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A battle for Burma's soul

by Christopher Johnson, Toronto Star, May 16, 2008

Response to killer cyclone highlights the animosity between the country's military and Buddhist clergy

Mae Sot, Thailand -- The military and the Buddhist clergy have long been competing for the souls of Burmese people. The military has guns, helicopters, and now relief supplies.

Burmese children reach their hands out to receive a free banana from a local donor on the outskirts of Rangoon on May 14, 2008.

The monks have temples sheltering cyclone victims and an underground network of sympathetic citizens and exiles worldwide, and in border areas such as Mae Sot.

In an attempt to gain the upper hand, the ruling generals have begun forcing victims of the May 3 cyclone to move from monasteries to tent camps.

The monks, meanwhile, have begun to organize funding and supplies for victims, which they hope to deliver via clandestine networks inside Burma and in neighbouring countries.

Khaymananda – a Burmese monk who fled to Thailand after leading a protest of 270 monks against the government in 2003 – said the military is moving people out of temples because "they are very afraid the people will demonstrate again."

After demonstrations last September following a hike in the fuel price, monks led a weeks-along display of defiance against the regime in the biggest public protests in Burma, also known as Myanmar, since 1988.

But the regime eventually cracked down on the demonstrations. The United Nations said 31 people were killed and that dozens were unaccounted for.

"People only have two choices: will you demonstrate, or will you die?" Khaymananda said.

"If the monks organize people, there will be big demonstrations again. So the government wants to separate monks and the people."

The junta warned yesterday it would punish anyone found hoarding or trading foreign aid meant for cyclone survivors.

The government's warning came as the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis was raised to 43,318, an increase of almost 5,000 from a day earlier, but still far below UN and Red Cross estimates of 100,00.

The number of people listed as missing remained at 27,838.

Burma's military, which has ruled for 46 years, has itself come under suspicion of diverting relief supplies. Its warning against hoarding alluded to the allegations, saying the regime is rushing all donated supplies to those in need.

Tonnes of food, water, blankets, mosquito nets, medicine and tents have been flown in to Burma from international donors, but delivery to the 1.5 million to 2 million affected by the storm has been slowed by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said countries delivering aid to Burma should insist on monitoring the shipments to ensure all aid reaches the neediest.

The group also said it had confirmed an earlier Associated Press report this week that the junta took control of high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community and then distributed low-quality, locally produced substitutes to civilians.

Burma's junta also announced yesterday that voters overwhelmingly backed a pro-military constitution. State radio said the draft constitution, which critics dismissed as a sham document designed to entrench the military's rule, was approved by 92.4 per cent of the 22 million eligible voters.

Last Saturday's vote was postponed until May 24 in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon areas, which were worst hit by Cyclone Nargis.

According to media reports from the Irrawaddy Delta, monks say people have been relocated by boats and trucks from monasteries and schools, pushed into state-run camps where it was unclear if there was sufficient food or water.

About 80,000 people had sought shelter in schools and temples in the delta town of Labutta, which was left in ruins by the cyclone, they say.

Security forces are also restricting Burmese citizens from directly aiding cyclone victims in the delta, Associated Press reports.

"They (military) don't want us to stay and talk to people. They want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution," said Zaw Htin, a 21-year-old medical student who visited hard-hit Bogalay town on Wednesday.

"But how can I treat them if I can't talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can't touch them, feel their pulse or give them advice?"

Khaymananda said monks are sheltering storm victims even though the monks also lack food and basic supplies.

He said they had received donations from rich people in Rangoon "who want to make Buddhist merit by donating to monasteries."

He also said he was communicating with monks through an underground network of monks and friends in the delta.

"We can share the news," he said. "They have survived Cyclone Nargis, but now they tell me it's very difficult to survive. People in the delta think the U.S. will help them, but unfortunately, the military is only allowing it a little bit."

Burmese exiles say the government has systematically manipulated religious beliefs to justify poverty and their divine right to rule.

"Many Burmese Buddhists believe that they are poor because they did something wrong in their previous life," said Khaymananda.

"They believe this because the government does not allow them to have knowledge of other countries. They cannot compare Burma to other countries. So they don't know the truth."

The monk said victims in the delta were suffering mental anguish because they could not collect the bodies of their dead relatives and cremate them in Buddhist rituals.

"In our culture, if somebody dies, they invite monks who recite literature and lecture about morality," he said.

"Burmese people believe that if they cannot make a ceremony, they cannot release the soul into the next life's incarnation. The soul is still trapped in the dead body."

Given the extreme suffering in Burma, he said, the United States and other countries should intervene militarily in Burma.

"What the government is doing is like a genocide. They are not allowing people to help people. So it's like killing people."

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Myanmar Cyclone Disaster Fast Facts

Toll as at May 9, 2008

Dead (official)
Missing (official) 41,054
Dead (US estimate) 100,000 plus
Homeless (UN estimate) 1 million- plus

International contributors

$10 million
$3 million
UNITED STATES $3 million
AUSTRALIA $2.8 million
$2 million in aid.
CANADA $2 million
INDONESIA $1 million
SPAIN $775,000
GERMANY $775,000
CHINA $500,000
FRANCE $320,000
GREECE $300,000
JAPAN $267,570
THAILAND $100,000
$2.1 million
SRI LANKA $25,000

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Jan 1 - Mar 12, 2008



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