Burmese Days

So, a bit about the hill tribes of Thailand and on a related note, Josh also writes about his experience with the Burmese refugees that he is currently working with near the Thai-Burma border. I think this week he is staying close to the Karenni refugee camp.

The other week I was shocked to read that:

The average annual income per family per year [in Mae Hong Son] is around 10,000 baht (approximately € 222, US $ 295 in 2009) – The Samsara Foundation

It’s unbelievable that I earn about 100x more than an entire family here. Of course, poverty is not all about income and there is subsistence farming etc.; but even all that aside, I still can’t get my head around it. It just doesn’t add up. Mae Hong Son is Thailand’s poorest province and is largely populated by hill tribes who are among the most disadvantaged in this country. Obviously, Chiang Mai is a big city with greater income stratification but even so, it’s not hard to see why I’ve become so self-conscious about my wealth here. It’s one of those unfair facts of life that the average person living in a Western country is far richer than most of the world’s population; not by virtue of inherent talent or necessarily through hard work–just by birthright. And yet so many people in Australia and elsewhere don’t realise the immense privilege they have. A better way of looking at it, I think, is to appreciate just how bloody lucky we all are and be grateful and try and share some of the wealth.

And sharing my wealth is one of my goals while I am here. I would like to contribute to Thai society where possible, as I have previously expressed. So now I’m doing it! I’ve become a financial supporter of The Samsara Foundation, an excellent local charity that does fantastic work in helping to educate the underprivileged. I know one of the main volunteers so it is a completely legitimate and well-run operation. I can’t believe I gave so much to World Vision in the past when I could have cut out the big bureaucracy and gone for a charity like this where you get more bang for your buck, so to speak.  As part of my best friend’s 30th birthday present last week and on behalf of myself, we have now helped an 18 year old guy finish his last year of high school. As simple as that, and for an amount I would never even miss. I get very emotional thinking that in most of the world it is still an unspeakable luxury to be educated, something we can take completely for granted in most parts of the Western world.

The province that Samsara targets is actually where Josh is away this week though he’s in an even more remote part of the province, working near the Thai-Burmese border. It’s been an eye-opener for him, and he’s helping to train up some (refugee) activists to organise themselves back in Burma. These oppressed minorities who are now refugees are much like, or even related to, the hill tribes of Thailand. I thought I would relay some of his impressions here to provide some insight in life in that part of Thailand:

Another quick email from the Thai-Burma border. To be honest it’s been pretty tough so far. The ‘school’ is basically an old wooden building on stilts. During the day I teach underneath the building, as it’s so hot. The seven of us sit down there, with me lecturing them on some topic or another, whilst a feeble fan rotates between us, offering very brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Everything is covered in dirt and dust, and everything bakes during the middle of the day (myself included). I suffer to varying degrees from tiredness, boredom, headaches and prickly heat. It certainly has opened my eyes.

I am not really able to leave the village, not that there is much to see. It’s basically about 40-50 bamboo huts collected together, inhabited by those refugees lucky enough to earn their way out of the refugee camp itself. My students tell me that the living conditions in the actual camp are much worse. That is saying something, as here they sleep 2-3 to a cramped room, sleeping on straw mats. Comparatively speaking I am living like a king. I have my own section of the wooden house, a small room about 2-4 metres square. It holds just enough room for my sleeping mat (a little like the kind of thing you might lay out for your dog to sleep on) and a small side table. Last night I foolishly decided to close the windows and doors of my room (so as to avoid mosquitoes). Stupid move. I could barely sleep as the place heated up like an oven. Did I mention that the room has no fan? I should have just relied on my mosquito net to do the job, but I have been tricked into a false sense of security by them before. Anyway, tonight will try sleeping with the windows and doors open and hope for the best.

Last night after class was pleasant enough, though I did find myself counting down the hours until bedtime (9.30pm!). Not much to do in the village. I went for a little walk in the nearby stream with my colleague, and sat on a rock drinking Burmese corn wine (surprisingly delicious on a hot day). We then went for a walk around the village and chatted to staff from a local women’s organisation, which investigates women’s rights abuses within Burma. Later on we ate and I ended up drinking some Burmese rice whiskey (not at all delicious) and smoking a few Burmese cigars (this is not a euphemism, they are just these cigars made and smoked in Burma). Bit of a weird evening really.

My colleague went back today, so for the night 4-5 nights it’s just me and the students, will see how time passes. I am already halfway through the book I brought with me Burmese Days by George Orwell. It’s the tale of a dispirited English officer stuck in an output of colonial Burma in the 1920s seems quite a reflection of my feeling the last couple of days. I only think that will grow after another 4 days of showering from a bucket in the middle of the yard, sleeping on the floor (ow, my back!) and eating the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

However, despite the physical hardships, it really has made me appreciate how hard it must be for the refugees themselves. It is clear that for them, this school is a step up – both in terms of the conditions, and the opportunity it brings. They each were asked to start writing a journal yesterday, and almost all of their stories are quite harrowing. Most involve separation from family, personal tragedy, torture, persecution etc. Although I am a natural complainer, and am doing my fair share this week, it is hard not to feel spoilt when confronted with the very genuine suffering of the refugees here.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say for now. My Saturday flight home seems like such a long way away. As you can probably tell, the internet access here is VERY limited so may not email again for a few days. Till then, hope you are all well.


PS – What I wouldn’t do for some pizza and a glass of wine right now.


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