Annual report (ninth stay) on humanitarian Burmese projects and plans in cooperation with “Médecine, Aide et Présence”
(19 December 2012 - 10 January 2013)
This year Lisbeth ventured forth alone. Michel stayed in France for health reasons, and our oft-companion Pat Lambert, due to administrative difficulties, was prevented from travelling from Nigeria where he teaches in a university. This report contains updates on our ongoing humanitarian work in education, supporting Father Benjamin’s “Irrawaddy Homeland” association, and in medicine, in cooperation with “The Light of Asia” association, headed by Dr Kyaw Htin in a small village to the east of Mandalay.
The “Irrawaddy Homeland” association, Southwest Burma
Benjamin has devoted years to establishing self-sufficient and autonomous systems in which his various social work projects can flourish. Current rice cultivation provides for the needs of all the young and older schoolchildren in the bush school, the boarding school and the residence hall for the Pathein university students. The crops have significantly improved in the recent years, and the rice-growers conditions have also improved. Benjamin is currently working on a plan to commercialise rice surplus so that the resulting regular income would pay for the community’s administrative costs.
Before 2003, the year Benjamin created the Rice Bank, peasant farmers were ensnared in the vicious usurious cycle of buying expensive loans, being confronted with insurmountable debts, finding their land summarily seized by official “money-lenders”. Many peasants were ridden of their debts thanks to contributions made by AVSI, an NGO located in Milan, and families could start over: parents could earn a modest but decent living, buy back their land, provide for their children who could return home from Benjamin’s care shelter. Now, the only children remaining under Benjamin’s care are orphaned Nargis refugees. Once released from the clutches of the fight against starvation, these peasant farmers quit using the chemical fertilizers that endangered their health and hardened the soil making irrigation impossible. Now they use organic plants to fertilise and the soil remains soft and permeable.
The bush school
116 pupils attend this privately-funded school (individual sponsors from Milan). Despite the fact their diplomas are not approved by the State, the great majority of the local people feel the quality of education provided there exceeds that of the local state school; the classes are smaller, and the teachers more highly motivated. Benjamin’s school also offers professional training courses once the pupils have finished their final year.
Pig raising at the Myaungmya boarding house
The epidemic that decimated the pig population last year is now but a distant memory, thankfully. A newly-built pig pen now stands far enough away from the boarding house, conforming to higher sanitary standards. Two full-time young female workers are in charge; they live in a small bamboo hut on the premises. The pigs are doing wonderfully and pork meat sales constitute the primary revenue source for the boarding house (second income source provided by the sale of cashew nuts growing on or nearby the bush school grounds).
The boarding school
The government has kept its promise to stop cutting electricity during the day --at least until the next elections--, so daily conditions have significantly improved. The students appeared happier; when not busy with schoolwork, they engage in learning dance and painting. It was comforting to see that even if these young people do not enjoy the same standard of living as their distant demographic cohorts in the developed world, the improvements made have a tangible impact. So many more readily smiling faces...
Pathein University student residence hall
For 2013, MAP renewed annual contributions to sponsor twenty students’ studies (in the following subjects: mathematics, physics, biophysics, chemistry, microbiology, geology, mechanics, law, English). Benjamin concurred that the students, however ardent, lack the visible commitment of impassioned learners....because they cannot see how such advanced theoretical knowledge could ever be of use in their home communities. So he is concerned about their general well-being, and about how to resolve the problem they evoke (in its inception, this programme was devised so that graduates could return home with their newly-acquired expertise to benefit those communities, all in need). In response, Benjamin decided to organise a post-graduate course designed to enhance more practical skills (notably in accounting, computer science, and advanced English), ones that can more immediately respond to their home communities’ needs.
The “Light of Asia” association in the eastern Mandalay district
The medical centre in Kan Gyi Khon
Doctors Marianne Casari and Xavier Bihr, of Nice, France, visited the site last summer (2012). They wrote an informative report on their extremely positive experiences, confirming the value and necessity of our work there, past and future. Echoing the information in their report, the on-site medical and laboratory chiefs who welcomed me this year indicated their most dire needs in medical equipment:
-- a machine to perform more detailed blood analyses, Hemocure
-- three micro-pipettes of different measures to test anaemia in pregnant women
As they suggested, I went to Mandalay with Dr Kyaw Htin (President of “The Light of Asia”) to purchase the equipment.
Last year, with MAP, we helped them buy an ambulance. MAP contributed a third of the total cost. This year we provided the balance (see accounting details below). Since its purchase the ambulance has especially serviced women in hard labour, those afflicted with grave illness and road accident victims.
The Buddhist monastery
When we first discovered this monastery down the hill, we were fooled into thinking it was a cosy spot for religious retreats in a haven physically removed from the chaos and suffering of daily life for the Burmese. We were wrong. These monks very quietly provide a safe environment for individuals committed to helping build a better Burma, deeply invested in projects touching the social, cultural and political fabric of the country.
In 2008, after Nargis, the monastery’s monks (including the head monk) spent 45 days in an Irrawaddy delta village, providing emergency and first aid care, clothing and food, building makeshift shelters, and so forth. This is a good example of how the religious and secular sectors rediscovered each other, so that the cataclysm can be seen as a catalyst. The monks achieved an enhanced social conscience; monasteries became centres for innovative social change (and propagating thereby “subversive” policies...), whilst with increased awareness protecting their “underground” work from discovery by overzealous governmental henchmen.
The monastery welcomes anyone acting in good faith, regardless of religion: Buddhists, Christians, Muslims --even non-denominational sorts, a rarity in Burma-- share their views about the future of the country, which the people must invent together. Religious tolerance binds the participants, who may well be the future leaders of the nation, as they study democracy and public speaking in a land of ethnic and religious diversity. International volunteers participate in training sessions regularly; they coordinate efforts between Western NGOs and the Burmese. Also, teacher training and organic farming courses are on offer for young professionals and land-workers.
“Power does not corrupt; fear does. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, FREEDOM FROM FEAR, 1991