A month after Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s military rulers defended their relief operations amid international criticism that the government was dragging its feet in allowing aid to the hardest-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta region.

On Sunday Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Myanmar’s ruling junta of “criminal neglect” for blocking large-scale international aid but said the United States and other world leaders agreed to respect Burmese authority and not forcibly bring in relief supplies.

Gates said Navy ships that have been circling for days off Myanmar’s coast waiting for permission to deliver cargo would probably be leaving in a few days. “It’s becoming pretty clear that the regime there is not going to let us help,” Gates told reporters in Singapore. “I’d say that unless the regime changes its approach, changes its policy, more people will die.”

Last week Myanmar’s leaders were criticized for reports the government was evicting cyclone victims from camps and “dumping” them near their destroyed villages, making it harder for them to receive outside supplies and making them more vulnerable to hunger and disease.

A church official at Karen Baptist Home Missions, who did not give his name out of fear that he would get in trouble with authorities, described a scene where refugees were evicted from a Christian church.

“It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain,” he said. “Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to.”

Human Rights Watch said the forced evictions are part of government efforts to show the world that the emergency-relief period is over and the Burmese people are capable of rebuilding their lives without relying on outsiders for help.

“It’s unconscionable for Burma’s generals to force cyclone victims back to their devastated homes,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Claiming a return to ‘normalcy’ is no basis for returning people to greater misery and possible death.”

Myanmar responded to international outrage by praising the regime and predicting that recovery would be speedy.

Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Aye Myint said the military junta broadcast warnings about the May 2-3 cyclone more than a week in advance and moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to the estimated 2.4 million survivors.

The defense minister said “due to the prompt work” by the government food, water and medicine had been provided to all victims. “I believe the resettlement and rehabilitation process will be speedy,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

The United Nations painted a bleaker picture, estimating that 1.4 million victims still remain in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. More than a week after promising to lift its ban on foreign workers, relief agencies complained the government was hindering their access to hardest-hit areas. Dozens of international experts were stranded in the main city of Yangon awaiting travel permits, according to the International Herald Tribune.

Representatives from Baptist relief agencies met May 24 in Thailand to discuss relief efforts in both Myanmar and China, where an earthquake left a reported 67,000 deaths and many injuries.

The Myanmar Baptist Convention reportedly has set up 47 relief centers serving more than 13,500 cyclone survivors. Food, medicine and fuel have also been distributed in hard hit areas. Baptist leaders cited challenges in Myanmar including lack of infrastructure and government restrictions on foreign aid.

Myanmar’s government said it would reopen schools with the start of the new term this week, though many school buildings were destroyed and more than 100 teachers were killed. Outside experts worried that forcing children into unsafe buildings with untrained teachers could place them at greater risk.

A charity that monitors reports of mistreatment of Christians around the globe, meanwhile, carried a report accusing the government of withholding aid from victims based on their religion. Many of the hard-hit villages were predominantly Christian, a pastor told Release International, and authorities discriminated against those populations when international aid arrived.

“Those with the ‘C-virus’ [Christians] don’t get aid,” he said. “So the churches are doing their best to help them.”

Much of Burma’s Christian minority is found in tribal groups including the Karen people. The Karen National Union is a movement that has been fighting for autonomy since Burma declared independence from Great Britain in 1948. It is one of the longest struggles for independence in the world.

Observers believe the recent death of a former KNU leader killed by two men in his residence was an assassination of someone named on a government hit list.

The British group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, meanwhile, launched a campaign for regime change in Myanmar. The Change for Burma! campaign won endorsement from Nobel Prize winner and former archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“It is imperative that Christians take up our clear biblical mandate for justice and join with others around the world to pray, protest and provide for the suffering people of Burma,” said Benedict Rogers, CSW’s advocacy officer for Burma. “We must campaign and put pressure on our governments to respond to the chronic emergency in Burma today.”

“We must not rest until Burma and all its people are free,” Rogers said. “We believe in a God of freedom, justice and human dignity, and so I hope every Christian in the free world will join this campaign.”

On Friday the Baptist World Alliance reported that a Baptist rescue team was on the ground in China within three days of the massive earthquake that hit May 12.

Led by Laszlo Pavelcze of Hungary, the Rescue24 team distributed tents, blankets, medicines and food in the town of Peng Zhou in Sichuan Province, which is just 30 kilometers from the epicenter of the 7.9 magnitude quake.

Baptist Word Aid said 95 percent of the houses in Peng Zhou were collapsed, and there are no camps for the 3,000 townspeople who are still alive. Officials said initial relief efforts for tents and supplies would cost $165,000. BWAid has already contributed an initial $25,000 for relief in Peng Zhou.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship sent $5,000 each to relief efforts in Myanmar and China. CBF representatives Bill and Michelle Cayard worked with local partner Hua Mei International to distribute relief supplies to survivors in China. In 10 distribution trips, Hua Mei has helped more than 10,000 people.

“People still fear aftershocks and are more comfortable in makeshift dwellings of tarps and tent-like setups with their beds, belongings and families inside,” said Bill Cayard, who recently traveled to Peng Zhou.

According to a CBF news release, the Cayards are coordinating grief counseling training for local pastors and church leaders. Gene Wilder, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tenn., is also in China to help with training.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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