Just ten weeks ago I took you on a trip to Myanmar, that southeast Asia country formerly known as Burma. The cyclone they experienced last week has prompted me to say more. Media reports describe it as one of the world’s poorest countries.
We flew into the capital city, Yangon, formerly called Rangoon. Fortunately for me, I had travelling companions who had visited there. They led me through the confusion of an airport that resembled a third-world bus station. We made our way to the appropriate gate for our connecting flight through crowds of people waiting patiently with battered suitcases, sacks, and rope-tied, cardboard boxes. Familiar with African bus depots, I half expected to see pigs and chickens tucked under travellers arms, but that didn’t happen.
Our connecting flight took us to Mandalay, a name that rings of intrigue and adventure; I didn’t expect to see Bob Hope and Bing Crosby doing another Road movie, but I did get a surprise. Instead of another bus station, I entered a modern and beautiful airport terminal, but found it as empty and unused as the Yangon terminal was crowded. As we collected our luggage, I noticed two well-dressed men puffing away beneath a No Smoking sign.
Half joking, I said to a travelling companion, “Tell those idiots to butt out.”
His eyes grew big and his mouth gaped before he spoke, “They’re government officials. Do you want us kicked out of the country?”
We climbed into a taxi with the driver sitting on the right, but with traffic moving on the right side of the road. We sucked in our breath not knowing if the driver could see approaching traffic. Our journey took us through mountains, around hairpin turns, across rivers, and along the Burma road of WWII fame. We stopped at roadside shops where gaunt employees fuelled the car from jerry cans. Everywhere in the midst of privation we saw beautiful temples. The country looked back at us through eyes saddened by poverty and exploitation.
Reaching our destination, we met a remarkable man, Pastor C, who had left a successful business to establish orphanages, rescuing thousands of children from slavery or sexual exploitation. He used his engineering skills to turn sewage into fertilizer and bring fresh water down mountains to villages.
On the return trip we met Pastor D and his wife, who ran a similar orphanage near Yangon. Although in the path of last week’s cyclone, very little damage occurred to the home.
Within a day of the storm hitting, wiping out whole communities, and killing a possible 100,000 people, those two remarkable men, their wives, and a group of co-workers had swung into action, doing what their government wouldn’t do. They tracked down food supplies in areas not touched by the cyclone and got it to hungry people. They began arranging for temporary shelter. They sent out messages describing what help they needed. While the UN and other nations debated what to do and before the Myanmar military government would issue visas to aid workers those dedicated citizens had jumped into the gap. When outside help finally arrived, at least in some areas, it was able to hit the ground running.
Often as outsiders, we arrive in disaster areas too late, we don’t speak the language, can’t understand the culture and, as a result, do less than an ideal job. How much better if we can work with local heroes who already have the respect of the people. You can get funds directly to these dedicated Myanmar citizens through Partners International, Canada. Phone 1-800-883-7697.