Over a decade ago, I traveled to Syria. It’s a beautiful land — rich in antiquities, sweeping landscapes and a powerful sense of mankind’s cultural and religious heritage. Now, the media and the world are fixated on Syria. There’s good reason to be appalled by the random, senseless violence in that land.
The core issue in Syria could be summed up as the people in the government are using its power to refuse the interests and rights of the people, who seek respect for their cultures and lifestyle.
Four thousand miles to the east, a similar drama has been on-going — but it escapes the world’s attention. In Burma’s eastern and northern lands, a people in control of the government use its power to oppress people who seek only to live free with their cultures, languages and lands respected.
Our conundrum with Burma is exacerbated by a regime which told the world it reformed itself – releasing political prisoners, proclaiming a ceasefire and announcing it was open for business. The U.S. and other industrialized nations chose to believe these pronouncements – and released their businesses to invade (I mean invest) in Burma’s fertile, under-developed economy.
Companies are now rushing into the land where Facebook accounts are skyrocketing – further proof that all must be good in Burma. Chevron, General Electric, Visa and Coca-cola are a few of the prominent American businesses now seeking to invest, developing the human and natural resources that are part of the under-performing economy of Burma.
The Burmese apologists ignore other news. In its latest rating, the World Health Organization ranked Burma dead last among nation-state health care systems – a move downward from second worst previously. Burma’s destitute neighbors, such as Laos and Cambodia, spend double what the Burma regime commits to its citizen’s health care.
When asked, Burma’s Ministry of Health Yaw Myint replied that spending money on medical services for the poor was not necessary.
The regime’s health care and other services in major urban areas, like Rangoon and Mandalay, look like the Mayo clinic compared to the desolate medical care available in northern eastern Burma – Kachin and Karen states.
Karen State, home of the Karen people, has seen 60 years of civil war. Isolated by the Burma government – disease, malnutrition and poverty inflict a tragic statistical record. Toss in an occasional land mine for excitement. One in seven children will not see their 5th birthday. One in 12 mothers will die as a result of childbirth.
The reports from Karen State and other areas remain disturbing and disappointing.
Ne Oo lives in a refugee camp in Thailand. He remembers the day the Burma army burnt his village down. The army forced his older brother to work for them and then killed him. He shares that the army requires everyone to pay them “taxes”. “Taxes” is the Burmese ‘politically correct’ way to say the army steals from the villagers.
Meanwhile, further north, the Burma army continues its offensive military campaign against the Kachin, Shan and other minorities. In June 2011, the Burma army broke a 17 year ceasefire and attacked these peoples. Despite presidential decrees announcing numerous ceasefires, the army continues its assault.
Over the past summer, the army has attacked several times each month. As recently as August 28th, it attacked Kachin villages in northern Burma. The army fired mortars, destroying homes. In one incident, it arrested men from the village and forced them to carry supplies to the next skirmish. As the battle wound down, they shot and killed one of the men – a father of six children – in the back as the Burma army retreated.
The next week, on September 3rd, a Burma army unit entered the northern Burma village of Nhka Ga, detained several women and girls, took them into the near-by woods and raped them. The army suspected that the people of Nhka Ga village supported militia forces. The sexual assault was one means to intimidate the village leaders to cease such support. Horrific. Disgusting. Can anyone tell me why a US business would want to work with a government that practices this form of intimidation?
As a result of the renewed military offensive in northern Burma, an additional 100,000 villagers have fled their homes. They join the hundreds of thousands of Karen and others from eastern Burma who have fled over the past decades to find sanctuary in the near-by jungles or across the border in Thailand.
Isolated from any social services or similar support, the Kachin, Karen, Shan and other peoples endure appalling conditions. Malnutrition amplifies the inherent risk of child birth, malaria and dysentery – creating mortality rates up to 50 times higher than those in the U.S.
There is small hope for these people – it comes from within. Backpack medics, traveling with a mix of 3-5 experienced and novice medics, bring rudimentary health services to the people. The typical backpack medic team will serve 2,000 people living in a dozen villages.
Burma Humanitarian Mission supports backpack medic teams – providing them with medicine and associated supplies. Since the violence erupted in northern Burma, BHM has added support for 2 of the new medic teams operating in northern Kachin State. These teams carry larger quantities and types of medicine. The teams need over 36,000 doses of medicine every six months at a cost of $4 a day for all their basic medicine needs and an additional $3 a day to ensure they have the right anti-malarial drugs each day.
Do the 200+ medicines dispensed each day matter? Absolutely. Where the backpack medics operate, the malaria mortality rate has been reduced by 48% while the maternal mortality rate is slashed up to 75%. A young infant’s chance of celebrating her fifth birthday triples. The backpack medics are dedicated and trained. Equipped with the right medicine, they save lives.
As we listen to the cacophony that is called political discourse, we realize there is no consensus on what the US and world should do in Syria. In Burma, you and I have clear options to act and make a difference. Support to community based organizations, like Backpack medics, is a clear way to act with even the most modest resources and make a difference.