The real heroes of Myanmar's cyclone disaster
by Tyche Hendricks, San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 2008
Burmese citizens, not junta, tending to the sick and hungry
Rangoon, Burma -- As the urgency intensifies to get food, water and medicine into the worst-affected areas of Burma 11 days after the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis, the country's military government continues to baffle the world by stonewalling international disaster relief.
<< Burmese refugees queue for food in the monsoon rain, after Cyclone Nargis swept through. Getty Images photo
The government has taken pains to appear on state television as the sole source of humanitarian relief, even appropriating donations from others so that soldiers can hand out the aid. The United Nations warns of a second catastrophe unless a huge aid effort is begun immediately, and Buddhist monks and other Burmese citizens are quietly tending to the sick and hungry.
The junta's bewildering resistance stems from its fear that outside influence would weaken its control and from a distorted desire to maintain the impression that it is compassionate in the eyes of Burma's Buddhist majority, scholars say.
"The regime is trying to control the aid distribution because they want to be the ones to offer it ceremonially, partly to show they have legitimacy," said University of Wisconsin anthropologist Ingrid Jordt, who has lived in Burma as a practicing Buddhist nun.
"They are the patrons, the distributors of largesse," said Bruce Matthews, a Burma expert and professor emeritus of religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. "What anybody gets is what the military wants you to get. Theoretically, they are Buddhists. They care about their Buddhist image."
While the Burmese government's actions in the wake of the cyclone are rooted in its ties to the Buddhist religion, they threaten to destabilize the unique triangular relationship between the government, the people and the monks.
Buddhism is central to Burma, and perhaps 80 percent of the country's 48 million people are practicing Buddhists in the Theravada tradition. The sangha, or monastic community, comprises 400,000 monks and nuns, equal in size to the armed forces. In Burmese history, the monks served as intermediaries between the kings and the peasantry.
Gaining karmic points
Even today the monks depend for their meals on alms they collect daily in begging bowls. And the government gains karmic points by donating to the monasteries.
But the military regime broke its bond with the sangha last September when it attacked and killed protesting monks who waged a saffron revolution, upending their bowls to refuse alms from the government and marching against an untenable increase in fuel and food prices.
For the Burmese people, the ties to the monastic order are woven into the fabric of daily life.
"There's a reciprocal relationship," said Michele McDonald, a Hawaii-based Buddhist teacher who has studied in Burma. "People love to cook for the monks and nuns. They love to visit them, because they receive so much back."
In the days since the cyclone hit, homeless refugees have gravitated toward the Buddhist temples seeking help. The monasteries have become the Superdomes of the disaster, one scholar observed, comparing the sturdy pagodas to the New Orleans stadium that sheltered victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Monks and nuns have been sharing their modest stores of rice and rainwater, and providing floor space and whatever medical care they can offer.
But even these humble acts of kindness appear to be taken as a challenge by the Burmese junta. News reports coming out of Burma in recent days suggest that soldiers are blocking the doors to some temples and warning abbots they must turn out the storm's refugees.
"Unfortunately the regime sees their compassion as a threat," said McDonald.
The Buddhism practiced by the generals running the country is not mainstream Theravada Buddhism, but involves a high degree of mysticism and superstition that harkens back to pre-Buddhist animist traditions, according to Priscilla Clapp, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Burma from 1999 to 2002.
"They pretend they're traditional Theravada Buddhists, but they really aren't," she said. "They indoctrinate their officers especially and also the rank and file soldiers politically. ... So they can justify really outrageous actions on the basis of Buddhism, including attacks on monks and letting people starve. It has everything to do with keeping them in power."
Alan Clements, is a Vancouver-based Buddhist teacher who has written a book of interviews with Burma's democratically elected Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who lives under house arrest in Rangoon. He urged world leaders to appeal to the conscience of the Burmese generals.
"The essence of Buddhism is compassion," he said. "Elementary school children in Burma understand compassion in a simple way: put yourself in the body and mind of someone else and ask yourself what you would like done in a moment of suffering." He would say to the generals, "You're Buddhist: Where's your compassion?"
Many Burmese citizens are going around government authorities and beginning to organize themselves to respond to the disaster, Clapp said. Grassroots Burmese groups are working with monks and with the handful of international aid agencies on the ground to improvise solutions such as fashioning replacements for lost rain barrels to collect the monsoon rains for drinking water.
"It's that kind of activity that will eventually overcome the grip the military has on the country: learning how to work together to organize and make things happen," Clapp said.