Every Hill Tribe refugee in Thailand longs for the day when the political situation in Burma changes, and they can return safely home. But nobody's holding their breath. The brutal military "leadership" in Burma, like any true narcissist, has proven to be tenaciously immune to political pressure, public opinion, or logic. If there's one thing that can be said in their "favor," it's that they haven't attempted to hide their evil intentions behind rhetoric, but are outspokenly proud and open about their onswervable goal of eradicating any ethnic minorities.
Against the background of this dire situation are some very bright lights, the voluinteers, missionaries, and NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) who have made the survival of the refugees possible. It has been my privilege to be associated with two of these wonderful organizations, Partners Relief and Development, (http://blog.partnersworld.org), and Free Burma Rangers (http://www.freeburmarangers.org). Their respective websites provide a wealth of background on the history of the refugee situation.
Despite occasional errant, but well-meaning efforts of some individuals and organizations, for the most part outside help is greatly needed and appreciated. Amy Tan's novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, describes some of the "fails" in this regard, but these are not the norm. However, we do need to acknowledge and correct misguided rescue attempts when they occur.
It's natural, when one sees a dire situation anywhere in the world to want to fly in with one's red, white, and blue cape and save the day. Once you make your heroic landing at the scene, however, you realize just how vast and staggering the problem is. It's taken half a century to get where it's gotten, and it will take at least that long to fix the problem. I was made very aware of this by my second trip to the border, in 2002. I wrote a very reflective article for the Partners' newsletter called, "The Ministry of Showing Up." The article was extremely well received, because even many veterans of the relief efforts realized that Showing Up was about the best they could do.
And yet, despite this, showing up is extremely appreciated. Many refugees, when asked what they need most will say, "Just telll people about our situation. We just need to know we aren't forgotten." That's something I can do.
The fact is, the Karen refugees are EXTREMELY resourceful people, capable of surviving and thriving under the most dire circumstances, as long as they have hope. That is one thing we can give them by merely showing up.
Amy Tan's analogy of Saving Fish from Drowning is well-taken. What may SEEM like an obvious problem to the Westerner may not be the most pressing problem for a refugee, who, like the fish under water, is well-accustomed to his environment. I'll have to "tell" on one of our own major "fails" in this regard. On one of our earlier trips, we were asked to help build a youth hostel for refugee kids, just outside of Mae Sot. This was actually sort of a halfway house for some of the very few refugees who managed to obtain Thai citizenship status. (This path is an extremely long, convoluted one, and I'm still don't understand all the details of how this happens). At any rate, we had a couple of experienced builders on our team, and they knew just how to finish this building...at least according to their vast experience. The hostel had been about half finished using cinder blocks, Our experts didn't like the idea of finishing the rest of the bulding with traditional bamboo, which needed replacement every couple of years. So they told the head master they would be much better off using actual lumber. What none of our people realized was that obtaining teak for the project was totally illegal. Snce we were the "authorities" the Karen leaders, at INCREDIBLE risk to life and limb found some teak lumber to finish the project....carrying the lumber on their backs under the cover of night...from God knows where. (We only learned olf this after the project was finished). Well, the project was finished, but if anyone had gotten caught, it could have had devastating consequences for any future help from Americans or any other Western visitors. We learned our lesson. And it's actually a very simple one. Ask questions first and BELIEVE the answer you get. The locals know how to build their own buildings...they've been doing it for millienia. Then never asked for our "advice"...they just asked for a few extra hands to wield a machete and lash some bamboo.
Fortunately, such instances are much less frequent than in the past.
Up Next: Sleeping with the enemy
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.