Tim Costello, the director of World Vision Australia, was among the select few outside aid workers granted visas in the first week following Myanmar's cyclone disaster. He arrived in Yangon May 8 to witness both the horror of large-scale calamity and the grit of determined humanity: "Massive trees uprooted, literally roots lying across power lines, houses, and roads. The force of this was just extraordinary. And this was just the periphery here in Yangon, not the belly of the beast." It was also nearly a week after the storm subsided.
A deep weather depression formed in late April and intensified over the Bay of Bengal in the northeastern corner of the Indian Ocean. Fueled by warm waters and low atmospheric pressure, the storm gained momentum and peaked with winds of 135 mph as it smacked into Southeast Asia. On May 2, Cyclone Nargis raged through the Irrawaddy delta in southern Myanmar, also known as Burma. Reports from the remote region indicate that as many as 95 percent of buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.
Further north, the storm's last acts of fury decimated urban centers like the capital city of Yangon (Rangoon) before relenting near the country's eastern border with Thailand. The flattened path of death and carnage left behind ranks among the worst ever recorded in human history. The still growing count of bodies recovered from the wreckage is expected to eclipse the 100,000 mark. And millions more people now face threats of disease, hunger, and dehydration in the absence of shelter, food, or clean water.
But even amid that chaos and suffering, stories of redemption and heroism emerged. Churches throughout the predominantly Buddhist nation have opened their doors to offer medical aid and serve as distribution centers for food and supplies. Many Burmese people, Christian or otherwise, have displayed courage in their struggle to survive and save those they love.
On his first day in Myanmar, Costello joined almost 600 indigenous World Vision staffers to distribute rice to thousands of hungry people. Among those served, one 12-year-old boy recounted through an interpreter that he and his 4-year-old brother were home alone when the storm reached their neighborhood. With water flooding the area to waist level, the boy lifted his sibling onto his head and made it to higher ground. "It's just people doing what they can to survive," Costello said. "There are an amazing number of courageous stories of Burmese people reaching out to each other in time of need and being generous."
But the longtime humanitarian and former Baptist minister had no such praise for the Myanmar government, which has hampered foreign relief efforts at every turn. It took two days for the Burmese junta to grant Costello an audience with a general, during which he pressed for greater access to disaster areas with limited success. "We negotiated a space with the military where we deliver the aid, not them. And we're getting through those military checkpoints. But where we are this far on is causing deep frustration and even guilt for our workers that they can't reach more people."
A steady stream of survivors from the country's southern coastal regions arrives in Yangon and other sanctioned foreign aid centers daily, but only the young, strong, and healthy are capable of such a trek. The elderly, sick, and injured remain without help in the hardest hit coastal areas. Meanwhile, scores of relief workers with stockpiles of supplies sit dormant in neighboring countries eager to respond but unable to secure visas.
Only recently have relief operations received permission to enter the Irrawaddy delta. A distribution center in Pyapon-a four-hour drive south of Yangon-now offers greater access to the most devastated townships in the country. But the late start and remaining government-imposed obstacles could leave hundreds of thousands without aid for weeks yet to come. And with the region's rice crop largely destroyed, that delay could cost many more lives.
Myanmar's military government can offer little defense for its behavior beyond lust for control and paranoia over outside influence or political sabotage. "The narrative is that the military created the nation, protects the nation, and will save the nation without ex-pats coming in to do it," Costello explained, his voice tensing with frustration. "It would be incredibly helpful if we could get ex-pats in because of their expertise in water and sanitation systems, but we just cannot get them in.
"Most countries understand we are not out to breech national sovereignty and only want to do for you what you can't do for yourself. The junta simply doesn't understand that humanitarian idea. They won't trust us."
World Vision is hardly alone in such difficulties. Other private aid groups with large established relief centers already in the country, such as Save the Children, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders, face similar government restrictions in getting supplies and workers into remote areas.
