Our team at Partners Relief & Development just released a video featuring one of our projects in Kachin State, Northern Burma. Love Your Neighbor tells a sweet story that illustrates the simple power of the golden rule.
My journal is haunting me. I peel back the formerly rain soaked pages of 2013 and stories crawl off the page and smash my soul with a steely right hook. The interviews that rumble with life and push at the binding, demanding to be read and considered, are those I wrote down in Sittwe, West Burma, last May.
They are a catalog of human injustice and misery. Kyaw Hlaing said,“They killed my father”, Aung Win grieved out loud when he said, “they arrested our 16 year old son, took him away”. Another grieving man said, “they raped my wife”, and others went on reflecting that “we are the lucky ones who survived”, and “we have no hope.”
The interviews were done inside of a detainment camp where 140,000 men, women, and children are forced to eke out survival with almost no help from international aid agencies who are prevented from assistance by the government who calls these 1000 year residents of Burma, “illegal immigrants.”
Our team at Partners Relief & Development ran a clinic for 6 months and crisis management/relief work for a year and a half in that particular camp. Most of the people we helped had their homes burned down, possessions taken from them, and were on the receiving end of every sort of violence, as police and soldiers stirred up ethnic prejudice between them and the majority ethnic people, and turned it into a riot that resulted in hundreds of brutal deaths and the destruction of 5000 houses. Each day our team treated hundreds of suffering children. In many cases the intervention saved lives; in others, our help was physically futile. Children died waiting in line or died while getting treatment from one of our many brave volunteer doctors. Crying with the survivors was all we could do at that point.
Things have gotten worse. The 140,000 people we have concentrated on are still in the same camp, surrounded by barbed wire, with little outside support. Doctors Without Borders was thrown out of Rakhine State three weeks ago, removing what little medical help was available to the victims of terrible violence. The reason? They told the world community that they treated survivors of a massacre that happened in West Burma the preceding week. In other words, the massacre that the government denies having occurred, Doctors Without Borders confirmed.
I received this on Sunday, March 16 from a friend: “I’m getting desperate messages from a dear Rohingya friend whose village is burning down this morning. At the moment his house is still standing but many others are gone. Not sure how many yet. He’s saying 1000 homeless, crying, no food or anything. Another quarter of the village burnt down there a few days ago (that was 130 homes).”
We are still trying to find ways to help them, but being prevented by the same state initiated violence that has killed and displaced thousands of Rohingya villagers in the first place. In fact, the proof of State level collaboration is so compelling, that Fortify Rights International released a report with leaked documents and changed laws by the government to marginalize and strip the Rohingya of their basic rights. Now they are killing them.
Ask yourself: who do you turn to when the police force and army are the ones inciting the riots and in many cases doing the killing? Who tells your story when so much of the media and access to it depends on the power of the perpetrators?
There are millions of people who suffer terrible injustice at the hands of their own government in Burma today. I feel it is my duty and privilege to “do for them as I would have them do for me” and to do more than talk about God’s love, but show it “in action and deed” (1 JN 3:17-18) My journal haunts me, but the one I call Lord convicts and motivates me with a standard of love that cannot stay indifferent to the injustice that is happening to these people.
There are four things we can all do now.
- We have a very generous supporter who has agreed to match every dollar given towards emergency relief this month. That means if you donate ten dollars to help the children in conflict, it is matched and becomes $20. Please join me and give if you are able.
- Pray for Burma.
- Join our team and become a Partners advocate in your city. Click here for details.
- Stand up for the children of Burma by writing your senator and participating in the US Campiagn for Burma’s advocacy efforts.
Our team is working with new networks of people to creatively access the survivors. Thanks for joining us as we seek the freedom and fullness that is ours for the children of Burma.
In Bloomberg Businessweek today, it is reported that Burma’s opium production has increased this year by 26%. They say that the reason for the increase is desperation among poor people. UNODC’s Myanmar Country Manager Jason Eligh is quoted saying, “Opium farmers are not bad people, they are poor people. Money made from poppy cultivation is an essential part of family income.”
Roughly 192,000 households in Myanmar now work in opium production. “Villagers threatened with food insecurity and poverty need sustainable economic alternatives,” says Eligh, “or they will continue, out of desperation, to grow opium as a cash crop.”
Another reason the articles on my RSS feed this morning give for the rise in production is a rise in demand. They credit “organized crime” for being the culprits who both represent demand and supply the illicit poppie mash by purchasing it for 500 dollars per dry kilogram – a huge incentive to people who can’t keep food on the dinner table, send their children to school, and have lost their possibility to provide for themselves.
Question: who is “organized crime?”
If you answered the Burma Army or the regime itself, you are a smart cookie. Here’s how it goes:
The Burma Army has a policy of self-sufficiency. Each General has to “live off the land.” In Burma that means live off the produce and on the muscle of villagers and tribal people. And the compensation the villagers get for this exchange is their homes burned down, churches desecrated, and their men forced to porter for the regime; they carry their own produce to fortified compounds for the thieves (I mean soldiers) to consume it. Then they kill you after they make you watch them take turns on your wife.
This is life under the black boots; life where the police and military are the criminals and control everything including the judicial system.
There is no private property in Burma. So the farmers who have worked the land for the last thousand years actually only “own” their land based on community arrangement. The central government, so called elected officials, have absolute legal control of the land and the contents of it.
When an energy company eyes a particular river that has not been developed for hydro generation in Kachin or Shan state and offer the “government” to buy this land and develop it, chipping in a few percent of produced electricity to power homes in Burma, they sell it, leaving the villagers in a lurch.
Then they force the people who live there to relocate to a place they have prepared for them. How nice of them, right? Wrong. Many of the villagers see no alternative but to accept the relocation “offer” the soldiers have made. And guess what industry often awaits them at the relocation site? You got it: opium.
Or golf. Yes, you can also be relocated to Shan State to construct a golf course for the criminals (Generals and parliamentarians) who run the opium trade.
It takes decades to cultivate land for rice farming, because it’s all done by hand. Irrigation canals need to be carved out of rocky terrain with primitive tools to draw water from one valley to another. Fertile valleys able to support the growth of hungry communities are where they lived for generations. What I have seen and heard is that relocation sites have neither the water to restart life, nor the good soil needed to sustain it.
The ones who wait it out often relocate after construction has already begun, because of abuse, and the glaring fact that they are standing against an unbeatable foe. Those who hold out until the very end retreat only as the water rises, flooding their precious farms forever.
With gold, tin, jade, and molybdenum: same story. Oil and natural gas: ditto. Poor you who were born where natural resources lay waiting to be gathered, and where your rights as a human being were never recognized.
Another report I received from the Trans National Institute describes the “reform” process in Burma in terms you may appreciate:
“…after over 30 months of the Thein Sein government, political transition continues to be military-dominated and top-down, with essentially the same ruling elite in political and economic authority as under the former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime. Hopes remain that, through political negotiation, democratic reforms will be achieved which lead to just and inclusive solutions. But as the countdown to the 2015 general election begins, concerns are growing that essential reforms will not be delivered.”
My terms are less sophisticated: lies, continued violence, and cunning deception. Thein Sein is a war criminal and his government are using foreign direct investment and development (charity and diplomatic) funds to kill children in Burma. The entire platform of hope is built on broken promises.
How many people have to suffer and die before the promises start coming to pass?
While the diplomatic community twirl that question through the noodles of bureaucracy, Partners Relief & Development will keep starting schools, development projects, clinics, and feeding the masses of displaced people who lack shelter, rice to eat, and sanitation. We will do this because we were asked to by Jesus who himself offered these words as his manifesto:“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18)
I am so lucky because I am the mother of three beautiful and healthy girls. They are not little girls anymore, but young ladies. This fills me with both pride and a sting of sadness too. The years have passed so quickly and the dress-up parties, the barbies, and the feeding of baby dolls are things of the past. I miss it already. Of course, there is a certain enjoyment in sitting on the coach together with them as they are playing with their iPhones too. It’s just a little, shall we say, different.
I have never thought of selling my daughters into prostitution. Not once. Not even when I have been mad at them. Not even when we have been short of money. I can, in all honesty, say that I have never ever been tempted to sell my girls.
