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Bay Area Burmese find ways to help cyclone-ravaged homeland

by Matt O'Brien, Bay Area News Group, Thursday, May 8, 2008

OAKLAND (California) In the late 1990s, Kyaw Zaw was one of the most trusted young employees at Nan Yang restaurant in Rockridge, dutifully busing tables because he wanted to experience life in the United States.

This week, said Philip Chu, founding owner of the popular Burmese restaurant on College Avenue, his former employee is plowing through the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta in hopes of saving lives.

"In fact, he just called this morning and said, 'We've got a boat, and are going to all the villages that are not accessible anymore,' " said Chu, a former political prisoner who fled Burma, now known as Myanmar, with his wife and children in 1969. "We are going to work directly with the people. Not the government or anything like that. Too much red tape."

As they heard reports alleging that Myanmar officials have hampered international relief efforts, many in the Bay Area's substantial community of Myanmar emigrants struggled to find ways of helping family members and others in their homeland.

When the cyclone struck Yangon, the country's biggest city and former capital, about 5 a.m. Saturday, it was 3:30 p.m. Friday in California.

Nandi Kyawmin of San Jose was unable to reach family members until 3 a.m. Wednesday, four days after the cyclone hit. The good news was that her parents were safe.

The bad news was that the roof of her grandparents' house had blown off, water and critical supplies were lacking and the whereabouts of family members in the southwestern Irrawaddy region, where she grew up, remained unknown.

"My mom is kind of worried sick," said Kyawmin, 29, who works at a San Jose hotel. "Most of my relatives live there, but we couldn't get in touch with them at all. Right now there's no transportation, and it's so dangerous to travel."

Kyawmin was one of many local Myanmar emigrants who planned to gather Wednesday night at the Mettananda Vihara Buddhist monastery in Fremont in hopes of sharing strategies for mobilizing disaster support.

Many this week turned their frustrations against the authoritarian government of Myanmar for politicizing the crisis.

"The government over there is not letting (aid workers) in, which I think is very selfish of them," said Myet Ohn, who works at an Oakland engineering firm and serves as secretary of the nonprofit Burmese American Women's Alliance. "We are sad for the people and frustrated by the action the government is taking."

Ohn, 25, moved to the Bay Area with her parents when they obtained political asylum here seven years ago.

Despite many deep-seated political differences with government authorities back home, local groups have tried to take advantage of their longtime connections to Myanmar institutions to help with relief efforts.

On Wednesday, the Foundation for the People of Burma, a nonprofit group founded in San Francisco in 1999, announced it was launching a new funding drive for disaster relief, joining other local, national and international organizations that are doing the same.

Beth Jones, program director for the fund, said the organization already has a network of about 35 staff and many more volunteers on the ground. Those workers are providing food, water sanitation supplies and filters, particularly in some of the slums that house migrant laborers in the outskirts of Yangon.

Jones said that one Myanmar staff member already called Wednesday about what she said was harassment from local authorities.

Jones said a military official "emerged from inside a building and told her, No. 1, don't take any pictures. No. 2, she's not allowed to deliver aid to those families without going to the district authorities."

Jones said the workers planned to head to the same family later that night to provide needed supplies.

Chu, the Nan Yang owner, said he is also hoping to send money and supplies to people he already knows, although he added that government officials agreed to lend Zaw, his former employee, a rice boat to help distribute supplies.

source: http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_9193593?nclick_check=1

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