Those agencies without native staffers have little chance of shipping in the personnel they need. Samaritan's Purse acquired 11 visas from the Burmese embassy in Washington, but such reports of success are rare. Myanmar officially maintains that it will accept outside supplies but intends to block outside workers from entering the country.
In the storm's initial aftermath, the junta even rejected shipments of supplies from other governments. Some of those restrictions have since eased. The United States has pledged millions of dollars in aid and managed to negotiate its first shipment into the country 10 days after the cyclone hit. Dozens of other nations have made pledges and sent shipments, too. Trouble is, distribution of such government aid is left to the Burmese military, and some relief workers suspect not all of the supplies are reaching their intended targets.
In light of that reality, the United States has called on neighboring nations to use their influence in Myanmar to pressure the government into throwing open its doors. U.S. Navy officer Timothy Keating has applied pressure, too, meeting with Burmese officials to push for a new policy. Keating also wrote a note to the Burmese prime minister, assuring him that American relief workers would "leave no fingerprints."
The note promised that any approved aid effort would serve at the pleasure of the junta: "We will not use any Burmese fuel. We will not take any Burmese food or water. When the Marines and the Air Force personnel leave, the Burmese will not know we were there. We will be entirely self-sufficient. We can bring our own command and control. We will help, [and] the minute we are no longer desired or required, we will leave."
Despite the offer of such preconditions, Keating left Myanmar disappointed that he could not pry open the bear trap of a country. Barring an unforeseen change in the government's view, the best hope for many cyclone survivors may be the relatively large evangelical presence operating within Myanmar's borders.
K.P. Yohannan, president of the evangelical group Gospel for Asia (GFA), says Burmese Christians have a unique opportunity to provide disaster relief in areas the military government has sealed off from outsiders.
For 15 years, Yohannan's organization has operated a four-year Bible college in Yangon, training thousands of Burmese ministers to plant indigenous congregations. The resultant 400-church network is now proving invaluable. "We don't have outsiders. It's all Burmese pastors, missionaries, and believers," Yohannan told WORLD. "So the government officials gave our people permission to set up clinics in the church compounds."
Back in Yangon, GFA's Bible college is among the few structures left standing. The five-acre campus suffered severe damage, including the loss of one building's roof. But enough of the school remains to shelter several hundred displaced women, children, and elderly people.
Holding fast to their stated mission, GFA officials and students are ministering to grieving residents' emotional and spiritual needs as much as they are physical ones. That practice of continued gospel proclamation amid disaster has drawn sharp criticism in the past, most notably during GFA's involvement with tsunami relief to Indonesia in 2004.
But Yohannan will not apologize, contending that the hope offered in Jesus Christ is most needed in times of tragedy. He reports that many committed Buddhists in Yangon previously indifferent or even hostile to Christianity have looked to GFA workers to ask for prayer: "There is a sense of desperation and people are listening, because there is nothing left to do. Their fields are gone, their priests are gone, their chickens are dead, their families are in disarray, and their houses are destroyed. They desperately want to hear of hope."
Some historians and political analysts suggest that such longing for hope and change might spark protests of the military government's ineffective, even inhumane, response. But on the ground, political unrest plays a distant second to more immediate concerns. "People are very focused on survival," Costello explained. "The people expect nothing from government and don't look to government, so they're not angry or disappointed."
To the shock of many outside observers, the military government went ahead with plans for a national vote of confidence May 10. In all areas without significant physical impacts from the cyclone, voters pledged their support for the junta to the tune of 92 percent. The minority opposition considers the vote a farce full of cheating and fraud. But for a people living under military rule since 1962, when a coup ousted democratically elected leaders, victimization from cheating and fraud is nothing new. The additional hardship and suffering of a traumatic wind disaster appears wholly insufficient to inspire change.
For a list of relief agencies active in Myanmar go to worldmag.com/articles/14030
On May 12, disaster struck Asia for the second time in 10 days. With relief organizations and government aid already stretched in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake violently shook the ground of Sichuan Province in central China.
