Myanmar's Buddhist monks fill cyclone aid void
By Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, May 17, 2008
KUNTHECHAUNG, Myanmar -- With a loudhailer in one hand and a clipboard in the other, the bespectacled Buddhist monk calls out names from a long list of villages devastated by Cyclone Nargis.
One by one, maroon-robed monks in the crowd milling round the make-shift relief centre put up their hands before coming forward to accept a carefully measured quota of food for his village.
Welcome to emergency aid delivery, Myanmar-style.
With foreign agencies on a tight leash and only a trickle of relief coming in from the military government, the Buddhist monkhood has become a major conduit for help to the 2.5 million people left clinging to survival in the Irrawaddy delta.
Given the monks' unquestioned moral authority in the devoutly Buddhist southeast Asian nation, private donors are happy to see the shaven-headed men in maroon taking charge of goods brought down to the delta in rickety trucks, vans and boats.
"It gives us great pleasure and joy to see our donations transferred directly to the beneficiaries," said Ko Myo, a young businessmen from Yangon, the former capital. "That's all we expect out of our contribution. Nothing else."
Outside the tent, dozens of monks and villagers wait their turn patiently. Many sit in the boats that will take the needed supplies back to their shattered communities.
Praise for the senior monk, or Sayadaw, who established the relief centre is universal.
"Most people wouldn't have survived long if the Sayadaw hadn't arrived in time," one man told Reuters. "Some places have run out of food completely."
The monk in question, the Venerable Nyanissara, is a Buddhist patriarch who is as close to being "untouchable" as it is possible to be a country run by a ruthless military junta.
The 73-year-old was in Paris the night Nargis struck with its 120 mph (190 kmh) winds and 12-foot (3.5 meter) wall of water that slammed into the delta. He immediately cut short his Buddhist lecture trip to return home to start relief work.
Now, in a tent beside a stagnant waterway in the district of Bogalay, where at least 10,000 people, probably many more, were killed, he personally overseas the handing out of aid.
"Today we distributed rice, salt, clothing, drinking water, and soap to 27 villages," he told Reuters as a mobile phone rang on the table in front of him.
"We have distributed over 100 tons of rice and more than 3,000 tin roofing sheets so far. We are trying to distribute more," said the monk, much of whose funding comes from a global network of rich, well-educated disciples.
As with September's protests against the soaring cost of living, when the going gets tough in Myanmar, people typically turn to the monkhood, the only institution that can stand up to a military machine that has ruled almost unchecked for 46 years.
Nyanissara's elevated status means soldiers at checkpoints on roads into the delta dare not interfere with his supplies. Just the words of his mission -- "Sitagu Missionary Association" -- on the side of a truck are enough to allow it safe passage.
"Bringing things by car here is very difficult now because the authorities ask us to hand them over," Ko Myo, the Yangon businessmen, said.
"But these are magic words," he said, pointing to "Sitagu" painted on the side of a van. "Nobody has laid a finger on it so far."
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani