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Burma: Post-cyclone perspective of an archbishop

In early May, devastating cyclone “Nargis” swept the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma. In response to the storm, Archbishop Charles Bo of Rangoon wrote the following letter, entitled “Compassion is the common religion in the post-Nargis Myanmar.” Citizens of the country use the junta’s preferred name “Myanmar” instead of Burma, and “Yangon” for the capital city of Rangoon.

As the waters raged in the predominantly Christian village, the [Buddhist] monks from the nearby monastery were on the noble mission of saving people. A monk swam across the current to pull out a woman who was about to be dragged under by the marauding river. In far-off Phyapon, where the Christian group Karuna was distributing aid to the survivors, they chose Buddhist monks as their partners in distributing aid to non-Christian villages.

All religious groups were made victims by the cyclone. All places of worship – monasteries, clergy houses and convents – bore the brunt of the deadly cyclone. Nargis, in its monstrous ferocity, tore through many of the famous places of worship of all religions. In Aima, in the Pathein Diocese, Fr. Andrew Soe Win offered his life as a supreme sacrifice in trying to reach his marooned people. His body was found after 18 days.

But nothing deterred them from the sacred duty of saving lives. In the predominately Buddhist country, where Metta and Karuna (mercy and compassion) are the major tenets of a great religion, compassion broke forth like a healing stream after the demonic deluge. Churches and Monasteries became refugee camps. With death and mayhem threatening them in their villages, thousands took refugee in sacred spaces, seeking coping and mutual consolation. Even before the government could move in, or the do-gooders and NGOs could move in, spontaneous charity sprang forth with Buddhists feeding Christians and Christians feeding Buddhists, etc. Nargis broke many things in an evil way. Goodness broke all parochial borders that fateful night when death danced arrogantly, wounding a nation.

In Bogalay the Hindu temple opened its portals to feed the multitude. In the ravished streets of Yangon, Muslim merchants were distributing food to the starving masses. More poignant was the response of many poor and lower middle class people. They collected whatever they had, and every weekend they treaded across in aid convoy to far off Labutta. Nargis stripped naked a nation with violence, but people of all faiths are clothing it now with compassion.

With other Christian communities, Catholics threw in everything into rescue – money, material and manpower. Many young men and women volunteered to go to the risky villages, strewn with dead bodies of people and animals. The first psycho-social assistance came from nuns who risked their lives by undertaking dangerous boat travel without life jackets, etc. They were the first ones to hold mothers who lost their children, carried orphans and consoled a grieving community with prayer and simple presence. Hundreds of seminarians were the first rescuers, clearing the villages of debris. All these are done under extreme restrictions. Through the national Caritas, assistance continues.

Compassion is the common religion in the post-disaster phase. In Myanmar people lived with various tags – religion, color and tribe. But now Nargis taught us all that human tears have no color, no religion and no tribe. 

Archbishop Charles Bo

Yangon

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