Sabria S. Jawhar
IT’s not often that I devote an entire column to a single reader’s specific concern. But Paul Lin’s plea to do something for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta touched my heart and moved me.
Lin is the general manager for a construction company in Riyadh who keeps up his Islamic studies in his spare time. A Canadian, he doesn’t speak Arabic, so his efforts to encourage Saudis to send more aid to Myanmar have been less than successful.

I don’t know if anybody noticed, but although the devastation from the massive earthquake in China has taken more than 60,000 lives, the result of the cyclone that hit Myanmar has probably left twice that number dead. The Chinese government’s reaction to the crisis is remarkable and should be a lesson for all governments that quick response to natural disasters means saving more lives. I can’t think of a better example of the humaneness of the international cooperation and of the civilians who risked lives to save victims from the rubble or recover the dead.
The same can’t be said for the government in Myanmar. Their behavior in refusing aid from the international community is criminal. There is no other word for it.
But Lin points out that there have been breakthroughs in opening the doors to foreign aid in recent days, but apathy and neglect continue to take lives.
One problem is that little has been done to organize relief efforts in Saudi Arabia when the moment arrives that aid in the form of supplies and manpower will be permitted to enter Myanmar.
Lin wrote to me that he is “restricted from doing what I would normally do if I am in Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. I have approached so many people (Saudi friends) to do something. I asked to speak to the students at the
 Maktab Islamiah after our classes (before or after our Asr prayer) hoping that we could start a fund-raising campaign. I was told it was not permitted to organize such an activity. I have tried in vain to contact the Saudi Red Crescent.”
Remember the Saudi government’s speedy reaction to the 2004 tsunami disaster that claimed more than 350,000 lives? And the terrible 2005 Kashmir earthquake that left nearly 75,000 dead? Saudis and our neighbors rushed to organize fund-raising campaigns. Aid in the form of food and temporary shelter, along with manpower, was rushed to those areas. But curiously today, the desire to help the victims in Myanmar is virtually absent in comparison to our previous efforts. Certainly, the Myanmar government is partially responsible, yet there is nothing to prevent us from providing help through Myanmar’s Asian neighbors who are not only poised to provide the supplies but are collecting the goods and organizing the delivery as I
 write this now.
Despite the meanness of the Myanmar government, Saudi Arabia can announce what it intends to do and what needs to be done as the world awaits permission to enter their country. Let’s remember that natural disasters know no politics. It’s not a government issue. It’s not East versus West. It is not a time to strategize power between two governments. Earthquakes and cyclones make no distinction between rich and poor or government officials and farmers.
By extending aid, the people of Myanmar, especially the younger generation, will remember us with fondness and gratitude. That’s why it’s vital for NGOs to play a proactive role in securing help to the devastated country. Our aid will build bridges and create the foundation for a strong and lasting relationship. The children of Myanmar will grow up recognizing that Saudi Arabia is a country of compassion. That, perhaps, more than anything else, will create stability and peace.
If Saudis can find a way to help the victims of the China earthquake, then they can evince the same care and interest in dealing with the indifference and insensitivity of the Myanmar government. Myanmar is slowly coming around to international pressure, yet we seem to have forgotten their plight. Simply because the Myanmar government is apathetic to its own people doesn’t mean we walk away from our human responsibilities.

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