Asian, apolitical NGOs get better access in Burma (Myanmar)
The Taiwanese Tzu Chi Foundation says it has sent 15 workers into Burma and won permission to set up a distribution center in Rangoon.
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The Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest NGO in the Chinese-speaking world and a rising player in global disaster relief, has sent 15 volunteers from neighboring countries to Burma to work with more than 100 local staff to distribute aid, says Her Rey-Sheng, a spokesman for the group and a full-time volunteer.Skip to next paragraph
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Tzu Chi also got permission this week to set up a distribution center at a Buddhist temple in Rangoon and work with monks there. It's planning a fund-raising drive for reconstruction projects.
Taiwanese relief organizations face some of the same logistical and political constraints in Burma as their Western counterparts. Mr. Shen, of IHSRT, says a shattered road network and a lack of air and sea transport means that most Taiwanese food aid is handed over to the military for distribution. That runs the risk of diversion to military stocks, something Burma's junta has been accused of doing.
Still, Taiwanese aid workers say their low-key, hands-off approach to countries like military-ruled Burma, which has been lambasted by Western countries, pays off in times of crisis. Even Burma's close political ties to Beijing, a fierce diplomatic rival of Taiwan, didn't appear to intrude.
In fact, Tzu Chi has even been able to win the trust of the Chinese government. In 1991, after flooding along the Yangtze River. Chinese authorities were suspicious of offers of help from Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty, while some Taiwanese attacked the group for aiding "the enemy."
Its volunteers eventually got permission to work there. This year, it became the first NGO with a foreign legal representative to be licensed in China.
Its bedrock belief, prescribed by Master Cheng Yen, the Buddhist nun who founded Tzu Chi in 1966, is that all charitable work should be grounded in gratitude to the needy to ensure selfless giving. "Every volunteer feels the same way. By going to help others, they feel blessed," says Mr. Her.
While Tzu Chi has 10 million members in more than 65 countries and annual donations of $300 million, homegrown Asian NGOs don't yet match the size of Western humanitarian organizations, and the idea of cross-border humanitarian work is relatively new.
"Chinese society for the last 5,000 years is about helping your family and village and clan members," says Mark O'Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist who has written a book about Tzu Chi. "The idea that you should help Indonesians or Sri Lankans – people with whom you have no relationship and can give you no benefit – didn't exist."
But the 2004 tsunami and other Asian disasters have spurred their growth in fast developing countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore. Young people talk eagerly of volunteering outside their own community, and philanthropy is booming as affluence spreads across the region.