Taking risks to deliver relief in Myanmar

April 25, 2024 | News
Linda Espenshade, MCC |
Food parcels are prepared for distribution to internally displaced people in Myanmar. (The person in the photo is not named for their protection nor are they the person named Mr. Khong in the story.) MCC photo

Every day, when Mr. Khong awakens in Myanmar, he has two challenges: One, avoid being captured, conscripted or killed by the military junta that is struggling to hold onto its power to govern. Two, get food to people who have fled to remote mountainous areas of the country to avoid the reaches of the junta.

Khong, who asks that his real name not be used, recently described the insecurity and desperation he and many other people feel today in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. He spoke on Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) podcast “Relief, Development and Podcast” about the violence and hunger that have become pervasive in the years since the military took control in 2021.

“Whenever there is engagement between the military and civilian people, how the military treats the people is very violent,” says Khong, who works with one of MCC’s partner organizations. “You know, they will slash, they will punch, they will even kill. We have already experienced unlawful arrest. In this situation, everyone can be arrested and, acutally, the military can shoot anyone, anytime, even in the largest city. They don’t need justification. There’s no rule of law anymore.”

In February, after a string of defeats, the military reinstated national conscription for all men, ages 18-35, and women, ages 18-27. As a result, people are lining up for passports to leave the country, hiding in remote areas and slipping out of the country to avoid conscription. The military sometimes will use people who can’t fight to clear a field of land mines ahead of the troops, Khong said.

He says he is especially at risk because he does human rights and peacebuilding work and provides humanitarian assistance.

The military has outlawed distribution of humanitarian goods because they believe humanitarian workers are supporting the resistance, he says. Yet as a Christian and as a peacemaker, Khong feels he has no choice but to help people in need.

MCC supports the work of its partners, who provide essential food items, basic medical supplies, child education and income generation assistance. They also are using the education MCC has provided to work for peace and to teach peacebuilding at the grassroots levels.  

“The people of Myanmar cry out for peace,” says Charles Conklin, MCC representative for Myanmar and Cambodia, “but they often feel that their cries go unheard. MCC has been a witness to the suffering and hopes of the people of Myanmar — hearing their cry for peace, supporting them, and advocating for them.”

Khong says he learned through peace training that feeding people is one way to bring peace.

“Not just one people is getting hungry, the whole population, millions of people (are) getting hunger,” Khong says. People, including his mother and grandparents, have moved to remote areas to get away from air strikes and other violence, making a stable income unlikely. Farming is unsafe, too, because of land mines. People are in debt to each other to be able to pay for necessities.

By providing food, Khong says, recipients get a little relief from the ongoing physical and mental stress of war. Families who didn’t have enough rice for a week now have enough for a month. They can eat more than once a day. Although he doesn’t have statistics to prove it, he believes having food decreases domestic violence.

Food comes in the form of money, Khong says. Church leaders organize humanitarian support teams in each village. They use the electronic funds that MCC’s partner sends to buy food from a local market and distribute it. When no market is available, support teams distribute cash so displaced people can buy food from those who have it.

“We need to do humanitarian (distributions) very secretly. It’s very low profile, you know, telling no one,” Khong says. Yet, he and other pastors believe that “being riskless is not always the will of God.”

As of now, he says, the personal fulfillment he feels while doing meaningful work for his country, his community and the churches outweighs the risk.

“The donation from MCC has been a miracle to us. And it also inspires us,” he says. “We still believe in God, and we thank God that … we have our faith brothers and sisters like MCC … who are committed to this work.”

Conklin says he admires the commitment of MCC’s partners who put their lives on the line every day to provide sustenance, to care for people in need and to teach techniques on how to end cycles of trauma, violence and hatred.

“Our partners have been resisting the call to violence ever since the military coup in 2021, despite pressure from neighbors to take up arms against the junta,” says Conklin. “They have been preaching peace as the only viable path forward for their society.

“Now they, their families, and their communities are at risk of being drafted to fight on the other side of the conflict,” he says. “In response, they have asked us for resources on conscientious objection. We are once again humbled by their bravery and conviction, that even now they plan to stand up and say no to war despite the extreme personal risks.”

To hear more from Khong in his own words, listen to the April edition of “Relief, Development and Podcast” wherever you get your podcasts or visit mcc.org.

-Mennonite Central Committee release


Food parcels are prepared for distribution to internally displaced people in Myanmar. (The person in the photo is not named for their protection nor are they the person named Mr. Khong in the story.) MCC photo

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