May 16, 2008 (DVB), A Mandalay abbot involved in aid efforts in Rangoon said the authorities have tried to prevent his group working with non-governmental organisations, and have said all aid must go through local officials.
In more than ten days since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, the military regime has still not provided effective assistance to cyclone victims.
Social services, celebrities from the Burmese film industry and monks have been helping people in the worst-affected areas by donating food and other supplies.
However, those who work on relief efforts have been told by the authorities not to cooperate with the monks and donors have been directed to channel their financial contributions through the division commander.
In an interview with DVB, the abbot from Mandalay's Maha Gandaryon monastery gave details of the current aid operation and urged the regime not to place any restriction on relief efforts.
Abbot: We have stockpiled aid (clothing, rice, noodle, sugar, etc.) in Rangoon already but we haven't started the distribution. We have heard about some difficulties with regard to aid distribution. Some people told us that we couldn't distribute supplies by ourselves but some said we could. So, we will see how it goes. We are now getting trucks to take aid to different places.
DVB: We have heard that any cash donations for cyclone survivors must be channelled through the division commander. How you are going to donate the cash you have collected?
Abbot: We will donate the cash to survivors ourselves. We don't have any plans to channel our donation through the division commander. As for relief supplies, local authorities will send them to our destinations without taking any charge. I think they will do so with permission from the division commander.
DVB: Do you think you may face restrictions when you go along with your plan?
Abbot: We are still in the preparation stages. We have contacted some private organizations and services, and found out that they were told by the authorities not to work with us in aid distribution. They said we can't go with them. We can only give them our supplies and they will distribute them for us but we don't want to do it that way. We want to go on the ground and give supplies to people in person. They said they dare not go with us.
DVB: So what are you going to do?
Abbot: We will try our best to distribute aid according to our plan.
DVB: Where will your main focus areas be for distributing aid to cyclone victims?
Abbot: We have started small-scale distribution today in Daydaye township. We sent five boxes of clothing, four big packs of noodle and one pack of water purification liquid for one village in Daydaye where half of the village was destroyed and about 30 people got killed. Monks took those supplies to the abbot in that village and the distribution was taken care by months. For us we don't know where we are going, still preparing for our trip. We may visit Maaupin township though.
DVB: Could you please tell me about the monks' involvements in the current relief efforts?
Abbot: We have heard that U Nyarneikthara and other monks have been in Bogalay working on aid distribution. Dr U Kawwita, U Kawthanhla (Dhammayanzaydi) and other months are also working on relief efforts. We were informed about the work of monks in Myingyan and Pakokkhu but we still don't know exactly what they are doing.
DVB: We have heard that famous abbots have not been permitted to offer Buddhist teachings in public since the aftermath of the September 2007 protests. Now you are organizing public gatherings to offer Buddhist teachings and collect donations for cyclone victims, although donations to needy people are supposed to be sent through the division commander. So what do you think of the fact that the authorities allow such gatherings at the moment?
Abbot: Well, we think those gatherings are allowed may be because they (authorities) think that monks are helping those who are in trouble as much they can. We have heard that some gatherings were organized by the arrangement of division commander but we don't know exactly about the proceedings. In most cases, we think monks collected donations as if they were going to give them to needy people themselves but we don't know if they might hand them over to the division commander later. We can't say anything about the government's permission on gatherings at the moment. Since we won't hand over any donation to government officials, we don't know if we will be allowed to organize public gatherings. It will be obvious why others were permitted to organize Buddhist gatherings when we actually organize our own.
DVB: Any news on Buddhist gatherings that are being held? Do you think the regime will stop them?
Abbot: We haven't heard any reports that the authorities will stop the gatherings. We think they can't bring themselves to ban the gatherings since no one is trying to relate the events to politics and neither are we. Our focus is simply on humanitarian efforts, trying to help needy people as much as we can. We think relief works shouldn't be restricted. So far, we haven't heard that people in temporary camps have been given international aid.
Yesterday, we visited Dala area and people there told us that they had received only a small amount of supplies, mostly coming from private donors and not from the government. They told us many stories they have encounterd. They told us how authorities have cheated on aid, how people are listed in the camp (authorities put the names of their relatives at the beginning of the list so whenever aid is distributed their relatives will be first and the rest will receive either smaller amounts or nothing.), and so on.
DVB: As you have heard that authorities are exploiting and selling aid that are meant for people in trouble, what do you think of that kind of act according to Buddhist teaching?
Abbot: This is something no one should do. It is inappropriate and very sinful to exploit the misfortunes of others.
DVB: Last September, the chief abbot of Bago's Kyakatwai monastery said that the way monks took to the street was against Buddhist rules and regulations. Now monks are on the streets clearing roads and trees devastated by the cyclone, and working on relief efforts. Do you think that is against Buddhist rules and regulations?Abbot: Monks are not supposed to cut trees or branches that are still alive but novices can. For example, the branches of the Banyan tree can grow even when the tree itself has been deracinated so monks cannot cut those branches. Of course monks can clear or carry away trees or branches that have already been cut down either by novices or monastery assistants, and this is not against the rules and regulations.
DVB: Anything else you want to say?
Abbot: We believe the monks' involvement in relief efforts can give some support to the current aid distribution carried out by the government and the international community. So the authorities shouldn't impose any restriction on monks and should allow them to carry on with their activities freely. We just don't distribute aid to people via the authorities but that doesn't mean that we won't cooperate with them. Of course, we will work with them in terms of getting the list of those who are in need and arranging for aid distribution. We will directly give aid to people in person, that's all.
The people's current troubles can only be alleviated if free access for relief efforts is granted, so we implore the government not to put any restrictions on relief work.
Reporting by Naw Say Phaw