By Anisha Desai
Ok. So, having left you days ago upon leaving Chiang Mai, here we are back in Bangkok, where we arrived Thursday night. Every day I kept on hoping to find time to continue writing about our ongoing journey. Yet every day was so full of exchanges with the people from Burma who we had come all this way meet and listen to that carving out extra time to write about it proved to be logistically and perhaps more honestly at least for me — emotionally impossible.
I actually did try a couple of times, only to find myself staring mindlessly as my blank computer screen. I felt anxious that I was falling down on the job by not committing the experiences to writing until I surrendered to the realities of the trip and let it go until finally now I have a bit of time to write.
What I write now, unfortunately, will not be as complete an accounting as it would have been had I been able to write after each meeting, each encounter, each experience or even at the end of each day. I’m going to only be able to summarize some of our encounters and obviously, those will be the things that continue to run through my mind, like an endless loop video, or something like that. But such is life.
The Seminar at Chiang Mai University
I’d like to take a couple of minutes to take us back to the seminar at Chiang Mai University. No way I can now share the words of the ethnic women of Thailand or all that our Burmese women colleagues said in their presentation, but I can make a few observations.
Listening to the Thai women of ethnic nationalities was not dissimilar to hearing the sad stories of other ethnic minorities in other parts of the world. Displaced from their ancestral lands, too often looked down upon as somehow less human than the majority populations so willing to exploit and oppress them, without education and even basic health care I could have been talking with my Nobel Sister Rigoberta Menchu Tum about the gross racism and marginalization of her people in Guatemala.
But just like Rigoberta who would not accept oppression and being a fourth class citizen, these women did not either. Each of the three who spoke to the audience of 700 people, told of pressing themselves to learn Thai, to get education, to become not only women leaders in their own communities, but in the larger society. Each was courageous and their stories inspiring and the last young woman to speak told of having run for election in her community. She laughed as she said she’d failed, and then said she’d be running again in upcoming elections in the next few months!
Our women friends and colleagues from Burma and yes, friend is a real word here as many who spoke (and with whom we met in all our days here) are friends; they are women who we’ve met in international fora at the UN, at our own Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in Ireland last May, at PeaceJam and who we truly call friends were as clear and articulate as only they can be. Talking about the political and economic situation in their country, the horror and aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, conditions for many in Thailand, they left no one in the audience doubting their abilities to play a leading role in bring about change in Burma.
Before leaving the seminar, one thing we all found rather amazing was when a man in the audience spoke to thank us for the seminar and for all that he’d heard. He then confessed that until listening to the Thai women of ethnic nationalities, he had no idea of the treatment of their peoples in their own country.
Our delegation can not thank enough the Women’s Studies Program of the University, the working group of women from Thailand and Burma, and those who shared their stories in the seminar for making it all possible. Thanks to our sisters, to our old and new friends.
Onward & Upward
Quite literally. We left Chiang Mai in two vans Tuesday afternoon for the five hour drive into the mountains toward the town of Mae Sot which sits on the river that divides Thailand and Burma. The countryside was so beautiful lush and green, with mountains off in the distance, at least to me seeming to run parallel to the divided highway that took us south toward our destination. The last hour of our trip was the most spectacular as we wound our way up the mountains toward the town.
Green, green, green trees and other vegetation blanketed the mountains, some of which looked like huge knobs in some fairy tail setting, rather than the pointed peaks I usually think of when mountain comes to mind. One of the women [squeeled] when she caught a glimpse of some animal moving among the trees. Turns out it was a cow, clinging to the slope as she moved through the trees grazing.
I don’t know what the women in the other van talked about on the drive, but in ours we most definitely were not engaged in deep discussion. Some took turns dozing off, and others of us just told funny stories and bad jokes, using the down time of the travel to digest all of the discussions, events and activities since we’d arrived in Thailand.
