While Erin was learning Thai Massage in Chiang Mai, I spent my days volunteering in the medical office of the Free Burma Rangers (and was Erin’s practice “dummy” by night…rough, I know.) Erin’s friend Kate, an expat teacher living in Chiang Mai for the past 6 years, invited us to a BBQ during our first day in town. There, amongst others, we met an Aussie named Mon who introduced us to her mission with the Free Burma Rangers. My ears perked up upon hearing of the atrocities taking place on Thailand’s western border and immediately expressed interest in helping out while in town. Two days later, after researching the situation on the internet to ensure my comfort level, I joined the team for their Monday meeting and agreed to spend 5-7 hours per day for the remainder of the week. Day 1, with ample amounts of coffee in tow, was spent helping with bookkeeping (ah, bookkeeping, how I love thee so), while the rest of the week was spent packing medical bags, organizing supplies and creating manifests for everything which would be going “in,” a term they use to mean “Inside Burma.” There is inherent risk and things could go–and have gone– terribly wrong, with villages being attacked, burned and pillaged by the Burma Army while the FBR are there. This risk they are all willing to take. Three western doctors rotate on a monthly basis providing medical support and training to the displaced persons in the eastern states and enter in teams of 5. Apparently they have an understanding with both the Burmese and Thai border officials so that they may pass freely, although this is not something they count on. While it would have been amazing to go in with the team, time and ultimately, my lack of experience in the medical field, made it impossible. However, I learned a ton about medicine while in-office, and am humbled by the sacrifices the Free Burma Rangers and their staff make day-in and day-out. I already look forward to a return in the future.
A bit about what’s been happening in Burma from Free Burma Rangers website:
Over fifty years of civil war have left Burma one of the poorest countries in the world. The military dictatorship attacks its own people, killing thousands, and leaving millions displaced.
Many in opposition are either imprisoned or killed. In most of the country there is a false peace due to the dictators’ ability to control dissent, however in some ethnic areas the Regime’s army is still attacking the people. There are over 1 million internally displaced people, and over 1 million refugees who have fled the country. There is continual environmental destruction, an HIV/AIDS epidemic, the ongoing laying of landmines, human trafficking and religious persecution. Because of the Regime’s mismanagement and corruption, it’s the world’s second largest opium producer and the main producer of methamphetamines in SE Asia. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and leader of the democracy movement, is repeatedly put under arrest.
The Regime’s army extends their control over the ethnic minorities by building roads and camps in ethnic homelands, forcing people to relocate or flee into the jungle. There is documented forced labor and the use of rape as a weapon. The Regime’s army lays landmines to keep villagers from returning home and supporting the resistance. They aim to dominate the population, assimilate them and exploit them. They do this directly through military attacks, selective cease-fire agreements, and the use of proxy ethnic forces allied with the Regime.
One devastating result is the internally displaced people, who are forced to flee their homes because of the Regime’s army. Some are forcibly relocated and now living under the Regime’s control. Some who are attacked by the Regime’s army are able to return to their homes after the Regime’s army leaves. Others who are not able to return, live in temporary sites nearby. And many are on the run or in hiding now.
All of these people lack security, food, education for their children, and suffer increased health problems.
Yet the people of Burma have not given up. The internally displaced people’s unwillingness to give up their homelands is one of the greatest examples of civil disobedience to the dictators. The pro-democracy movement is still active.
In the war zones the ethnic resistance attempts to protect their people. They help villagers escape the Regime’s army, clear landmines and help people cross roads controlled by the Regime’s army. There are also many non-governmental organizations and community based organizations that work together to help provide basic services.
Working together, the Free Burma Rangers bring help, hope and love. We are dedicated to freedom for all the peoples of Burma.
A speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy movement in Burma, and a political prisoner for 15 years:
Free Burma Rangers videos:
And one more summary video worth a view:
On a happy note since this volunteer experience occurred…In a sign that Burma’s administration could possibly be moving in a positive and peaceful direction, Aung San Suu Kyi, since being freed from house arrest last November, has recently met with Burma’s current president, Thein Sein, and was also “allowed” to travel the country and speak with thousands of her political supporters. You can read more here. It is with great hopes that these talks continue, the violence ceases, and democracy takes hold.
As always, support is needed. Often times, the medical office is unable to get certain medicines or medical supplies that are readily available state-side. I am waiting on a list of these items and will update accordingly.