Thoughts on Aid to the People of Burma

Posted May 16, 2008

The recent Solidarity front page on the cyclone in Southeast Asia (borrowed from International Viewpoint) is in line with my own reflections on the politics of aid in the wake of ‘natural’ disasters.

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina, like Jean and Georges in Haiti, the Tsunami, and the most recent earthquake in China get everyone’s attention. By putting a spotlight on parts of the world that sometimes seem distant to most in the US, they open a space for dialogue with friends and family on international issues and politics. The always insufficient relief efforts following disasters – whether they are “natural” or “manmade” – offer an opportunity to discuss the conflict between human need and the profit motive. As Marxists, these tragedies provide us a chance to educate ourselves, as revolutionaries, the occasions motivate us to demand a fundamental shift in social relationships, and as activists and humanists they call on us to organize material relief, even when modest.

After going through the social, political, and ecological devastation of Hurricane Katrina firsthand a few years back, water and wind disasters like the recent cyclone in Burma are more personal for me. My experience was that most material assistance for the people of New Orleans came from grassroots sources, with many offers of international assistance (such as offers from Cuba and Venezuela that were turned down.) I feel compelled to offer what material support I can for the people affected by the cyclone, but getting material aid to Burma is very difficult. Western relief agencies are very limited, and access is heavily restricted.

Belonging to an international revolutionary current sometimes provides some pointers in providing aid that will both help affected people, avoid corruption and raise the profile of political comrades in the area. For supporters of the Fourth International, when the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka, we could give to comrades in the Nava Saja Samana Party, Sri Lanka’s New Socialist Party. When the earthquake hit Pakistan, we could support the work of comrades in the Labor Party of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the activists who would have been our most likely fraternal comrades in Burma were brutally suppressed or killed off in the late 1940s and executed or exiled from China 1947-52.

Since I know very little about the current or historical situation in China, I will leave that to other comrades and speculate on Burma. The Communist Party of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and the remnants of the Democratic Party for New Society all have some interesting features – but none are fully supportable as political vehicles. I think it’s important to look at the recent social motion in the

In a “former life” I was a Theravada Buddhist monk, ordained at a Burmese monastery in Austin, TX. It might be difficult for some secular activists to think about giving to a religious or even a secular but monastic-led organization, but the Buddhist monks in Burma- as in Sri Lanka-are ubiquitous and represent different class viewpoints. Some sections of the Sangha have a long history of social struggle.

Buddhist monks will undoubtedly be on the front lines of relief efforts. But for those of you who wouldn’t feel right giving directly to a Buddhist temple, the following best group I’ve found funneling relief to front line workers- including leading “Saffron rebellion” leaders- is The Foundation for the People of Burma. (But don’t take my word for it, they are also recommended by New Orleans anarcho-eco-socialist professor John Clark!)


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