Reflections on humanitarian mission in Myanmar

Theravada Buddhism has been endorsed as the national religion in Burma (officially known as the Union of Myanmar) since 1044. It is therefore natural for the Burmese to have incorporated Buddhist customs into their daily life. No wonder Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi described her people as peaceful and tranquil - two beautiful characteristics which could be ascribed to the Burmese devotion to Buddhism.

Myanmar's sanghas (Buddhist monastics) traditionally enjoy respect from its people. Under local customs, parents send their sons to a monastery when they turn 14 or 15 to live as a Buddhist monk for a short period. The Burmese believe taking refuge as a monk at least twice in one's life (more being preferable) would bring merits to one's present and future lives as well as benefit one's family.

The Burmese's pious attitude to Buddhism enables them to naturally spread qualities of mildness and serenity to outsiders. More importantly, Buddhist teachings fill the people with an admirable optimism even in the face of their arduous surroundings.

A mother in her late 50s came to visit her son who was working in Yangoon city. She lives in a remote southern village called Monjhon and the journey to Yangoon took almost two days travel in a small bus on very bumpy roads. She told me that the officials were slow to become concerned about the villagers and slow to provide relief supplies after Cyclone Nargis struck. "Half of our population has gone," she said.

Perhaps the Junta is cautious of humanitarian organizations and Western reporters, especially those from the United States, for the security of the ruling authority. Relief materials donated by the United States and the United Nations had to be handed over to the Junta for distribution by officials, and Western humanitarian workers were asked to proceed only in co-operation with the Junta.

Fortunately, most Burmese humanitarian groups were quick to dedicate themselves to providing relief to the cyclone struck villages. Trucks loaded with relief supplies donated by local charity groups heading towards southern coastal villages were frequently seen. Cooperating with local sanghas to distribute relief supplies is the safest and most efficient way of helping people affected by the disaster. The DDM relief team took this approach to successfully provide relief to the southern coastal villages.

Local Buddhist monasteries provided orphaned children and other cyclone victims with a safe place to stay. They also act as the hub for distributing relief materials. The abbot of the Buddhist monastery became the prime commander of aid efforts as well as a provider of spiritual comfort.

Venerable Master Sheng Yen said, "those who suffer are 'great' bodhisattvas and those who offer assistance are bodhisattvas." To this Buddhist nation, perhaps the cyclone is a test in that it allows people to show how one can apply the Dharma to difficulties in life.

May all people in Myanmar live in peace and happiness.


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