Hard lessons from Myanmar, five years after Cyclone Nargis


Five years after losing his life's work to Cyclone Nargis, glass factory owner Myat Kywe gets by selling glass scattered across acres of his property.


Philip Heijmans

YANGON, Myanmar — The Nagar Glass Factory has been an irreplaceable part of Myanmar’s heritage for decades.

In its heyday, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was a customer. So was the first man to orbit the earth, John Glenn, who paid a visit in 1966 and tried his own hand at glass blowing. The factory was in guidebooks for intrepid travelers who visited this long-oppressed country.

Hidden in the back streets of this crowded and largely poor Southeast Asian capital, acres of beautifully finished vases and wine glasses represent a rare bastion of timeless excellence in a country otherwise not exactly known for glassware.

Nagar’s hand-crafted bowls, miniature sculptures and nativity sets were in high demand even though customers would have to navigate dirt roads and dense foliage to reach the factory and its community of celebrated glass makers.

The roads are better these days, but Nagar Glass Factory is harder to find. It is no longer marked with a sign, and it lies in ruins — five years after being ravaged by Cyclone Nargis.

Dressed in collared shirt and traditional Myanmar longyi, factory owner Myat Kywe, a youthful looking 70, peers across the four acres that housed a glass-blowing factory and several warehouses full of hand-blown glass. He reminisces about the visits from big-name customers, and how for decades, he stood alone a master glassmaker in country where almost all of its glassware came from across the borders.

“There were a lot of pottery factories, but no glass makers. We were the only ones in the country who knew how to make it,” he said.

But that was before everything was broken.

“I was sleeping here when it happened. The trees fell down and the roofs were taken by the wind. I thought it was a doozy,” Myat Kywe said with a stoicism common among residents recalling the lethal storm that ripped through the country in 2008.

There is now little left of the Nagar Glass Factory. The brick chimney that once vented heat and fumes from massive furnaces lays in disrepair. The factory buildings are dilapidated, their roofs collapsed.

To survive, Myat Kywe sells the remainder of his life’s work, an impressive collection of tens of thousands of pieces remarkably untouched by the cyclone, now scattered in piles across the factory grounds.

“There was nowhere to put them so we laid them outside, here in what we like to call ‘natural warehouses,’” he laughed.

As the Philippines attempts to cope with damage from Typhoon Haiyan, Myat Kywe is a reminder that long after the storm recedes and aid workers head home, local residents continue to suffer. He is one of thousands still reeling from the disastrous cyclone, which killed at least 138,300 people in southern Myanmar when it struck in May 2008, according to government estimates.

More than 750,000 homes were affected by Nargis. In 2011, the UN said that 375,000 people were still in need of housing three years on from the disaster. Many of those people remain in desolate conditions.

Local businesses in the south continue to struggle as well.

In the town of Twantay, some 20 miles west of Yangon, a village that once counted 40 families of potters now has fewer than 10 groups working. Most of their homes remain destroyed. Villagers fear Twantay’s tradition of pottery-making, which dates back to the 14th century, may become extinct.

“We cannot say if this business will continue after us. Maybe once our parents are retired, we will find other work,” said 34-year-old potter, Ma Aye Aye.

Without any insurance and little government aid, many of those affected by the cyclone were forced to make their own way, including Myat Kywe.

“I wanted to work, and my workers wanted to work, but everything was destroyed and the prices to rebuild everything were too high,” he said, adding that he had to let his 60 workers go.

Glass making was previously unknown to Myanmar until a small group that included Myat Kywe’s father opened the factory in 1948, exclusively making medicine bottles.

“At that time the quality of the glass was not good. Other kinds of glass were imported, so we could not compete,” he said. But through books they quickly learned blowing techniques for different types of glassware in a variety of colors.

As the quality improved, the factory drew national attention. Myat Kywe was commissioned to build the glass shades now decorating the lampposts at Yangon’s magnificent Sule Pagoda, as well as the eyeballs of the massive Chauk Htat Gyi reclining Buddha.

From that point onward, the factory became a magnet for foreign executives passing through Myanmar. Representatives of the now defunct aeronautics pioneer Pan American Airways would order wine glasses by the box to give as gifts, recalls Myat Kywe.

Then one day in 1968, Myat Kywe received word from the US Embassy that he would be receiving a particular guest of interest, John Glenn.

“He [Mr. Glenn] is a good man,” Mya Kywe said, as he sat in a rickety old wooden chair, pointing to an old photo of him standing next to the famed astronaut.

“He was very nice to me at a time I was thirsty to know everything. I remember asking him some things about space and he explained how to drink water because if you do it the wrong way it could float away,” he laughed.