|Aerial view of Rakhine State.|
|Sittwe Town from my hotel|
|Riding to work in the rain|
I am supposed to call this country Myanmar (its official name) but I like saying Burma better and most of the human rights activists still call it Burma because that was its name before the military coup and dictatorship here. I spent a week in Yangon – the capitol (formerly known as Rangoon). Yangon is lovely – very green and lush and I’m lucky to have been able to sublet a beautiful old house with a garden. I posted some photos on facebook of the orchids in the garden. I’ve also been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days from when he was a
colonial policeman here and Finding George Orwell in Burma which retraces his footsteps and analyzes Burma during the height of the military regime (before the recent “reforms”). “Everyone falls in love with Burma except George Orwell” claims the author and I think she might be right. Yangon is a beautiful city and as far away from the skyscrapers and malls and convenience of Bangkok as it can possibly be - definitely more my style than Bangkok. Maybe I’ll get a job here and settle down for a bit which is what I would like. However, people are
still quite terrified of the authoritarian regime, no matter what the “reforms” say so it’s an odd feeling to be part of the lucky who are benefiting from the opening of Burma and not really aware of the realities of the regular Burmese. And although I love colonial architecture, thinking about the abuses that took place here under colonialism puts a damper on tea or gin and tonics at the Strand.
|Rohingya man in IDP camp|
Poor little UNFPA, the UN agency that has hired me as a consultant, is relegated to an old storage facility in the basement of a building. The room reeks of mildew and has no ventilation as its two windows open onto the latrine and a garage where they park cars. I am outraged on behalf of my national counterpart – a young Myanmar doctor who is pregnant with her first child. She’s energetic and smart and working really hard with almost no support. I’ve started squatting upstairs in the UNDP office and spending as much time on the balcony as
possible to breathe in the fresh air when it is not raining and using the time when I have the internet to lobby for a cleaning woman, a dehumidifier, and better office space. We don’t have our own car either so I travel by “tuktuk” to my meetings –it’s a far cry from most of the NGOs which have normal offices and houses and cars here. I
don’t mind the hardship of crappy offices. I’ve worked in tents, in mud huts, and in skyscrapers. A desk is a desk after all - but the crappy office is a bit of a symbol of how little attention and care is given to the needs of the women who are displaced here in Rakhine State, in my mind. Of all the UN agencies in emergencies, UNFPA is one of the smallest. It doesn’t receive much money from the donors and its’ staff don’t seem to know how to respond to humanitarian emergencies – there is NO urgency. The staff in Yangon don’t prioritize the hinterlands and every request for something is challenged or ignored. Ahhh – life in the field. It’s frustrating being a consultant because I have no power at all but I’m going to use my voice to lobby for a healthier work place for my colleague. After all, I leave in 2 months but she has to work here.
|UNFPA office - behind garage|
(internally displaced) camps on rice paddies throughout this area. Most of the Moslems make their living as farmers or fishermen and as you might imagine, living in a rice paddy during the monsoon season is
miserable. I visited one of the best organized camps on Friday and it was very depressing. Because of the rains and the humidity, nothing remains or stays dry, most people only have one set of clothing and the children run around in the mud and rain with nothing but a small pair of shorts on. People have to live 10 to 12 families in a long bamboo thatched hut and most are not free to leave their camps so despair has set in along with the accompanying domestic violence and child beating. That’s why I’m here – to try to support the humanitarian community with training and advice on how to provide services for these women and children.
ethnic group from the “Rakhines” in this area although they have been here for over 400 years. The Burmese government calls them “Bengalis” and claims they are Bangladeshi citizens and threaten to return them there although most have never been there and have no ties there. They are basically stateless (not recognized as an official ethnic group in Burma and therefor have no citizenship and belong to no government), persecuted by the governments of neighboring countries as well as the government here and are unwanted by everyone. It’s a really tough situation with no real solution at hand.
|Rohingya boys in IDP camps|
the food is swimming in oil and not very flavorful although seafood is plentiful since we’re on the sea so I eat squid and shrimp every day. I have been dreaming of spaghetti Bolognese and chocolate bars. But actually I’d be happy to have a big green salad.
|IDP camp of Rakhine Buddhists also displaced during fighting|
permanent job and settle down and stop traveling so much in 2014. I’ve been thinking of going back to graduate school – maybe in public health or social work but I’d also just like to have a steady job in a nice organization with a decent office and a nice house so I can hang out with Simon LeBon and have a normal life again. What’s that like? It’s been fun running around Asia but I’m a bit tired of always being on the move and fantasize about taking classes and setting up a routine and getting bored and longing for travel. It’s a vicious cycle, I guess!