Features

Help and hinderances

"Help and hinderances" Continued...

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

The local officers' attitude mirrored the government's resistance to foreign aid after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma with devastating effect in May 2008. When international condemnation forced them to relent, the rulers continued to restrict access to certain areas, and in many cases co-opted supplies and presented them to victims as gov­ernment aid. Little has changed since then, as the regime continues to prioritize its own grip on power above the welfare of its citizens.

Disappointed but not daunted, the team returned to Rangoon and set up at ACTS Children's Home, where they examined many of the 240 children housed and cared for there. The children's faces were smeared with thanaka, a yellowish cosmetic paste made from the ground bark of certain trees, said to provide protection from the sun and to promote smooth and healthy skin.

About 40 of the children were orphans, some of whom lost their parents in last year's deadly cyclone. Single mothers or indigent parents who could no longer support them had abandoned most of the others or brought them to the home. Some parents had been killed or incapacitated by drug use. While now a distant second to Afghanistan in global opium cultivation, Burma has recently become the largest producer of methamphetamines in Asia, and drug trafficking remains a primary income-generating activity for families in border areas. Late last month, tens of thousands of refugees fled into China from Kokang, a heavily ethnic Chinese enclave in the northeastern Shan State, driven out by violent clashes between government troops and the local militia. Kokang has been a lawless region, dominated by drug trafficking and gambling. The government's attempt to pacify the area is seen as preparation for next year's scheduled elections, the first in two decades.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi will sit out the elections under house arrest, having just been sentenced to an additional 18 months of detention due to the unauthorized visit of American John Yettaw, who swam across the lake to her home on May 5. Sentenced to seven years of hard labor for his crime, Yettaw was released and returned home thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and others. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 82 percent of the votes in the 1990 elections, but the military junta refused to relinquish power. Instead of becoming prime minister, she was placed under detention at her home, where she has been held captive for 14 of the past 19 years.

In June, the junta sentenced two supporters of Suu Kyi to 18 months in prison for leading prayers for her release at a Buddhist pagoda. The government actively promotes Buddhism over other religions, while monitoring all religious activities. Most Christian ministers try to keep a low profile, and avoid overt political activity.

Despite U.S. sanctions and State Department designation as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its religious restrictions, Burma will hold elections next year that few observers expect to bring significant change. A new constitution guarantees the military jurisdiction over key ministries, and the right to take power in times of crisis. Civilians in government positions are likely to remain under the thumb of the generals.

In the meantime, Burma's Christians take advantage of their limited freedoms, praying for the liberation of their country one life at a time.
-Russell Board is a writer living in Japan

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