On the off chance that any of you didn’t get the email I sent two days ago, I’ve decided to post it here. Take a look. ————————————————————————————-
I hope you’re all doing well. For those of you who haven’t heard, I am in Burma (aka Myanmar) and have been for the last three weeks. Thankfully, I was in the north when the cyclone came through on May 2 and am fine. I’m in Rangoon (aka Yangon) now and am writing on behalf of the Burmese people affected by the cyclone to ask for your help. Please take 10 minutes to read this. Believe me, it is worth your time.
In the little time I have been in Burma, I have been both appalled and inspired. Appalled by what I’ve learned of the military and junta government’s oppression of the Burmese people. And amazed and inspired by how warm and welcoming the people are despite this treatment and how they’ve risen to the challenge of helping their fellow citizens while their government effectively will not. I could write pages about what I’ve learned from the people here (often spoken in hushed tones after they look over both shoulders) about the country’s troubled history and tragic current situation. But I know you are all busy so I’ll try to keep this short. Suffice it to say that the government’s treatment of the people here is horrible, confusing and incredibly frustrating. I wouldn’t believe half of it if I were not here.
As you know by now, over 60,000 people are presumed dead from the cyclone. And approximately 1.5 million affected, from a country with massive numbers already living in poverty (average income of all Burmese is under $3/day). For various reasons confounding the international community, the Burmese government has forbidden entry of international aid workers. Some say this is because they fear that it will appear that the government is incapable of caring for its own people (clearly the case), others say it is because of the fear they have of the message international workers will bring to the Burmese people, further eroding an already minimal support base (as if the Burmese people don’t already know what’s happening around the world or how bad they have it). Others say it is because the government doesn’t want its upcoming referendum (essentially a forced vote to approve a constitution that will keep the military in power literally forever) disrupted. Others because the government wants to be the only face on the relief effort – one that’s not working very well. It’s probably a mix of these and many more. Some say it’s because they just don’t care; in the words of a man I spoke to this morning and echoed around the country, “They’ve never cared for us in the past. Why would they now?”
Regardless of the reason, it’s so strange and awful that it’s hard for most people to wrap their brains around it. On a personal note, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so angry about something and so 100% justified in that anger (despite trying like heck to learn from the Buddhist principles I keep getting exposed to..). There’s nothing good about what the government is doing here.
While the aid workers are not getting in, aid shipments are. Unfortunately, much of that aid is not making it to the affected areas. There are reports that the government is keeping some for themselves, selling some for profit (some back to people who are trying to deliver it to the people that need it), swapping some of the high quality international goods for low grade stuff (keeping or selling the high quality stuff) and shipping that out to victims etc. The list of reports goes on and on.
What does this all mean? That the huge international aid efforts that most people hear about back home, while obviously well intentioned, are not having the effect that everyone, donors included, want. Unicef, Oxfam, Red Cross etc – all are having many of their efforts stymied by the government.
Disgusted by all of this, the local people around Rangoon have stopped waiting for aid to come from the government or outside. And they are taking matters into their own hands. It’s incredible. Groups of volunteers are forming around the city, raising money, buying supplies and driving them out to affected areas themselves. And are proving to be the most effective means for aid in the country. Yet these groups are not immune from the problems with the government. They, too, are encountering resistance in their efforts. Police at checkpoints routinely confiscate aid before it can make it to affected areas. Some demand bribes, others demand that the aid groups give the materials to the government so that they can distribute. A claim no one believes. There is absolutely no faith in the government. I met a group yesterday that told me they had to break rice down into small packages as the normal 50 lb. bags are too obvious in cars. When they shop for goods, they have to split up, buying small amounts of aid here and there (tarps, rice, rehydration salts, medicines) to avoid arousing suspicion from police and the military who often confiscate the materials. Most meet in secret to do the same. Can you believe it??? All sad and all true.
Despite these problems, the local groups are making amazing progress. They are learning how to operate, becoming more efficient, and are doing an incredible job. Those that began in the immediate area around Rangoon are now extending operations into the Delta area. When I got to Yangon and started asking around about where I could help, I was told that Western faces out on shopping or supply runs would only draw attention to their efforts. We were told, therefore, that we were most valuable as fundraisers. These people have the plan and the ability to help those affected by the cyclone. But they don’t have the money.
That’s where we come in – you, me and everyone you know. I don’t like hitting people up for money, but in my time on the road over the last 8 months, there’s one thing I’ve learned. That those of us in the Western world are incredibly fortunate to live where we do, to have the opportunities that we have, to afford the lifestyles we lead, and to have the freedoms we all take for granted. I had no idea what life was like for most people in the world until I left the US. As my friend Jen told me a long time ago, despite the problems or lack we think we may have, “we have more than 99.9% of the world”. I now understand what she means. So, please, take a minute, and a few bucks and donate. I recommend the Foundation for the People of Burma (www.foundationburma.org). The FPB is an American non-profit acting as a conduit for funding the ad hoc groups I mentioned before – those with no overhead, no red tape, and the ability to act within hours of receiving the much needed money. FPB is supporting groups like Gitameit Music School (www.gitameit.org), a school for gifted college-aged classical music students, who are doing work on the ground now. When the cyclone hit, they closed down classes, turned their practice room into a disaster relief operations center, and started delivering aid and coordinating doctors to affected areas. When I visited them yesterday, there were huge sacks of rice and boxes of medical supplies leaning up against a grand piano that will gather dust for a bit.. Thanks for your time, y’all. I love you all and look forward to seeing you again soon. And don’t worry about me. I’m safe and happy. And will probably be out of the country by Sunday.
P.S. Please send this to anyone and everyone you know who might want to help.
For those that would like to read more, please check out some of the links below. Recent International News Coverage:
http://www.iht.com/articles/reuters/2008/05/14/asia/OUKWD-UK-MYANMAR-CYCLONE.php http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-myanmar14-2008may14,0,7404577.story http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/world/asia/14myanmar.html?ref=asia http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/0DD2BC77-E0C5-4DD1-AD10-2D8D8C343782.htm http://www.kansascity.com/105/story/618930.html