Myanmar: Cyclone-hit monasteries in need

News and Press Release
Originally published
AYEYARWADY DELTA, 20 November 2008 (IRIN) - Scores of monasteries in cyclone-affected Myanmar are in urgent need of repair almost seven months after the category four storm struck.

According to the social welfare department, 740 monasteries were destroyed and 3,235 monasteries were badly damaged when Cyclone Nargis made landfall on 2 and 3 May, leaving nearly 140,000 people dead or missing.

Monasteries play a pivotal role in Burmese society and frequently function as schools to thousands of underprivileged children.

According to the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report released by the Myanmar government, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN in July, there were 308 registered monastic schools serving more than 51,000 students in Yangon and Ayeyarwady Division in 2008.

In addition, monasteries often act a first line of defence during disasters. In the initial weeks after the cyclone, many monasteries served as shelters for the homeless, as well as a focal point for the distribution of food, clothing and other relief supplies.

Lack of cash

While the monasteries open their doors to laypeople for spiritual guidance, the monks look to the community for food and money.

But with most cyclone survivors struggling to provide for themselves, the monasteries are losing out.

"We're seeking adequate materials from our donors to rebuild a monastery, but don't know how long we have to stay in this makeshift hut," said Kawvida, pointing at the hut he shared with another monk along the roadside between Pyapon and Bogale townships in the Ayeyarwady delta.

Many of his fellow monks have moved to monasteries not damaged by the storm, placing added responsibility on his shoulders.

"The villagers would be discouraged spiritually if we didn't stay," said another monk in the village of Naungtawgyi in Pyapon Township.

The role of monks

Monks play an important role in rural Myanmar and are often credited with maintaining community resilience.

In some cases, they can prove more powerful than village chiefs and local authorities.

Private donors, who were instrumental in getting relief to affected communities when much of the area was restricted for international aid agencies, would often not trust the village chiefs to distribute their aid and called upon the monks instead.

This in turn added to the monasteries' importance, with survivors looking to the monks for basic relief supplies, including food, clothing and shelter.

"If there was no monastery in our town, I don't know where we should go for shelter," Kyaw Thein, 50, from Kunchangone town, Yangon division, told IRIN.

Even aid workers on the ground today cannot deny their unique role.

"As we try to set up disaster-resistant buildings, we should also help rebuild the monasteries," one aid worker, who asked not to be identified, told IRIN, adding: "We mustn't forget the important role the monasteries played in saving people."