National Catholic Register


Myanmar in Crisis

4 Months After Cyclone Nargis, Country Remains Ravaged



September 28-October 4, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/23/08 at 12:10 PM


SYDNEY, Australia — The people of Myanmar “feel that the world quickly forgot their plight,” said Jack de Groot, chief executive officer of Caritas Australia. “Cyclone Nargis was quickly displaced by the devastating Chinese earthquake.”

While the world looked elsewhere, devastated infrastructure and an insulated, militarized government mean that — even today — “an estimated 1 million people have yet to receive formal aid in Myanmar,” he added. “The lack of interest and attention has been devastating for a nation immensely troubled … even in the best of times.

“When poor communication, geographic isolation and fear combine with denial of access to the international community, and then take hold in people’s souls … it can only be assumed that life is appalling for the people of Burma [the former name of Myanmar],” he said. “As you can imagine, this only gets worse during humanitarian crises.”

The Register reported in May that Caritas was one of the few agencies on the ground in Myanmar following the cyclone, which left thousands dead.

De Groot recently visited Myanmar on a humanitarian mission. Caritas Australia has a 20-year history with the nation and has traditionally handled the lion’s share of local aid work there.

The fact-finding, follow-up mission was the first post-Nargis foray into the country for de Groot. Cyclone Nargis tore through southern Myanmar the night of May 2 with ripping, shredding winds topping 120 miles per hour. It crushed and flooded villages, farms and infrastructure with a mammoth tidal surge.

Before Nargis relented the next day, much of the fertile Irrawaddy delta was flooded and battered, and the nation’s capital, Yangon, was battered, broken and flattened.

It was a case of disaster piled upon disaster.

Prior to Nargis, there was already “ethnic conflict, systemic abuse of human rights and appalling levels of poverty,” de Groot said.

According to U.N. analysis, “an estimated 4 million people were impacted. It severely affected 2.4 million people. Many believe that well over 150,000 were killed. Such a crisis has a profound social and psychological effect on people. Many are traumatized.”

“Over 1 million people have yet to receive formal assistance,” de Groot said. “The reasons are many. Affected areas, particularly in the Irawaddy delta, are inaccessible at the best of times. Communication systems to remote communities are also very underdeveloped. The storm, tidal surges and rapid displacement of peoples only made this worse.”

Horrible as that is, “the situation is certainly worse for the thousands of people who have lost family and all their property and have no solution,” he said. “I heard one story about an additional 800 orphans piling into one church orphanage. There is so much to do, and too few resources to do it.”

Burmese Church Involved

There is light in the darkness, however.

“I was very struck by the words of many people I met, about the need to be ‘hope for the hopeless,’” de Groot said. “I visited Yangon for five days and stayed within the archdiocese. Access beyond the city is strictly controlled by the authorities and requires specific authorization.

“I visited with many friends within the Catholic Church; many are involved closely in the work of the Myanmar Disaster Relief Committee chaired by [Yangon] Archbishop [Charles Maung] Bo,” he said. “The committee is responding in the two dioceses of Pathein and Yangon.

“Some of the most impressive work done by the Church is done hand-in-hand, closely with the Buddhist monks and temples,” he said. “It gives witness to a fundamental care for humanity, rather than the promotion of one group over another. This interfaith work is at the very heart of building peace and trust in a very conflicted community and terribly fractured country. The people will not forget that their government did not love them when Nargis happened.”

In its defense, the government did some good things, de Groot said. After initial hemming, hawing, stalling, delays and obstructions, it allowed in international aid. Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — among others — were quick to come to the scene and continue to provide aid.

“Burmese authorities’ decision to remove people from camps to their homes was very difficult for those who lost loved ones, home and land,” de Groot said. “However, it prevented the serious outbreak of devastating communicable diseases. There has been little in the way of loss of life from cholera, dysentery, and the like, over the last few months. Thank God for this mercy.”

Waiting for the Government

In the days ahead, Caritas Australia will continue to work hand-in-hand with the Myanmar Disaster Relief Committee.

“That’s really our role,” de Groot said. “Caritas Australia is there on behalf of Caritas Internationalis — and the larger Church — as a facilitating partner. We will support the MDRC in its response.”

Previous Caritas Australia and Myanmar-partnered projects, he said, “have also supported the local Church in helping the poor, particularly minority communities. We have also supported initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS.

“Keep in mind that this isn’t only for those within the country, but also those on the border, like migrant family programs for the Karen tribe in Thailand, and HIV/AIDS awareness programs in India,” he said. For refugees living on the Thai border, “we provide food, mosquito nets, blankets and housing materials to more than 127,000 Mon, Karen, Karenni and Shan refugees in various settlements.”

At the same time, de Groot said, domestic projects include vocational skills training, rural credit projects, teacher training and curriculum development, legal assistance and social services, HIV/AIDS services, national structure capacity and potable water supply development and anti-trafficking endeavors.

Caritas Australia will continue to partner with Myanmar to the greatest extent of its abilities in the days, weeks and years ahead, de Groot said.

If only the government were a little more willing, he added. “The government? Where to start? The best thing that can happen now is for the authorities to allow greater openness to the outside world. We do what we can. But the government must respond to its people’s needs.”

Willy Thorn is based in

Milwaukee, Wisconsin.