The Buddhist humanitarian organization Join Together Society Korea (JTS Korea), founded by the renowned Korean Seon (Zen) monk and engaged Buddhist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, has provided a recent update on its relief program to provide gas stoves to Rohingya refugees living in refugees camps in Bangladesh after fleeing oppression in Myanmar.
In January 2019, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim led a delegation of aid representatives, including JTS President Gena Park, JTS Goodwill Ambassadors screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung and actor Jo In-sung, along with Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) chairman Lee Mi-kyung, to deliver a consignment of 100,000 gas stoves to a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, a district of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division.* The stoves were provided by JTS Korea and JTS America in cooperation with the KOICA: 45,000 were provided by JTS Korea, 23,000 by JTS America, and 32,000 by the KOICA.
Since then, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have committed to oversee stove maintenance and to supply LPG as a fuel. Some 500,000 Rohingya refugees have benefited from the stoves, which have helped to reduce malnutrition and eliminated the need for women and children to walk up to 7–8 kilometers to gather firewood.
“Since close to a million people cooked their meals using firewood, the hills surrounding the Rohingya refugee camp suffered from deforestation. Also, the girls who went to gather firewood in the hills far from the refugee camp were constantly vulnerable to the danger of sexual violence,” JTS founder and chairman Ven. Pomnyun Sunim explained. “In addition, the environmental degradation caused by deforestation and firewood smoke led to a great deal of frustration among the local Bangladeshi residents. Therefore, the biggest and most pressing challenge in the refugee camp was securing fuel for cooking, which is why Join Together Society decided to provide gas cooking stoves to the Rohingya refugees.”
Founded as an expression of the compassion of engaged Buddhism and the belief that helping others is the best way to enrich one’s own life, JTS Korea was established by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in 1993.* Headquartered in Seoul, JTS operates program offices in South Korea, Germany, and the United States, along with field offices in India and the Philippines. The relief organization has also earned Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
JTS Korea detailed a number of positive changes to the lives of Rohingya families in Cox’s Bazar as a direct result of the relief program:
• The refugees are now able to cook meals safely inside their homes;
• The cost of fuel for refugee households has decreased;
• Quality of life and living conditions for the refugees have improved significantly;
• Forests and vegetation on the hills surrounding the refugee camps have recovered significantly due to the decreased consumption of firewood;
• Women and children, who would typically have had to forage for firewood, are now at a much lower risk of violence and sexual assault.
Charged with bringing hope, empowerment, and self-reliance to underprivileged communities in developing countries, JTS is run and manned by unpaid volunteers, which ensures that all donations go toward benefitting the marginalized communities with which the organization works. JTS carries out relief work in countries suffering from humanitarian disasters, with the aim of “solving the problems of poverty and pain in Asia by the efforts of Asian people,” and has already completed humanitarian projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
In October 2017, JTS Korea provided 15 tonnes of rice and 700 mosquito nets to Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, and in January 2018 brought a further 30 tonnes of rice and 2,000 blankets. It was during these visits that the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN organization overseeing the relief camps, first proposed that JTS Korea also provide gas stoves.
Religious tensions between the Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims in neighboring Myanmar have simmered for almost half a century. Myanmar’s government classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants, even though many communities have lived in Myanmar for generations. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have reportedly fled military clearance operations and attacks by Buddhist mobs in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, in what the United Nations has described as the “world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” for “the most persecuted people in the world.”
An estimated 880,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have crossed into Bangladesh since August 2017, according to UN agencies, joining some 200,000 refugees who fled in previous years. Bangladesh, meanwhile, has stated that it has no intention of accommodating the refugees permanently. Bangladesh and Myanmar reportedly reached a deal in November 2017 to begin repatriation but there has been little progress, with stateless Rohingya still crossing the border into Bangladesh.
A widely respected author, Dharma teacher, and social activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict. Join Together Society, an international aid organization, works to eradicate poverty and hunger through humanitarian relief and sustainable development.
* Korean Buddhist Humanitarian Organization JTS Brings 100,000 Gas Stoves to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh and Buddhist Relief Organization JTS Korea Sends PPE to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh amid COVID Fears (Buddhistdoor Global)