures of battered and bloated bodies, seen in newspapers and on TV around the world, are not so easily accessible in Myanmar.
Ordinary citizens have turned to their usual underground sources of information: Overseas shortwave radio stations and satellite broadcasts with news from opposition journalists in exile, along with Web sites blocked by the government but available with some minor technical tricks.
So it is not much of a surprise that when evidence of the cyclone was suppressed, it would emerge on the black-market video circuit.
Mg Zaw, who runs a video disc stall along Anawratha Road in central Yangon, said he started hawking the storm videos just two days after Nargis struck.
“People buy them because they are interested in seeing what happened out there,” he said, eyes warily scanning for police conducting checks.
The discs are packaged in slim plastic holders with paper covers featuring grainy montages of bloated corpses floating in flood waters, collapsed houses and injured people being helped by villagers. Some sellers display them openly; others produce them only on request.
The videos show hand-held camera footage of bloated water buffalo carcasses, wooden boats parked outside roofless buildings and homes flattened by the storm, as well as groups of survivors squatting on roadsides with their few remaining possessions in baskets or bags.
In one video, two stray dogs sniff the ground near the corpse of a young woman lying face-up on a coconut palm leaf. The camera zooms shakily in on her body, barely covered by a blue blouse and a hiked-up longyi, the sarong-like Myanmar traditional dress.
A man stands about 1m away, gazing silently at the body.
The videos are being bought either out of curiosity or, some say, as a way of coping with the tragedy, which left about 78,000 people dead and another 55,000 missing, the official government count said.
The Red Cross and the UN expect the death toll to soar well above 100,000.
Khin Soe, 28, who has been told that his parents and three siblings died in the disaster, bought one of the videos on Saturday afternoon.
“I feel very sad and I want to know what happened, that’s why I am buying this,” he said.
He was the youngest of six family members before leaving his hometown in the delta two years ago for a job at a five-star hotel in Yangon.
With the affected areas closed to outsiders, the authenticity of the videos is difficult to verify. The vendors say they were shot in various places including Labutta, a rice-growing township, which was one of the worst-hit areas.
Each disc is priced at 500 kyat (US$0.50) — about half the cost of a knockoff Adidas T-shirt available nearby at the market.
Mg Zaw said he makes 100 kyat per disc. Some hawkers said they have been selling about 100 copies a day.