Initial reports woefully underestimated the devastation, which claimed the lives of almost 50,000 people, injured hundreds of thousands more, and left 4.8 million homeless. The tremor, which triggered several dozen major aftershocks and could lead to another high-powered quake in the coming weeks, was China's deadliest and most powerful geological catastrophe in more than three decades.
Any questions as to whether international responders could devote appropriate attention to the Chinese with so many Burmese still in need quickly dissipated. In fact, more money, workers, and supplies have poured into China than Myanmar, despite the smaller nation's head start. The reason: Chinese officials care more for their people.
"There's no comparison. In China, the government rushed in with their army and helicopters to rescue and help and feed and take care. And they've opened the door for the international community to come and help," said K.P. Yohannan of Gospel for Asia, which is responding to the crises in both countries. "This is the most natural thing for any responsible government to do."
China has not opened its doors indiscriminately to outsiders, but the difference between its response and that of the Burmese junta is stark. Some international relief agencies frustrated with roadblocks in Myanmar are diverting supplies and personnel to China. Samaritan's Purse recently transported six water purification units from Bangkok, Thailand, to Sichuan Province after Burmese officials refused to allow the much-needed aid inside the country.
Other organizations report that directed giving for the Chinese disaster has far outstripped that for Myanmar. Public perception may explain much of that disparity, with many donors concerned over whether their contributions might end up stocking the shelves of a Burmese military warehouse rather than reaching people in need. Spokesmen for several large relief agencies have assured WORLD that their organizational policies preclude even the possibility of such a scenario. All reputable charities insist on delivering aid directly to victims without use of military middlemen.
Nevertheless, media reports focused more on the obstacles to relief in Myanmar than the acute suffering of the country's people seem to have pushed private aid dollars to China. The lack of photographs and video footage from Myanmar likewise undersells the magnitude of the cyclone's destruction. By contrast, news agencies have far greater access in China, keeping the story alive in the minds of potential donors with regular pictures on the nightly news.
Franklin Graham, President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, was traveling through China when the quake hit. He commends the Chinese government for its swift humanitarian action: "After Katrina, it took our government almost a week before we fully responded to the victims. In China, the Chinese military and civil defense people mobilized within hours of this quake."
Graham, who spent his time in China speaking to pastors, seminary students, and churches, believes the progressively loosening political and religious climate in the country affords Chinese Christians an opportunity to demonstrate publicly a gospel response to suffering. "They've never had involvement in this kind of situation before, but they are eager," he told WORLD. "Every pastor I met with, they were burdened for their fellow countrymen. I think the church will play a big role in this."
In recent years, a dramatic spike of evangelical Christianity in China has overwhelmed government officials. While many house churches remain underground for fear of reprisal, sizable blocs of believers now also worship openly. The need for these public Christians to serve as ministers of mercy and hope is profound. "You have not only the physical needs of these people but also the spiritual and emotional needs," Graham said of the earthquake survivors. "Almost everyone has lost a relative, a family member. It may be a church member, it may be a communist official, but everybody has lost somebody."
In some of the worst hit urban areas, the stench of unrecovered human bodies emanates from the rubble. That combined with unstable housing and other public health concerns has prompted a mass exodus from Sichuan Province. Millions of displaced Chinese people are journeying by foot outside the range of the quaver's epicenter.
Such misery and pain promise to recast the upcoming summer Olympic Games in Beijing as a moment for national healing. That sympathetic aim could suck the life from groups or governments planning boycotts to protest China's human-rights violations.
Already, the calamity has dramatically altered the tone of news coming out of the communist nation. Worldwide energy to highlight the problems with the Chinese government appears largely subsumed in a global call for pity and even acclaim. Criticism and protests surrounding the Olympic torch run have waned, such negative foreign imports now replaced with close to a billion dollars of outside aid.