Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters – NYTimes.com
KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.
At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.
Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.
The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.
The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.
In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.
“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.
Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.
With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.
“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”
Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”
While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.
The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.
The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.
“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”
Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.
“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”
Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.
Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.
“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”
Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.
Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.
However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.
Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.
“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.
“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”
He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”
Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.
Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”
A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.
A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”
The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.
Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.