Yesterday I read an article that stayed with…
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When Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the civil rights movement, things in the USA, especially in the South, got very tense. Many church leaders in the South, largely white middle class and intelligent people, were advising him to bide his time and wait for justice to come instead of making people uncomfortable and endangering lives by sit ins, peaceful protest, marches for peace, and civil disobedience. His actions were carefully crafted to display to the whole world just how unjust the laws and culture of segregation was. Here’s how he answered the pleas to wait:
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
When he was put in jail for 6 days in Birmingham Alabama, for inciting civil unrest, he wrote a letter to the clergy and to those who were supposedly on the side of justice but wanting to preserve the so called peace. When I read his sharp and well-reasoned words, the similarities of his struggle and that of the ethnic minorities in Burma struck me again. Especially now as things appear to be getting better, when in fact things have never been worse for so many (millions of) people in the ethnic states. Just take a look at how the Kachin, Rohigya, Karen, and Chin are doing while the Generals and officials of the Thein Sein regime swim in an influx of direct foreign investment.
When I, or members of my team help the victims of violence and oppression, we have to break “laws.” We have to
cross borders illegally and help people that the world’s hegemony of power say don’t even exist. To that challenge, King Jr.’s logic was motivating for me too:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
My wife and two staff members were detained and interrogated for a day in a neighboring country to Burma, then asked to leave the country and followed until they got on a plane bound for Thailand. Their crime: visiting and helping refugees whose villages had been recently destroyed. So again, returning to my question from yesterday: are we supposed to “keep quiet” about this stuff like we are being told by some of our peers and so many of the major powers at work in Burma today?
“On 2 September 2013, 200 Burma Army soldiers arrived at Nhka Ga village, forcing KIA troops stationed there to decamp. Mr. Lahkyeng Hkaw Tup and Yung Hka Hkyen, both from Nhka Ga village, were tortured and killed by Burma Army troops from IB 137. Reverend Ram Me and 10 villagers were arrested and tortured after being questioned by Burma Army troops. John Seng Awng, son of Nhka Ga Village, was tied up and badly tortured. Burma Army soldiers raped his wife, 29-year-old Nhtung Hkai Nang Htu, right in front of him. They have one child.” FBR
John Seng Awng and his wife matter. They matter enough to sacrifice some of my comfort and freedom so they might have some too. No member of the human family should have to suffer like that, especially under an approved world power that the west does business with as Burma is today. These people need help. We will give them that. They want their stories told and justice to prevail, we will speak for them. Please, I beg you to join us.
At the risk of making this into an epistle, I’ll quote one more piercing work of reason that King Jr. included in his missive.
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
So I close another blog episode with a deeper than ever determination to find creative ways to be a true “neighbor” to the people of Burma; to feed the hungry people who are so due to systemic oppression and violence, and to tell their story with as much passion and clarity as I can.
“How long will you hand down unjust decisions
by favoring the wicked?
“Give justice to the poor and the orphan;
uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute.
Rescue the poor and helpless;
deliver them from the grasp of evil people.
Academics and diplomats are largely in agreement: they generally say, now is the time to stop criticizing the Regime in Burma; now is the time to focus on the positive steps that have been made and draw a patient breath, believing that a better future stands up to greet the children of current victims of oppression and violence. They promise that at the rate of change we are witnessing, Burma will be the world’s newest democracy in no time.
The business sector points out that we must let “positive economic engagement” work it’s course. It seems we are supposed to reward the regime for change that has been promised and call them peacemakers when they award energy companies and telecom giants access to the “last economic frontier” of 55 million untapped consumers. Positive economic engagement works eventually, they say.
I am expected to ignore the Shan people who have had the land of their forefathers sold out from under them, creating such desperation to keep food on the table that they resort to selling their thirteen year old daughters to the brothels. Read about it here.
Partners Relief & Development is asked to leave the Kachin displaced people alone and stop helping them. We are told that by feeding and helping them as we do, we enable them to stay in camps of displacement, extending the conflict and creating diplomatic tension and drawing out the time needed to gain new freedoms. Where are they supposed to go anyhow? Don’t our critics know that their villages were burned down? Not in 2012 or even 6 months ago. I’m talking about last week and every week leading up to it in 2013. Whole village tracts attacked, destroyed, and now occupied by Burma Army soldiers who eat their crops, kill their animals, and steal their possessions. Oh, and of course, rape their daughters.
I am expected to keep quite the rapes that happened last week; a 15 year old child, gang raped by Burma Army soldiers and a mother. Read the report here. Then keep quiet the fact that the Burma Army is shooting at Karen villagers three days ago in Tha Dah Der during a so called “cease fire.” The torture, the weekly attacks on civilian populations, the burning down of churches and mosques, the ethnic violence that appears to be State initiated in many of the ethnic States, especially against the Rohingya in Rakhine State; these appear as non-issues at the table of diplomacy.
