Monsoon season is not the best time to visit Myanmar. But it meant that I got to understand how difficult the rains can make the lives of our beneficiaries – which is hard to imagine, when you consider that they already contend daily with more challenges than any human should: long-term illness (in our charity’s case, HIV or TB), infections, extreme poverty, joblessness and a lack of opportunity.
I’m familiar with monsoons having lived for five years in a part of India that recorded the country’s second-highest levels of rainfall. I know only too well how compact mud roads can be transformed into rivers of sludge, patchy electricity supply dies out, insidious mould can burgeon, and – crucially – how those in ill-health find their symptoms magnified and harder to treat. In other words, it can be utterly miserable.
Witnessing the grace, humour and calm acceptance of the children and adults that our charity treats, one can almost subscribe to the binary view that those with less, can often be the more content. Personally, I don’t believe that to be a helpful or a true view, but even so – our patients manage to remain incredibly cheerful, resourceful and open-hearted about their situation; willing to share their stories, happy to help out with the charity’s outreach work, grateful for the very basic support we give. Myint Myint Khine (12) and Htet Myat Htun (11) (pictured right with Catherine) are unrelated, but each contracted HIV as babies through dirty transfusions. They are unconditionally accepted alongside their healthy siblings and are no more or less a constituent part of their families. She loves reading; he wants to be a teacher. Than Lwin Hlaing (15) (below with his family), similarly infected, completed his secondary schooling this year – and is going on to study engineering in 2018. Ke Ma Kyi (below right), who has untreatable TB, sleeps in a hammock strung up outside her relations’ bamboo hut, because there is no room for her indoors.
In November, on a second trip, we had a wonderful time hosting visits from some of our Trustees (Tom Platts, Alice Clark and Alex Bescoby), one of our corporate partners (Roland Foord of Stephenson Harwood), and the Master of Dulwich College, Dr Joseph Spence. We would crawl for what seemed like hours in the midday Yangon sun and traffic, slightly fractious and certainly overheating, only to reach our projects and be greeted with the most kind welcomes from our project leads. At our clinic in Hlaing Tharyar, mothers and children came to receive their weekly nutrition packages (eggs, rice and cooking oil) and TB patients took us to visit their homes – such as this one, so typical of Hlaing Tharyar, where four or five family members (including the potentially infectious TB patient) will sleep. It’s nothing much more than a cube fashioned of rush matting, bamboo poles and tarpaulin, all somehow erected against the odds in a liquid swamp of sewage. In North Okkalapa, at our HIV project, we met children with HIV who we support into school (as well as medically, and with counselling and nutritional support) and who recited their academic achievements with real pride. We clapped them and their beaming smiles could not have been wider or brighter; the fact that they are battling with HIV is unknown to their classmates and even their teachers, since the stigma is still too great. It feels fantastic to show them recognition and to let them know how proud we are.
In addition, we have been forging new relationships with corporates, regional donors, and other Asian partners. I spent time meeting with the Myanmar consuls in the region, and we have some really exciting collaborations coming up in 2018: the development of a Grameen-model micro-credit pilot, geared at the long-term sick; a female financial literacy project; and a partnership with the excellent Pun Hlaing Hospital. All this is hugely positive, and precisely the direction of travel that we want the Trust to go: building strong partnerships, led by a bottom-up agenda of what works best in the local context.
However, it would be wrong not to briefly address the shadow cast across the country this year. Myanmar, its rulers, and its citizens have all featured heavily in world news this year, reminding us all how the fortunes of a country’s reputation on the global stage can pivot radically. This is not the platform to discuss the reasons behind that change in fortune. But understandably many of our supporters have been in touch this year to check in with us about the impact of events on the modest work of the Trust in Yangon.
It’s worth remembering that Myanmar is one of the region’s most geographically vast, ethnically complex, and historically conflicted countries. And that the opening of its doors has happened only very recently. (Many people I speak to appear to have forgotten, already, just how suddenly that opening up has taken place – and that the liberalising of laws, the economy, and indeed society, has happened at a pace that would normally take generations.) This is not to excuse actions, but to try and illustrate the context in which we work. Development aid has evolved in Myanmar for decades – long before the Trust was established, and long before Myanmar became the place to focus on. Ethnic, religious and social tensions have existed since long before the British, for example. My own sense is that the path to democracy and rule of law – by Western standards, at least – is never a straightforward one, and our other modern-day interventions ought to have taught us as much. Meanwhile, while the dust settles and the international community assesses the scale of the humanitarian crisis, the needs of citizens in every part the country remain unchanged. Communities are riven with poverty, a lack of sanitation, a dearth of opportunity. Illness spreads through a lack of basic health infrastructure. Children are required to forgo their schooling in favour of earning a pittance in support of struggling single-parent families. All I can say at the moment is that now, more than ever, your support is needed; and the international community must not, ever again, turn its back on Myanmar.