Volunteers send aid through Burma's (Myanmar's) back door

They are channeling supplies across the Thai-Burmese border to existing underground networks spread across the disaster zone.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ready to leave: A train, surrounded by produce vendors waiting to board, waited to leave Rangoon last Sunday. Burma's junta has blocked many aid workers from leaving the city.
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When the call came, Samantha Finke was in South Dakota. Like other staffers for Sen. Hillary Clinton, she wondered what the future held as primary season finished up.

Five minutes later, she had an answer. Switch to Sen. Barack Obama? No, Ms. Finke elected to fly here June 11 to join a grassroots effort for cyclone relief and civil empowerment for Burma (Myanmar), run by the father of her friend who was calling to urge her to come.

For most volunteers hoping to help, Burma seems like a bust. Five weeks after cyclone Nargis killed 134,000 and uprooted 2.4 million, military rulers continue to keep foreign aid workers at arm's length.

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But not all roads to the disaster zone go through Rangoon, where relief groups are based. Aid is also trickling over Burma’s international borders, often via bases of activism against Burma's regime. It's a backdoor channel for aid groups unwilling or unable to go through the front. By tapping an existing underground network in Burma, they try to bypass official channels and put aid directly in the hands of the most needy.

"It was Thailand all the way. I never questioned it. If you know what's going on in Burma, I don't know how you could not do it," says Ms. Finke, one of several enthusiastic, young volunteers who have joined this underground aid effort.

Aid blocks at the front door

A few weeks after United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon won a promise from Burma's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, that the government would lift restrictions on foreign aid workers, the junta continues to impede their access.

Many have been restricted from entering Burma or, once inside, have been confined to working in Rangoon, which they need permits to leave.

In another possible hurdle, on Tuesday the government issued guidelines requiring relief workers to secure a large amount of paperwork and make repeated contacts with national and local government agencies and a committee called the Tripartite Core Group. The group includes representatives from the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member.

The government did, however, allow 250 experts from the Tripartite Core Group to enter the Irrawaddy Delta, where the cyclone hit, on Tuesday to conduct a 10-day assessment of needs. The UN currently estimates that, of the 2.4 million people affected, more than 1 million still need regular aid.

Humanitarian agencies that are trying to gain access for their own aid specialists say they need money to support their efforts, but fundraising has been a challenge: Private donations have lagged behind those given for earthquake relief in Sichuan, China, a shortfall that some blame on Burma's grudging attitude toward outside help and foreign media.

Mercy Corps has raised $5.4 million for its Sichuan quake appeal, compared to $1.7 million for Burma, says spokeswoman Susan Laarman.

The restrictions on movement that relief workers in Burma face has compounded the problem for fundraisers, as the issue of international access, and not the vital aid that does get through, usually dominates media coverage, says James East, a media officer for World Vision.

Bringing help through the back

Backdoor efforts include sending money to purchase local food and materials, says Tim Heinemann, who runs Worldwide Impact Now (www.worldwide-impact-now.org), the US-registered nonprofit that Finke is joining.

These supplies are then distributed by local networks in far-flung cyclone-hit villages in the Irrawaddy Delta that have received little international aid. About 100,000 villagers have been reached, he says.

As well as delivering humanitarian aid, many groups along the border also have a political goal: to expose human-rights abuses in Burma and keep the world's gaze on cyclone relief.

Steve Gumaer, the founder of Partners Relief & Development (www.partnersworld.org), a Christian-based charity that is working covertly in the disaster zone, says the military is extorting money from aid groups and forcing displaced villagers to farm on state land.

He says his group has raised $150,000 for its relief work and doesn't want to see it siphoned off by corrupt officials. Like Mr. Heinemann and other activists, he wants relief teams to double as human-rights monitors armed with video cameras. "We equip people to go in and help their kin and to document what's happening so we can get that out," he says.

This flurry of activity by groups straddling Burma's borders may run foul of neighboring governments, which have commercial and strategic ties with Burma's military rulers.

Activists say Thai authorities are putting pressure on Burmese dissidents generally to keep a low profile, though it's unclear if this is a policy shift, as such pressure isn't new.

'An eye to future political change'

Heinemann, a retired US Special Forces colonel, began working in Burma's border areas in 2004, running an ethnic leadership training program largely funded out of his own pocket.

When the cyclone hit, he began mobilizing to support cross-border relief efforts, knowing that international aid would be slow to arrive through formal channels.

As the urgency became clear, Heinemann felt overwhelmed. On May 9 he got a string of encouraging text messages from his daughter Malina in the US. "Ask the Creator and He will provide," she wrote in one. Within minutes he got a text from a friend confirming a large donation, enough to move his planning "from conceptual to operational," he says.

While Western relief organizations have sought to gain access by stressing their detachment from Burma's tangled politics, Heinemann takes a different tack. His long-term goals include supporting leadership development and conflict resolution among ethnic communities in Burma, with an eye to future political change. "Our position is uncompromising [with the regime]. To do what the other NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are not doing," he says.

Having got funding, Heinemann's next goal was adding Generation X manpower. "I called him and said what do you need?" recalls Malina Heinemann. "He said, 'I need a team of young people over here.' "

Ms. Heinemann, a theater costumier currently working on a Shakespeare festival in Westcliffe, Colo., began calling on her friends, including Finke. Several said they would quit their jobs and join Mr. Heinemann, or volunteer their time for fundraising and using new media for political advocacy with covert footage from Burma. Ms. Heinemman says she will fly to Thailand next month after her festival contract ends.

The timing was perfect for Finke, a native of Ellsworth, Kan., who gets to use her networking and organizational skills in a new field.

"I love a challenge. Hillary's campaign was a challenge, and this is an entirely different challenge," she says.

[Editor's note: The original text included details that could threaten the security of some of the parties involved.]

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