Every single day, people are dying in Burma because of injustice. This is not the sort of thing to wait for the “professionals” to negotiate away and believe it will go away. That logic would never work with me if my family were on the victim end of the violence, nor yours. We don’t wait until a better day dawns to live the golden rule. We do it now.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
Justice requires that the abuse, murder, and lawlessness that persist in Burma today be called out for what it is. It is a moral outrage. To keep silent, while knowing what is happening, is tacit approval of means that will never accomplish ends appropriate to a moral human being.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
This diplomatic logic, these sophisticated and articulate ways of describing steps towards democracy: I can’t stomach it. Each child that dies in Burma because of injustice is as much a travesty of justice as if it were my own daughter. Don’t tell me to keep quiet. Call me naïve, but our team will keep helping the people the regime is trying to kill. We will keep speaking for those victims of conflict and oppression who don’t have a platform or voice to speak for themselves.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God
Note, In my original post, I miss-quoted the original report to say that two 15 year olds were raped when it was actaully a 15 year old and 29 year old mother. I apologize. I’ll be more careful with such important facts.
What does hope look like? I know, it’s a thought, a faith element, a gut level emotion; an expectation. Hope is the expectation of better things to come. But if hope were embodied in a person, what would he or she look like?
I visited three populations of Kachin refugees who fled their villages in June 2011 because of Burma Army attacks. Two people I met answered my question.
I met a little girl. She had a bright smile, an open and inquiring face. She was self-confident and looked me in the eyes. She posed while I snapped the shutter on my camera numerous times, trying for the perfect exposure. I adjusted my f-stop. Her mom came over and saddled the child on her lap. I took more pictures. Both mother and daughter smiled so freely, so beautifully, that everything seemed sacred. I turned to my travel companion in awe and said “Brad, do you see that smile?” Brad was also captivated.
I asked the young mother how old her daughter was. With a shy smile she held her hand up between her child’s arm and gave the peace sign. “Two, she is two”, her fingers said.
This child; born in a war, her kin victimized by abuse and state sponsored violence, impoverished and held back, and in so many ways unable to reach out and take what she has the potential to achieve; this child is the face of hope.
Despite the war and all it’s trauma, she has the burning power of love alive in her. Despite the limitations she may run into, she herself is full of life, joy and tenacity. Is she too young to know better? Maybe.
I met an elderly woman. I said hello and she turned her ageless face into a grin and chuckled. I felt warmed by her grandmotherly expression, her big round eyes, and her laughter.
Her village was attacked at 330 am on June 9th, 2011 by a Burma Army battalion. She hid in the jungle until dawn, then trekked with 47 other families for three days to get where I met her on August 1st –under the shelter of a blue tarp drawn over bamboo poles that she and 140 other called home until they may one day return to their place in the mountains.
Having been through all this, she still smiles. She plays with the many toddlers running through the dirt alleys between tarp tents. She moves to comfort a brand new mother, a grieving teen, and has a kind word for the lady stirring stew beside the fire.
Hope has a face. It is young and it is old. It is the person who overcomes tremendous hardship with a soul that still sings and praises when the sun rises. In the young it may be untested, but it is pure and visible. In the old, having been tested to the core, it is one of the most rare and beautiful things to behold.
Our team (Partners Relief & Development) works hard to provide medical assistance and healthcare. We also help with food and shelter during periods of acute crisis. In addition to this life sustaining activity, we are engaged with the challenges their crisis creates for them internally.
While we endeavor to provide the essential needs the displaced people and refugees have, we are also occupied with the challenge of strengthening the fabric of their faith, their hope, their souls. That something extra that resides in the heart of humankind peeps out at us in the strangest of circumstances. For me, the place I have seen the most hope is in the place where there is least reason for it. Ironic isn’t it?
These two are hope. This child; this elderly woman, born into a war, their kin victimized by abuse and state sponsored violence, impoverished and held back, and in so many ways unable to reach out and take what they have the potential to achieve; this is the face of hope that cannot be crushed. Lord, grant me the sort of hope that thrives in the darkest places, in my darkest moments. Amen.