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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Cyclone aftermath: In storm-devastated Pyapon, Burma (Myanmar), residents stand near their damaged homes. The government is allowing some Asian aid workers into the country.
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As the United Nations and Western aid agencies grapple with Burma's refusal to allow unfettered access to as many as 2.5 million cyclone victims, help is quietly arriving from Taiwan. Its lack of political stakes in Burma (Myanmar) and the vibrancy of its civil society have smoothed a path into Burma for its Buddhist charities.

"They trust us as a friendly group. They know we're going there to help, not to hurt. Friendship and trust is the only way," says Shen Xian-Long, secretary of International Headquarters Search and Rescue Taiwan (IHSRT), which joined the first Taiwanese aid mission to Burma.

With Burma refusing to allow in Western relief specialists and blocking non-Burmese staff from reaching the afflicted Irrawaddy Delta, any aid from Asian NGOs that gets through is much needed, say aid organizations in Burma.

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A UN official said Wednesday that Burma had agreed to issue visas to 160 relief workers from neighboring India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and China – but not other countries, underscoring the regime's deep suspicion of Western powers that have been pushing hardest for humanitarian access.

Residents in Rangoon, Burma's largest city and former capital, have also been trying to organize their own deliveries along with Buddhist monks and entrepreneurs, amid frustration over the lackluster Burmese military response.

Such small-scale initiatives aren't a substitute for the specialist international staff and equipment that Burma needs desperately to mount a credible relief operation, says Tim Costello, the head of World Vision Australia. "They don't have the capacity, the helicopters, or the planes, and they don't have sufficient technical expertise," he says.

World Vision has more than 500 mostly local staff in Burma, but Mr. Costello says he and other foreigners have been ordered not to leave Rangoon.

Yet as Western relief workers waited anxiously in Rangoon and outside Burma, a team of Taiwanese aid workers arrived in Rangoon to deliver emergency food and discuss further assistance with Burmese authorities. Headed by a Burmese-born Taiwanese monk whose foundation runs charities in Burma, the group carried in nine tons of aid, among the first such deliveries. A second three-ton airlift is due Friday.

Mercy Malaysia, which was active in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, says it also sent relief workers and supplies into Burma within a week of the cyclone.

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.

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.

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