Education for the Burmese Living in Thailand
The vast majority of the Burmese people living in Thailand are here under extremely precarious circumstances. Some 130,000 live in camps close to the border but some 3-4 million are scattered throughout parts of the country. No one knows the real number. Without documentation, without official refugee status, they live in constant anxiety of being deported. Because they are undocumented, they have no access to health care or education here.
With courage and dedication, the exiled Burmese community has stepped into the vacuum to provide education and medical care for as many as they can. Our delegation was able to meet with some of the educators as well as the only clinic the Mae Tao Clinic providing significant medical care for the Burmese people here.
I can’t get many of the images of students of all ages we met here out of my mind, but one encounter that for reasons I can’t explain hit hard. We spent a morning with young men and women from Burma who were in Thailand to study so they could then return to work in Burma. They spend nine months at the school and the desire of young people of Burma to attend the school far outstripped the capacity of the school to receive them. Some 30 students are selected from the Burmese community in Thailand, but also teachers made the dangerous and arduous trek over the border and into villages inside Burma to find students as well.
Each potential candidate had to sit through 4 ½ hours of testing in order to be considered and like students anywhere they shuttered when thinking about those tests! Funds have been so tight for this session that the teachers voluntarily took a cut in pay to be able to accept more students. They greeted us in traditional dress although normally they wear jeans and the like in order to blend into the community. So many ethnic nationalities in that room, yet all spoke to us in English.
They showed us a music video that they had created and the young man who sang in it had composed the song and was part of the group with us. There were pictures on the video from Thailand, but also some wrenching scenes from inside Burma. It was heartbreaking to see so many of the students quietly crying through it all.
Various of the students spoke and shared their stories with us and one young woman had us all in tears. She stood up to speak and only managed a few sentences before she began to cry and could not stop. I went over to hold her and tell her it was ok, and we sat down together as she continued to cry. As we moved on to the next student speaker, we told her she did not have to tell the story if she didn’t want to, but through her tears she said she wanted to. And after a couple of the others had told parts of their own stories, she was ready to speak. Her story of was her sister’s rape by a Burmese soldier and her shame in its aftermath.
It made us all so angry. I wish I could say we were shocked but since the Burmese military has used rape as a weapon of war in its campaign of ethnic cleansing in the communities in the eastern part of Burma, it was anything but shocking. I couldn’t stand it. I didn/t want her to believe that sexual violence had to be something of a “death sentence” to life so I decided to share my own story of sexual assault by a member of the death squads of El Salvador when I worked there so many years ago. I hope it helped.
Our time with the students ended with a song, played on the guitar and sung by the same young man who’d composed the song on the wonderfully poignant video we’d seen. If I ever feel despair, I will only have to think of the courage of these students to remind myself that my world is so privileged and I have no business with despair.
Of the estimated 30,000 Burmese children in Thailand only approximately 10,000 are receiving some form of education and this through an amazing network of schools run by the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee (most of the teachers have no legal status). Our delegation broke into two groups and collectively were able to visit over a half dozen of the schools. Although very overcrowded and seriously lacking in materials, what they accomplish is impressive.
At one school, small kids in grade school greeted us with “You are my Sunshine,” which of course made us all smile and join in. At another we were treated with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Many of the children’s faces were decorated with a yellowish colored paste applied in a variety of designs. Mia and I and others from our group had it applied to our faces too, but with a decidedly different effect. While all the kids looked terrific, we looked jaundiced! But we didn’t know that until we saw ourselves later in a mirror. Rather horrified, we washed the decoration off!
The umbrella organization has been in negotiations with the Thai government for some form of credentials so that their very existence is not threatened and the students can receive certification of having gone to school. While negotiations seem positive, it is still uncertain if and when that will actually happen.
We also had a chance to meet with some survivors of Cyclone Nargis. I’ll let one of the survivors tell you in her own words how she feels:
“The regime is very rich now. It looks like the international community is supporting and protecting the regime. They send supplies to us but it is the regime who receives it. As long as they are in power, we will have nothing.”
More on this heartbreaking story later. Tonight we are off to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia