Sunday, 20 July 2008

Myanmar visitor tells of relief efforts

Of The Gazette Staff
Cyclone Nargis made international headlines when it swept through Myanmar on May 3.

The devastation remained in the forefront as people around the world worried about how surviving residents would ever recover. The country is ruled by a military junta, which keeps it closed off from the outside world and rejected international assistance after the cyclone.

The plight in Myanmar, also known as Burma, eventually fell out of mainstream concern. The junta says that the victims are recovering, but people like Chylo Laszloffy and his dad, Jeff, of Laurel know that much more remains to be done.

United States trip

This weekend the Laszloffy family hosted Tha Nyan, who goes by Sonny and is honorary general secretary of the National YMCAs of Myanmar. He is making his 12th trip to the United States, visiting friends like the Laszloffy family before attending a conference in Louisville, Ky., beginning early this week.

The Laszloffys are affiliated with Vision Beyond Borders, a Sheridan, Wyo.,-based Christian organization. Chylo recently visited Myanmar and delivered medical and other supplies for the cyclone victims. The aid was distributed through a network Sonny has helped develop.

"The bottom line is there is still a huge need there," he said. "It's just not going to go away, despite what their government tells us, that everything is all right."

Valuable medical items

Chylo knew that the supplies he delivered, including valuable medical items donated by St. Vincent Healthcare, made it to those in need, but that is the exception, not the rule, he said. At the hotel where he stayed in Yangon, Chylo saw representatives of nongovernmental organizations sitting around working on laptops all day because the Myanmar junta would not let them into the cyclone-hit area.

"Guys like Sonny are much more effective," Chylo said.

Chylo also helped locate and purchase six parcels of land that will eventually be used to build orphanages for the children of the country. Each orphanage is designed to house 100 children. There were 60,000 to 80,000 children orphaned by the cyclone, according to Vision Beyond Borders.

The children are especially vulnerable, Jeff Laszloffy said, as the slave trade, mainly from Thailand, moves into Myanmar. Providing them a place to live is one of the biggest safety issues available. Buying the land and building an orphanage costs about $50,000, according to Vision Beyond Borders.

"Lots of people in Montana drive pickup trucks that cost more than what it costs to house 100 kids," Jeff Laszloffy said.

Grace Bible Church in Laurel has already committed to building an orphanage and agreed to pay for its operation, he said.

Americans are quite wealthy by international standards, Chylo said. "This is our opportunity to show some generosity, to stand up and give," he said. "We can make a big difference without much sacrifice on our part."

For example, he said, to build a small house in Myanmar costs about $300. A more deluxe model, with kitchen, is $450.

"There's still a lot that can be done," Chylo said.

Vision Beyond Borders is also working to make sure that the Myanmar people can become self-sufficient. Long-term aid projects include buying rice seedlings to replant about 3,500 acres of paddies.

In Myanmar it is monsoon season, which is welcomed because the storms should help leach out some of the salt that the cyclone dumped into agricultural land. The salt was brought in by the storm surge that drove water and sand from the ocean into the delta.

Sonny said there are more than 11 million acres of paddies in the country, about 6 million of which were affected by the cyclone. While 3,500 acres is a small portion of the land, when planted it will feed 63,600 people, according to Dyann Romeijn, regional coordinator for Vision Beyond Borders.

It cost $90,000 to purchase the seedlings, or about $1.42 for each person they will eventually feed. Vision Beyond Borders went out on a limb and made the purchase because of the narrow window of time in which planting could be done this year, Laszloffy said.

Sonny said that about 80,000 people have been confirmed dead from the cyclone while another 1.2 million are listed as missing. In all, more than 5 million people were affected by the cyclone, and more than 1 million continue to need assistance.

Outside relief - such as food, medical supplies, clothing and other basic needs - will be required for at least another year, Sonny said. Rehabilitation - such as building houses and agrarian efforts such as livestock production - will take at least three years and probably much longer. After those basic needs are met, other essentials, such as building schools, can be addressed.

The combination of material and familial losses makes the victims psychologically vulnerable, Sonny said. "It takes a lot of time" to recover emotionally, he said.

His country's people, both Christian and Buddhist, have hope for a better life, Sonny said. There is a place in the cyclone recovery for evangelism, he said, because Christians can bring hope to those who feel hopeless, by teaching that God will protect them and provide an afterlife.

"They can know salvation, they can know Jesus," he said quietly and then broken into a grin and exclaimed, "Thank you, Cyclone Nargis!"

Sonny does not talk much about the ruling military junta - any political talk is too likely to lead to retribution.

"I would have to stay in Montana," he said.

Contact Becky Shay at or 657-1231.

Asian security talks to tackle NKorea, Myanmar

SINGAPORE (Channel New Asia) - North Korea and Myanmar will top the billing at Asia's main security forum this week, but the inflation crisis and disaster response have emerged as critical new concerns.

The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which includes nations from Asia as well as the European Union and the United States, meets here Thursday after talks by ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With civil war in Sri Lanka, insurgencies in Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines, and a dangerous new standoff at an ancient temple on the Thai-Cambodian border, Asia's list of security issues is long.

But the North Korean nuclear issue tops the agenda and the highlight of the conference will be a meeting of foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating a denuclearisation plan -- the first since 2003.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet her North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun for the first time at the informal talks tipped for Wednesday, which will also include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the meeting was not aimed at generating "some specific negotiated outcome" but would "review where the six-party process is at the moment."

Myanmar, which has infuriated the international community by refusing to introduce democratic reforms or free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, is likely to face a fresh challenge.

Myanmar could face a demand from its neighbours to release all political prisoners, a proposal made by the bloc's senior officials which their foreign ministers must decide whether to endorse.

If approved at the ministerial talks that start late Sunday and continue the following day, the measure would signal a toughening of ASEAN's stance that would be welcomed by Western governments.

The move comes after the government earned widespread contempt by refusing to open its doors to foreign relief workers in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May, a disaster that left 138,000 people dead or missing.

ASEAN won plaudits for winning approval to co-ordinate the international effort to bring help to two million people who the bloc's secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, has said remain in a "very precarious situation."

Working under an agreement with the United Nations and the Myanmar government, nearly 300 ASEAN volunteers operating in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta have prepared an assessment that is to be released on Monday.

Myanmar's cyclone disaster, a recent earthquake in China and a ferry sinking in the Philippines have made disaster preparedness a burning issue this week, two years after the ARF vowed to develop guidelines for joint disaster relief.

Since then, precious little has been done but the 27 members are now expected to discuss a joint civilian-military disaster relief exercise, among other measures.

Amid warnings that spiralling prices of food and fuel in the largely impoverished region could threaten political stability, the ASEAN ministers will attempt to hammer out some solutions.

The problem, if left unchecked, could pose a challenge to the region's long-term aim of evolving into a European Union-style community where goods and services are freely traded across the region by 2015, officials said.

Ministers will discuss "the growing challenge posed by rising oil and food prices, which pose a serious challenge to our people's welfare as well as our countries' continued economic development," according to a draft joint communique obtained by AFP. - AFP/vm

Quote on Burma's Freedom

"Mandalay, pile of ashes"
for a fire that the government was barely seen to help extinguish.

"Rangoon, pile of logs"
for city trees felled by the cyclone and still cluttering the streets.

the generals' new capital -- "pile of bones."

A New Generation of Activists Arises in Burma

Network Strengthened By Junta's Crackdown, Post-Cyclone Bungling

RANGOON (Washington Post) -- They operate in the shadows, slipping by moonlight from safe house to safe house, changing their cellphones to hide their tracks and meeting under cover of monasteries or clinics to plot changes that have eluded their country for 46 years.

If one gets arrested, another steps forward.

"I feel like the last man standing. All the responsibility is on my shoulders. . . . There is no turning back. If I turn back, I betray all my comrades," said a Burmese activist who heads a leading dissident group, the 88 Generation Students, named for a failed uprising in 1988. He took command after the arrest last August of its five most prominent leaders.

In a nearly deserted Rangoon coffee shop one recent morning, he spoke in an urgent whisper, often glancing over his shoulder to look for informers.

The security apparatus of Burma's military junta was thought to have largely shattered the opposition last August and September, in a crackdown that included soldiers firing on an alliance of monks and lay people who had taken to the streets by the thousands to protest a rise in fuel prices. More than 30 people died. At least 800 were detained and many more were forced into exile, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

But a new generation of democracy activists fights on, its ranks strengthened both by revulsion over last year's bloodletting and the government's inept response after a cyclone that killed an estimated 130,000 people two months ago. Largely clandestine, these activists make up a diffuse network of students, militant Buddhist monks, social service workers and leaders of the 1988 uprising.

Some activists express impatience with what they call the largely passive policies of the National League for Democracy, the country's main opposition party and one of the few anti-government groups that operates legally. In 1990, the league won a national election by a landslide, but the military prevented it from taking office. Its emblem, a fighting peacock, endures as a symbol of resistance to the military for millions of Burmese.

From its closely watched headquarters in downtown Rangoon, a clutter of dusty wooden desks and chairs, the league is led by three octogenarians whom many people here call the "uncles." The men oversee the party while its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, languishes under house arrest.

"Their biggest goal in life is to return the party to the lady," the honorific that sympathizers here use for Suu Kyi, said the leader of the 88 Generation. "They won't do anything. They are just guardians. . . . Because of them, their party is divided."

One woman who is active in the new opposition said she thinks that "the NLD has lost the trust of the people. They have been issuing many announcements, that the government must do this. But the government has not, and anyone who gets involved with the NLD gets in trouble."

Because of what it sees as an absence of clear direction from the NLD's leaders, the 88 Generation has acted on its own, issuing statements with the All Burma Monks Alliance and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The most recent statements criticized the junta for holding a referendum on a new constitution while the bodies of cyclone victims still floated in the waterways of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Since its founding in late 2006 by newly freed political prisoners, including legendary student leader Min Ko Naing, the group has launched a series of creative civil disobedience campaigns. Last year, people were invited to dress in white as a symbol of openness; to head to monasteries, Hindu temples or mosques for prayer meetings; and to sign letters and petitions calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. That effort resonated with so many that the group had to extend its closing date.

The group was at the forefront of the protests in August and reached out to monks, the 88 leader said.

"The struggle is still on," said a young lawyer who was sentenced to seven years in jail for starting a student union at a university. Since his release, four years early, he said, he has resumed regular contact with several groups of politically active current and former students. "Students will fight if they think it's just," he said, continuing a tradition among young people here that dates to the era of British colonial rule.

One group of young people, whose members gathered as a book club, decided to organize votes against the proposed constitution, dismissing it as a sham that reinforces the military's control of the country. So they created hundreds of stickers and T-shirts bearing the word "no" and scattered them on buses, in university lecture halls and in the country's ubiquitous tea shops.

Another student said he and some of his peers acted as unofficial election monitors during the referendum, taking photos and interviewing voters who were given already marked ballots or coerced to vote yes.

The 88 leader said such efforts have given him a stock of evidence to show that the vote was neither free nor fair.

Despite the obstacles, the group has not ruled out trying to become a legal party to run for elections in 2010, he said. "People think that if you accept to run, that means you accept the constitution. No! I want to have a legal party to fight from within," he said.

Outside experts have compared the network to Poland's Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, a broad-based coalition of workers, intellectuals and students that emerged as a key political player during the country's transition to democracy.

Just as Solidarity organized picnics to keep people in touch, some new groups here meet as book clubs or medical volunteers but could easily turn at key moments to political activity, said Bertil Lintner, a journalist and author of several books on Burma.

Meanwhile, the devastation wrought by the cyclone has sometimes been a trigger for more overt political activities. A handful of members of an embattled activist group called Human Rights Defenders and Promoters headed to the delta after the storm to hand out relief supplies as well as copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to a lawyer. They were subsequently sentenced to four years in jail, he said.

Monks remain politically active, too, in spite of increased harassment from security forces since the protests.

Some have hidden pamphlets inside their alms bowls to distribute when they go out to collect food in the mornings, according to a Mandalay monk. They have smuggled glue and posters inside the bowls to stick on street walls.

Ten years ago, the monk said, he started a library that has since expanded to 14 branches across the country. Under cover of membership, patrons take classes in public speaking and pass around poems and pamphlets that are often scathing about their rulers, he said.

"I told people to read lots of books, so they can start to know, and then they can change the system," he said. "Because we want freedom. Because it is difficult to speak and write in this country."

The cyclone's aftermath has also spurred vast new stores of anger, sometimes among monks, who take vows of nonviolence.

"Now we want to get weapons," said a monk known to other dissidents by the nom de guerre the Militant Monk for his ability to organize and vanish without a trace. "The Buddhist way is lovingkindness. But we lost. So now we want to fight."

In the dormitory of a monastery one recent afternoon, he sat among piles of handwritten speeches and recent clandestine pamphlets stamped with names of groups such as Generation Wave and the All Burmese Monks Alliance. Two young monks listening from a tattered mattress nearby nodded excitedly, and a third pretended to wield a machine gun.

Because of his role as a chief galvanizer of the monks in the protests, the monk has been on the run since September, moving from one monastery to the next. But since the cyclone, he has managed nonetheless to make about 20 trips to the devastated areas, where he buried more than 200 bodies and coordinated with monks and lay people.

"In September, we lost because everywhere, every village did not follow, because of fear," he said. But in the post-cyclone period, "we can do more. Now I can grow and grow."

At a 1,500-strong ceremony commemorating the victims of the cyclone, 15 dissident monks and lay people pondered their options, he said. Should they organize a strike in September to mark the first anniversary of the protests? Hold one to coincide with the auspicious date of 8-8-08, twenty years since the 1988 uprising?

Asked about prospects for an armed struggle, the 88 leader demurred. "We are totally, from beginning to end, peaceful," he said. But the Militant Monk, he said, chuckling, was a force to be reckoned with.

From house to house, meanwhile, Burmese whisper a new slogan:
"Mandalay, pile of ashes"
for a fire that the government was barely seen to help extinguish.

"Rangoon, pile of logs"
for city trees felled by the cyclone and still cluttering the streets.

the generals' new capital -- "pile of bones."