Leave no fingerprints

"Leave no fingerprints" Continued...

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

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.


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