My First Post from Myanmar
January 25, 2014
This will be a short post, as it’s getting late here in Myanmar and I’m exhausted from recuperating from what some refer to as “Montezuma’s Revenge.” Translated, that means for the past five days everything I’ve eaten has come out liquid on the other end.
TMI? Yes, for some it certainly is. But for those who have traveled in places in the world where water and sanitary conditions have forced unwelcomed and frequent visits to the toilet, this type of situation becomes part of common conversation. Without many more words on this subject, suffice it to say that I eventually had to force myself to leave Sittwe where I live and work in western Myanmar in order to visit the doctor at the international clinic in Yangon. With a course of antibiotics underway, my recovery appears imminent and my return to Sittwe a few days in the offing after taking care of some business at our main office here in Yangon on Monday.
In December I accepted a job with an international NGO as the Head of Rakhine Response in western Myanmar. Relief International’s (RI at www.ri.org) been working in both the eastern and western parts of the country since 2009. An international non-governmental organization (iNGO), My organization works throughout the world responding to humanitarian crises and implementing longer-term, sustainable development assistance. In Myanmar, our work focuses primarily on the delivery of health services in the eastern delta and response to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State in the west where displaced Buddhist and Muslim communities have been engaged in deadly conflict since June of 2012. As the head of the humanitarian response in Rakhine, I am responsible for leading our efforts primarily in a remote, hard to reach area where all other humanitarian organizations have left, other than the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. At the moment, our programs focus on the delivery of basic water, sanitation, health and child protection programs. With assistance from new donors, we will also be starting programs to provide immunizations and mobile health clinics. We’re currently finalizing funding for community dialogue projects with the hope of bringing communities together to mend the rifts that have occurred since mid-2012. You may view the video I posted on my earlier blog post here.
These first three weeks have been a whirlwind. I’ve wanted to post stories on many occasions, but limited internet access in Sittwe, the capitol of Rakhine State, has precluded me from doing so. Therefore, instead of writing a 20 page post on all that’s gone on I’ve decided to provide some bullet points in this first post from the field and then in succeeding days and weeks try to figure out a way to post short updates with a few pictures as internet allows. While in Sittwe my only internet connection is through my cell phone, which provides only sporadic connectivity.
What I mostly want to say before I bullet point my way to the end of this post is this: the situation in Rakhine where we manage two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, is dire. There are two camps – one for Muslims and one for Rakhine Buddhists. Services are limited, as money from the donor community is limited. Basic provisions of food, water, clothing and shelter are provided for those persons whose houses were burned in ethnic violence during two incidences in June and October of 2012. At this writing there is no hope that these IDPs will be able to return to their land and rebuild their homes due to a very complicated political and social situation where distrust, prejudice and deeply-held hatreds keep certain communities in Rakhine State at odds. Again, in future posts I hope to describe this situation in more detail.
For now, here are some highlights from my first three weeks:
- Arrival in Yangon on January 4th.
- A fortunate visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most beautiful pagodas I’ve seen in Asia. This is where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave her famous speech in 1988 before the military crackdown and her eventual house arrest in 1990.
- A week of orientation to the staff in Yangon, training on budget management, review of our collaborative agreement with UNICEF, who funds our program, and orientation to policies and procedures.
- Departure for Sittwe, Rakhine State.
- Introduction to the Sittwe staff and settling into my new office in this busy, chaotic, intriguing, fascinating and impoverished town.
- My first trip to our IDP camps along with a U.S. State Department delegation from Yangon and Washington, D.C.
- Many meeting with international NGOs and UN agencies that work in the area, including the Danish Refugee Committee, International Refugee Committee, Save the Children, Medicines sans Frontiers, Action Against Hunger, Lutheran World Federation, Solidarities, UN High Commission for Refugees, UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, UN Children’s Fund and UN Population Fund. I may have missed a few.
- Identification and the signing of a contract for our new guest house that will be my home for at least the next six months, and maybe longer.
- Identification of staffing gaps and advertisement for new expatriate and local hire positions.
- A visit from “Montezuma”. 😉
- A trip back to Yangon for recovery.
- A Tuesday morning return to Sittwe to resume my duties.
More stories and perspectives to share. But for now I’ll end with a few pictures from my first three weeks in Myanmar. BTW, if you’re wondering where these places are, pull up Google Maps and type in rakhine. Or you can just click here to look at the map on my web site.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
A Buddhist office blessing for our Yangon office. We also had a Baptist pastor and Muslim Imam provide prayers.
Arriving in Sittwe, Rakhine State.
Preparing for our first speed boat trip to the IDP camps.
My first visit to the Muslim IDP camp.
Temporary latrines We built in one of the camps.
Meeting with Muslim leaders in The camp.
Onlookers during our meeting with Muslim leaders.
Children playing at the jetty before our return to Sittwe by boat.