Poor Myanmar. following the violent crackdown on protesting monks and civilians last October, grassroots organizations have been completely crushed. After the wave of news about the “saffron revolution” subsided, Myanmar gradually disappeared from public view and the junta became even more ruthless and its persecuting of religious members more relentless.
Monks have paid a heavy price. Some were killed, some were imprisoned and some fled the country, while those who stayed behind fell on hard times, since many people grew afraid to give alms under the watchful eye of the government. The all-encompassing political control means that monks, even more than the rest of the public, are harassed for every move they make. They have no place to live and no freedom of movement. Many monks see no other solution than leaving their monasteries to return to a secular life.
Democracy, freedom and humanity cannot be expected in the foreseeable future, as even Buddhism, Myanmar’s most valuable cultural asset, is in a serious crisis and its future is uncertain.
Poor Myanmar. It is as if it had been cursed. The people were already going through difficult times when the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis. So far, 100,000 people have been confirmed dead, countless others are missing and 2 million are homeless. The Irrawaddy delta, which used to be one of the world’s most important rice-producing areas, is now deserted. Flooded villages and bodies in fields bear testament to the Buddhist teaching that nothing in this world lasts forever and that a land is never safe.
Myanmar’s military government continues to be corrupt and ineffective. Its cruel and inhumane reaction to the “saffron revolution” angered the world. That may be the reason the government lacks confidence in its own legitimacy and has dealt with the disaster caused by Nargis with an unreasonable and unfeeling attitude, keeping international help and assistance away from those in need.
Charity organizations that rushed to help were blocked from doing so and had to look on as the crucial window for helping people slipped away minute-by-minute, second by second. Millions of survivors have fallen prey to hunger, disease and death. I was left feeling angry, concerned and powerless.
The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation finally passed the many checks put in place by Myanmar’s military government, and its relief groups have been given permission to enter the country to help.
There are several reasons why Tzu Chi was accepted by the junta. First, the foundation did very well in its relief work during the 2004 tsunami and the reconstruction work afterwards. This moved even the coldhearted junta, which believed Tzu Chi could help them handle the disaster.
Second, it is a Tzu Chi principle that the organization does not involve itself with politics. The junta itself is paranoid and mortally afraid of losing its grip on power, but this reassured it enough to allow Tzu Chi to proceed.
Some in Taiwan have criticized Tzu Chi’s principle of staying out of politics. But the Tzu Chi Foundation has built a record of being trustworthy by not becoming involved in politics and not being a threat to any kind of regime. Despotic politicians are therefore less suspicious of the organization’s intentions and thus less hostile.
From this perspective, social movement groups have to admit their limit, and realize that relief organizations that want to help people must operate based on the principle of doing as many good things as they can and not making things worse if possible. They must continue to not meddle in politics if they want to be a stable power that can help a lot of people.
Nine days after the cyclone hit Myanmar, a heavy earthquake hit Sichuan and now Myanmar and China are both facing similar problems. But the Chinese government has dealt calmly with international — especially Taiwanese — offers of humanitarian assistance and accepted criticism. It did not shut off the flow of news about the disaster and allowed for transparency. In every aspect, China showed a much more humane and enlightened face than Myanmar; the world reacted by donating generously and Taiwan did not lag behind.
The way the Chinese government is managing its crisis is the complete opposite of what the Myanmar government is doing. Tang poet Li Bai (李白) once wrote that the roads to Sichuan are hard to travel, but we now know that it’s much harder to fly to Yangon.
The eagerness of Taiwanese to help the disaster victims has attracted a lot of media attention. Seeing the many detailed media reports on the disaster, images of death and destruction, and news photos of mourning survivors, people are moved to tears and start to care about their hardship.
But the disaster in Myanmar is less close to home for Taiwanese and the local media pays little attention to it, and which makes it difficult to identify with the destitution and realize the full extent of the tragedy.
But that the government and the business world care more about Sichuan than about Myanmar raises important questions. If their donations to the Sichuan disaster area weren’t counted in the hundreds of millions of NT dollars, we would almost forget that Taiwan’s government and wealthy public have the means to save people from many a disaster.
When will Taiwan’s government and business sector learn how to give without their own interests in mind? Perhaps in the aftermath of the disaster in Myanmar they will have another opportunity to make up for their oversight and show their generosity.
Shih Chao-hwei is a professor of religious studies of Hsuan Chuang University.
Translated by Anna Stiggelbout
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