KYAKUNI, Myanmar (BP)–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 their neighbors.
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 oil; etc.
“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 together].”
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.
Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer living in Southeast Asia. Ivy O’Neil contributed to this article. Baptist Global Response is on the Web at www.gobgr.org.