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Harvard students join global groups to aid Burmese

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 6, 2008

Harvard students and Oxfam America joined international humanitarian groups yesterday to mobilize aid for Burma, hopeful that the country's military junta will allow them to rush relief to cyclone victims.

US government officials and international leaders urged the isolationist regime running the Southeast Asian nation to accept the aid. Yesterday, a UN official said the junta indicated it would receive assistance but was still working out how it would be delivered.

The Washington-based US Campaign for Burma called on governments to make sure that aid reaches storm victims before illnesses increase the death toll even more. Among the urgent needs are food, water, roofing materials, medicine, blankets, and plastic sheeting.

"We would like to see governments around the world pressure the regime to allow international humanitarian organizations to do their job," said Jeremy Woodrum, director of the US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy organization pushing to restore democracy to the nation of 48 million between India and China. "They should be allowed to reach out and help people."

As the governments worked diplomatic channels, national and local aid groups launched fund-raising efforts on the Internet yesterday. Woodrum said the groups face particular challenges because the military junta often restricts their movements inside the country.

In Washington, the US Campaign for Burma started collecting donations on its website and said it had raised more than $7,000.

In Cambridge, the Harvard Burma Action Movement, a student organization, e-mailed students asking them to buy $20 T-shirts to aid cyclone victims; at least $14 from each sale will go to the victims.

"We basically just want to contribute what kinds of funds we can," said the group's incoming president, Katie Fitzgerald, a junior English major at Harvard. "It's just for immediate disaster relief. The first couple of days are really when it's most crucial."

Today, Oxfam America is holding a meeting to respond to the disaster. The Boston-based group is planning to work with the United Nations and other groups to provide aid, spokeswoman Liz Lucas said.

Simon Billenness, co-chair of US Campaign for Burma's board and an activist on the issue for years, said Massachusetts has a unique link to the plight of the Burmese: The Bay State is the only state to pass a law banning the state from buying goods or services from companies that did business in Burma. The law, passed in 1996, was struck down by the Supreme Court.

Now, he said, people are working to find ways to make sure the donations reach the victims. "We're looking at a Hurricane Katrina-scale disaster, with many more dead," he said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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