Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Families wait for word from loved ones in Myanmar

Representative of the exile government, headquartered in Rockville, urges international pressure

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Members of the Burma-America Buddhist Association on Powder Mill Road in Silver Spring pray during a Sunday service at the temple.
Saw Myint landed in Myanmar for the start of a month-long vacation from his Silver Spring restaurant on May 1, one day before tropical cyclone Nargis hit the nation formerly known as Burma, leaving about 62,000 dead or missing, and Myint stranded.

Myint’s family members, who own the Mandalay Restaurant and Cafe, talked with him for a few minutes by satellite phone late May 4. He was safe, but phone service and electricity was out throughout the region.

‘‘Anyone who is Burmese is up to 3 or 4 a.m. watching updates, trying all night to call home,” said Myint’s son, Aung. ‘‘And all they hear are busy tones.”

Aung Myint said his brother and aunts and uncles who live in Myanmar were also safe. His father has since been able to get himself to Thailand, and is expected back home next week.

The biggest losses reported by family members were broken windows, flooded homes and blown-off rooftops. Aung Myint said it was harder for him to grasp how families were coping who still didn’t know whether their loved ones were dead or alive. At least 33,000 are still missing, according to published reports. The United Nations estimates the final death toll will be more than 100,000.

‘‘The aftermath’s going to be worse,” Aung Myint said.

U Bo Hla-Tint, a member of the country’s Parliament in Exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which has its headquarters in Rockville, urged international pressure on Myanmar’s government. Hla-Tint is a spokesman for the government, which was elected in 1990, but the results were not recognized by the military junta.

‘‘A lot of people were already aware that Burma is ruled by a military dictatorship, but now they are more angry because they are not doing anything,” he said Monday. ‘‘...If the international community shows their seriousness, they have to cooperate. That’s the mentality of the junta – they test the waters.”

He said there have been reports that the junta is collecting aid packages and selling some items.

‘‘We’re trying our best and praying for them,” Hla-Tint said of the exiled government’s efforts to aid the cyclone victims.

Rollin Van Bik, a pastor at Lai Baptist Church, which meets at First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg, said the congregation has raised about $1,200 to donate to relief efforts. He said last week that two of the church’s families have family in Rangoon. Their homes were destroyed.

Bik, who is Burmese and lives in Frederick, was formerly pastor at Chin Baptist Mission Church in Silver Spring.

Nay Lin, a volunteer at the Burma-America Buddhist Association in Silver Spring, said Tuesday his family in Myaung Mya, a town close to the area most devastated by the cyclone, told him that survivors have been flowing into the area, which is on a higher elevation than surrounding towns.

‘‘They’re now trying to organize people to try to help the others,” Lin said. ‘‘The government, they don’t care what’s happening.”

Lin said the association was working on calling the Burmese families in the community, sending letters, and praying with them. Ideally, any donations they collect would go directly to contacts they have in Myanmar, but a restrictive military government has made such endeavors difficult, Lin said. Even the most established relief agencies have had trouble gaining access to Myanmar.

Defence Lalawng, a leader of the Chin Committee of U.S.A. Inc. (D.C. Area), a group for the Chin people, immigrants and refugees of Myanmar, said most devastating was what the government was doing to cyclone survivors.

‘‘There is nothing we can do but pray,” said Lalawng, of Gaithersburg. Most Chin communities in the county are collecting donations to send to Myanmar, he said, or relief agencies that may have better access.

‘‘We pray that the government stops ignoring what’s happening,” he said.

Sarah Henshaw, the Asia program development officer for Silver Spring-based CHF International, said the organization found one staff member who had an existing Myanmar visa, and should have someone there assessing damage by the early part of next week.

The organization did not have any luck working through embassies surrounding Myanmar to get approval for entry visas into the country, Henshaw said. CHF’s focus is on providing shelter following natural disasters.

‘‘We responded to tsunamis, the earthquake in Pakistan. ... This is the first time we’ve had such challenges just getting into the country,” Henshaw said.

Mandalay is planning a fundraiser at 5 p.m. June 1 to raise money for disaster relief. Donations of $50 per person are requested for an all-you-can-eat buffet of Burmese food. For more information, visit http:⁄⁄

‘‘It bothers a lot of people here who want to help, and can’t,” Aung Myint said. ‘‘It’s sad that the government has been thinking of their own agenda before the people.”

- Staff writer Meghan Tierney contributed to this report