When It Takes a Cyclone to Awaken Conscience

What is more mystifying – the things that occupy our attention or the things that should occupy our attention?

On May 3rd, while Kentuckians invited the world to toast mint juleps, place bets, and cheer on horses running around a circle – half a globe away – the devastating aftermath from another cyclone was just beginning to emerge. The next morning, while polite Sunday school discussions were rightfully aghast at the untimely death of one talented thoroughbred, another far greater tragedy was unfolding.

Tuesday, we learned the numbers. Hitting the delta region of Burma in Southeast Asia, cyclone Nargis claimed 22,000 lives, with an additional 41,000 missing and perhaps as many as one million homeless. These staggering numbers are painfully reminiscent of December 26, 2004 when an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a series of devastating tsunamis, killing more than 225,000 in 11 countries.

But the situation in Burma (Myanmar) is more complicated. The country, under the control of rival military dictatorships since World War II, has traditionally resisted outside influence and cooperation. They are refusing help from the U.S. and most other countries and are not granting visas to aid volunteers.

The most likely reason is that they have something to hide. Some may recall last year when thousands of Buddhist priests and supporters took to the streets to protest dramatic and sudden increases in fuel costs leading to higher costs for staples such as rice and cooking oil. The clergy’s unified and courageous demonstration of solidarity with the plight of the poor was amazing, but seemed just a blip in the world’s ever-shortening attention span.

Obviously, more concern was needed. According to the Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2008 for Burma, this country has not only failed to provide the basic needs of its citizens, but in outlying areas – where you find greater ethnic diversity – abuses include: “forced labor, summary executions, sexual violence against women and girls, land confiscations, and the use of land mines to disrupt civilian food production.” These violations are maintained by a twiddling core of military personnel, leaving the government desperate to coerce, threaten and use physical force to recruit children as young as 10 years old to do their bidding for them.

In an eerie pairing of events, this Saturday, May 10, was to be a referendum on a new constitution for the people of Burma that the Human Rights News has called a “sham.” Like many political strategies, it was meant to appease but not substantively address the problems directed at the country.

Now – in the stillness that follows a storm – a desperate and horrific situation might provide some pressure for an authentic expression of humanity and an equally courageous determination to help “the least of these.” That is, before we all get interested in something else.

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