Posted By DAVID DOWNHAM
Dr. David Downham is a founder, along with his wife Catherine Downham, of Project Umbrella Burma. The non-profit organization provides direct aid to Burmese refugees, including the Karen people, at the border with Thailand. Here are some of his reflections on their work overseas.
When talking about the work we are trying to do here, on returning to Canada, one of the most frequently asked questions is, "Is it safe there?"
We have two young women here in Mae Sot, Thailand, from Orillia. Now, instead of Europe, young people will often tour the East. These two are spending a month teaching in the college in Doh Tah before going on to southern and northern India. They are confident, positive, very capable and a delight for our own young people in the college here. They are the quality of young people whose parents must be congratulated for so brilliantly fitting them with the tools of life.
But, it takes anyone time to understand and absorb another culture, another person's day to day. Cathy's concern was, inevitably, they would not have the time to absorb what is going on here. It led her to say the following:
"I would like to say to them: Here we are working on the Thai- Burmese border -- which is a lawless place, whether it looks like it or not, where the rules of neither country are observed; a 'fringe place' with many similar examples around the world, and where here, perhaps more than two to three million people live in poverty, great jeopardy and without any likelihood of justice; a people disregarded, who are an embarrassment and nuisance to both countries; their lives of no importance. And I want to say to them, our young temporary teachers, that while this is accepted as an attitude by any country, there is no real safety for anyone anywhere."
And she went on, "Am I being pompous? Do you agree with me? Will it help if I say that?"
And of course, I said, "Yes, it would help," and "Yes, I think they will understand."
In Orillia, a group of people have come together to make a film of life here. I do not know whether it has a title yet, but perhaps we should call it:A Community Intervenes.They have made footage of the college and the clinic and of the presentation of a stethoscope to Dr. Cynthia, a gift to honour her, from the doctors at Soldiers' Memorial Hospital. It was given with a short speech of appreciation of her amazing contribution to her fellow Karen people, and to the many people from all ethnic groups in Burma. It was given in English and with a special translation into broken Burmese, which hopefully lightened her day. Slowly we are all learning from people like Dr. Cynthia that taking care of another is taking care of yourself.
Here in Thailand, the professionals, academics and middle classes generally have been demonstrating against the corruption of the present government, bringing travel and tourism, vital to Thailand's economy, to a standstill -- with an extraordinarily disciplined and peaceful takeover of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. The much revered king of Thailand's birthday was looming on Dec. 4 and the protesters respectfully decided to pack up and go home. (This is unlikely to be anything but a momentary lull.) Though the king did not address his people and has certainly become quite frail recently, he took the time to ask Dr. Cynthia to visit, and presented her with another award. The king in Thailand carries a huge and well-earned moral authority. His recent silence on his birthday could be seen as a reprimand of the corruption in the government. His recognition of Cynthia and through her, of the importance of the Karen in Thai society, will be taken by many as an attitude to be adopted, as he nudges his people into a more enlightened attitude.
Trying to understand, and attempting to improve, so often takes us deeper into the maze. At least 50,000 people live a "half life" in Mae Lah refugee camp alone, unable to travel outside the narrow confines of the camp, unable to work, prevented from living in a permanent house; they are receiving some level of education, but with no direction for its use. Not surprisingly, alcohol and drug abuse become a problem.
The failure of the British to leave a reasonably workable political legacy in a multi-ethnic society has left three devastated generations in four groups: a) in Burma proper, within the territories of the ethnic minorities; b) amongst the expatriates from Burma, who have gone to live in Australia, Canada, the U. S. and the Baltic countries; c) the refugees growing up in the camps and d) those living the ultimate life of insecurity, as illegal immigrants.
The UN's emigration policy for the Karen ethnic group from Burma (the people to whom we are most connected) provides a weak-kneed answer for some individuals; at the same time, it destroys both the leadership and the culture.
The policy of the Junta, the Burmese military dictatorship, is clear: submit or suffer slow extermination. The Thai, at present, prefer to look the other way. We cannot expect much change in attitude from the Junta, but a gradual relaxation of the rules of citizenship for the Karen on this side of the border would be to the long-term benefit of Thailand. The king of Thailand, a strong believer in peaceful settlement, knows this very well.
So, coming back to the original question: "Is this a dangerous place?"
"Yes, of course, it is."
"Is this a good reason for not trying to do something about it?"
"No! That would be a far more dangerous thing to do."
Article ID# 1376225