May 14, 2008

A brief student reading about the recent devastating cyclone is followed by suggestions for translating students' compassion into action.

"Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers," Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. This is a teachable moment for translating compassion into action on the catastrophe in Myanmar, which is outlined in the reading. 

Student Reading

"The Burmese are saying that they have never seen anything like this—ever," said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma).

On the night of May 2, Cyclone Nargis, driving winds of 120 mph, roared across the Bay of Bengal, which separates India from Myanmar. "More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself," said Maung Maung Swe, a government relief official. "The wave was up to twelve feet high, and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages. They did not have anywhere to flee."

The storm destroyed homes across the country's main rice-growing area in the fertile Irrawaddy Delta and in the capital, Yangon. It flooded nearly two thousand miles of farmland. A UN World Food spokesman said that as many as one million people may have lost their homes. Nobody knows how many tens of thousands are dead or injured. Up to 1.5 million may face starvation and disease. (New York Times, 5/9/2008)

A great many people are homeless, injured, without food and in desperate need of help they are not getting. The military dictatorship of Myanmar has allowed only limited amounts of relief supplies to enter the country. It has so far denied entry to the doctors and disaster experts that the United Nations and a number of other organizations can and want to supply.

It offers no reason. But the military, which controls Myanmar's largest newspapers and all broadcasting systems, routinely blocks foreign journalists from entering the country, censors all publications, and restricts the internet. Myanmar's military leaders want outsiders to know only what they choose to reveal, and they want to keep their own people ignorant about the outside world. They do not want to be upstaged by foreigners providing help they are unable to supply themselves. (Roby Alamapay, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, New York Times, 5/10/2008)

The United Nations, the United States, and other countries are working to convince the Myanmar authorities that outside experts are interested only in humanitarian aid, not in interfering politically.

"People are completely traumatized," said Souheile Reaichi, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Yangon. "A sailor told us his village had been completely destroyed.  People tell stories of spending the night of the cyclone hanging on to trees all night long, while watching their villages be destroyed."

Myanmar is a country of about 50 million people in South Asia. A military junta seized power in a 1982 coup, and their secretive and dictatorial rule has continued ever since. Last September Myanmar soldiers killed at least 31 and detained thousands during Buddhist monk demonstrations for greater freedom.

Reformer Aung San Suu Kyi led a successful 1990 election effort to replace this government. Her party won 80 percent of the vote, but the military rulers rejected the results. Instead, they have placed her under house arrest for 12 or the past 18 years. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The British newspaper The New Statesman reported that the roof of Suu Kyi's house was blown off during the cyclone. According to a neighbor, she is living in virtual darkness. The neighbor did not know whether she had been injured. (www.newstatesman.com).

These are a few of the basic facts about the dire situation in Myanmar. What can you do about it? Myanmar's rulers are accepting some aid. You can contribute personally. Your class can contribute collectively by soliciting contributions from family members, friends and neighbors and by raising money through fundraising activities such as yard sales and car washes.

Humanitarian organizations with staff already in Myanmar include:

UNICEF: www.unicefusa.org
Save the Children: www.savethechildren.org
CARE: www.care.org
Doctors Without Borders: www.doctorswithoutborders.org
International Rescue Committee: www.theirc.org
Mercy Corps: www.mercycorps.org


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading and how might they be answered?

2. What additional ideas do students have to help the desperate people of Myanmar?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org