KYAKUNI, Myanmar — A three-day Baptist meeting in eastern
Myanmar turned fatal March 24 when an earthquake struck near the Laos and
Thailand border. Twenty-three people were killed and 50 others injured when a
Baptist church building in Kyakuni, Myanmar, collapsed.
Yet, in the midst of their grief and distress, Myanmar Baptists — with some
assistance from Southern Baptists — are looking past their own troubles to help
The Baptists were in the middle of a worship service when the ground began to
shake violently. Screaming, church members scrambled outside as the building
cracked and came crashing down. One worshipper said it looked as if the “earth
swallowed the buildings.”
The 6.8-magnitude quake was felt as far away as Bangkok and in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The town of Tachileik and surrounding villages in Shan state bore the brunt of
the damage and fatalities.
Official counts list 74 dead. There are fears the death toll could be much
higher, once reports are received from remote areas. An estimated 3,152 people
are homeless. Nearly 90 villages have been moderately or severely damaged,
encompassing more than 18,000 people.
The village where the Baptist church was located was destroyed. Not one
building or structure was left standing. Government officials told survivors
that they will not rebuild this village. Some have moved to neighboring
communities. The majority, however, moved a short distance into the jungle,
using tents as their new homes.
Information about the true scale of the disaster has been slow to emerge given
the region’s mountainous terrain, linguistic barriers and security concerns.
Communication systems and infrastructure are also poor in this area.
Officials in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, are not allowing foreign
relief workers into the affected areas. However, Myanmar Baptists are
responding by taking collections in their churches and distributing simple supplies
such as: noodles; plastic sheeting for temporary tents; sleeping mats; cooking
“From what we hear, the Lahu villages are the worst hit,” a Baptist worker on
the Thai border said. “Myanmar Baptists are using their own funds to try to
help — at least with this initial response.”
One of the greatest needs the local assessment team found was for safe drinking
water. When the quake hit, sand spewed up and the water level rose, resulting
in a sulfur smell and taste. Baptists are trucking in 20-liter bottles of water
across the border from Thailand.
Pastors are then loading the big bottles onto
the backs of their motorcycles and driving through muddy, near impassable roads
to deliver the water to remote villages in need.
Baptist pastors in the area say they have never experienced anything like this
disaster. Three-story buildings were flattened to one. The roads have fissures
and gaps, making them impassable for buses and large vehicles.
Warnings squawked over loudspeakers about staying out of homes until they can
be checked. A Baptist pastor said buildings in the hardest-hit areas are no
longer safe because of cracks in the foundations and walls. No evacuation
centers have been formed. People made their own temporary shelter from the
plastic sheets and local grass.
The damage was so overwhelming that Baptists from four associations broke
through strict cultural barriers, reaching out to help people who were not part
of their own community.
“In Myanmar, people interact within their own people groups. The Shan people
help the Shan. The Wa people help the Wa,” a Baptist representative in Thailand
explained. “It’s just how it is. People stick with their own.”
Several Baptist leaders from the different people groups crossed over into
Thailand to receive a crash course on disaster relief, learning how to assess
and respond to the massive devastation. They were encouraged to look beyond
their own people and to reach out to the needs of others.
“I’m encouraging (local believers) to work together,” said the Baptist worker
in Thailand. “We can cover more ground in a shorter amount of time (if we work
Southern Baptists want to be sure assistance gets to people in remote villages,
which often fall between the cracks in disaster relief situations.
“A number of community-based organizations appear to be responding to the
situation,” said Pat Melancon, global disaster relief coordinator for Baptist
Global Response. “We want to be sure that the needs of people off the main
road, away from the main distribution venue, are properly assessed. If people
are being overlooked in a crisis situation, they are in special need of a
demonstration of God’s love for them.”
As the Myanmar pastors trained for disaster relief, they spent time in prayer
and sharing experiences. One Lahu leader cried as he talked about the
devastation and loss of life.
Another spoke of how they had to bury so many
people in one day, without doing the proper ceremonies or grieving.
“It is not in their nature to cry or to tear up,” the Baptist worker said. “I
cried just watching and listening. I could feel his pain. These Baptist leaders
really need our prayers for strength.”
The Baptist worker encourages Southern Baptists to join her in praying for
Myanmar Christians who will be working together for the first time in this
disaster relief effort:
- Pray that they will be able to
supply safe drinking water and figure out how to fix the problem.
- Pray that
until the problem is fixed, the government will continue to allow water to be
trucked in from Thailand.
- Pray for the spiritual and emotional health of people in the affected areas.
Many lost loved ones and/or their homes.
- Pray that the Christians will remain
hopeful and show it through the actions.
- Pray for opportunities to not only
share but show Jesus’ love.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rain is an International Mission Board writer living in
Southeast Asia. Ivy O’Neil contributed to this article.)
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