When Cyclone Nargis smashed into the rice-growing Irrawaddy Delta in the south of Burma on 3 May, Karen state bore the brunt of its destructive force, though four other regions have also been officially declared disaster zones by the country’s ruling military junta.
As we go to press, the extent of the destruction is still being assessed by humanitarian groups but the United Nations estimates that upwards of 100,000 may have been killed by the storm and its immediate aftermath.
But an even greater disaster is unfolding. Burma’s generals, deeply distrustful of the outside world, have refused to grant entry visas to foreign experts who specialise in getting aid to storm victims quickly. The government claimed it could meet the needs of the cyclone survivors and insisted that only their own (ill-equipped) officials and troops be allowed to distribute emergency supplies.
Aid agencies have been appalled at the hindrances placed in their path, and fear that aid supplies intended for victims may not reach them — or at least may not be distributed impartially. In the throes of this dilemma, their estimates of the extent of the disaster suggested that not thousands but millions could succumb to starvation and disease unless food, water and shelter were made available immediately.
Water-borne epidemics have already taken hold and medicines are scarce. Doctors, anxious to help, have been detained in airport terminals for lack of visas. Unless this situation is resolved rapidly, a second, more serious and essentially man made disaster could wipe out an entire generation of Burma’s most vulnerable people.
Ironically, plentiful aid was available on Burma’s borders, and planes were queuing up on runways all over the region waiting for permission to land in Burma. The world’s governments appeared confused about what to do. Unless Burma’s generals change their minds, the life-giving supplies may never reach those most in need.
The Karen and the gospel
But who are the Karen people who have borne the brunt of the disaster? When Adoniram Judson, the first Western missionary to what is now Burma, arrived among the Karen in 1813, he was astonished by the warmth of the welcome he received. The Karen already believed in one creator God named Y’we.
They had a legend that they had carelessly lost a ‘Golden Book’ which contained the truth about life, but that one day a young white brother would bring them the book again. Their folklore also spoke of a man and a woman living in a garden, and a snake who gave the woman forbidden fruit.
Some believe that the Karen could be one of the ‘lost tribes of Israel’ who had retained some knowledge of the Old Testament. More plausibly, the Karen may have encountered Christian missionaries from the Church in the East, perhaps in China, when migrating south from Mongolia in the early centuries AD. These missionaries would have been fair skinned Middle Easterners.
Whatever the origin of the Karen, these beliefs meant that many among them readily became Christians when the white missionaries brought them the gospel. The Karen are now, at least nominally, about 40% Christian.1
Unfortunately, the clique that rules Burma has a track record of brutal persecution of ethnic minorities, amongst whom are many Christians. The junta is nominally Buddhist and in the past has used harsh means to suppress those of different faiths. Their practices of forced labour and forced relocation of Christians and Muslims have resulted in many deaths. Indeed, some of the persecution focuses specifically on churches and Christian activities.
This may all sound hopeless and heartbreaking but, in fact, this very history of persecution could provide hope to some of the cyclone’s worst hit casualties and (despite the generals’ wishes) an open door for assistance.
Because of the troubles previously experienced by the Karen and other ethnic groups with Christian traditions, such as the Chin, some Christian missions like Barnabas Fund already have extensive contacts in the country and have been providing support for many years beyond the reach of the government.
Barnabas Fund’s aid for victims of the cyclone is being channelled through Christian organisations and churches to which the group has access ‘on the ground’ in Burma. This means that relief can be targeted where it is most needed and gives Christians throughout the world an opportunity to serve their neighbours and give help in the name of the Lord.
Aid is getting through
However, there is concern that donations might slow down because people fear that their gifts will be hijacked by government officials and never reach the intended destination.
By way of reassurance, therefore, Barnabas Fund has issued a statement reinforcing the urgency of the need and the integrity of their distribution channels. They write, ‘We have already sent a first grant and we would like to assure supporters that our partners are based in Burma and do not need to get visas to enter the country. They are already there’.
The Rangoon-based team is already sending out pairs of workers to different areas, with funds to purchase emergency relief. They report that the greatest needs at the moment are rice, drinking water, salt, medicine and blankets.
The cost of supplies and transport are hard to estimate because the crisis has already increased the price of food, petrol and other commodities by huge amounts. In due course it will be necessary to rebuild or repair houses (local estimates of the cost is about £50 per household).2
Could disaster renew the church?
The Burmese government’s long history of persecuting Christians, especially through deliberate homelessness and starvation, has already left the people weakened and impoverished. This disaster compounds the problem. However, while the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is at present desperately worrying, it may yet be that some good will flow from it for Christ’s people in that troubled land.
As we pray for Burma, and particularly the persecuted church, let us remember that the Lord uses all the circumstances of life to accomplish his purpose. Who knows but that out of this catastrophe the church of Jesus Christ in Burma might rise renewed and strengthened — through the grace of God and the widespread support of fellow-believers?
And perhaps, amongst those who have survived, there will be some whose preservation enables them to receive the support of local Christian believers, to benefit from the demonstration of Christ’s love from the wider church, and thereby to learn something of the grace that saves to the uttermost those who come to God by him.
1. Patrick Sookhdeo see http://www.barnabasfund.org/pdfdocs/Christians_in_Burma.pdf
2. Readers wishing to contribute can go to https://secure.barnabasfund.org/