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.
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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.]