Skirmishes in Kayin (Karen) State, a few miles from where we were headed, broke out at roughly the same time that we left Yangon. We heard the news in the car, via phone, as the converted ambulance bumped along the road towards Kyaiktiyo town. We’d left the Naypidaw highway a while back and were hot and tired, two of us squashed into a single seat with my right thigh jammed against the unfinished metal edges of a stretcher that doubled as an arm rest. The final miles are always the longest. Mosquitoes snapped at our ankles.

“Fighting problem,” shouted the driver. “Black area zone!” From the passenger seat his companion sighed deeply and spat out his betel before delicately dropping saline solution, retrieved from behind the sun-visor, into his eyes. It had become apparent that he wore shades in the darkness because he’d had a cataract operation a few days earlier, and the high-beams of oncoming vehicles bothered him.

Our driver, I told myself, was making this recently erupted conflict sound more dramatic than perhaps it was. He shook his head vigorously whilst uttering low-level oaths about minorities he didn’t much like, vapid generalisations we allowed to pass without comment. But my buoyant idealism wavered as we neared Hpa-An and I found myself wondering whether our home-grown approach to delivering aid in a land so complex, so immense, so riven along a thousand lines of decades-long conflict, could ever work. That was ten days ago. I write this now and my views have shifted and settled yet again.


Back in Yangon, preparing for the trip to Kayin, people working in development aid look at me as if I’m an exotic creature when I say I am here to find suitable projects to fund. Their first question is always the same.

“Why Myanmar?” Clearly I am not here to profit from a fattening Asian cash cow. Neither do I look much like a grungy gap year hippy who wants to change the world with English lessons. Then I have to explain the origins of the Trust, a story which trips from my tongue quite easily now.

“But...but...” They scratch their heads. “How will you operate? You aren’t a foreign agency?” 

This bothers me. And this is when I am again struck by the weird and unexpected similarities between operating here and in rural Britain. These are not tangible, physical likenesses, rather echoes of how grand structures convey a monolithic legitimacy while small mavericks are considered quirky and transient. The opposite is true, at least on the latter charge. Being small allows us to infiltrate places on a scale that others might not. Our spending criteria is more flexible. As donors we can direct funds with a minimum of fuss. And at the core of our objectives is the belief that local knowledge and expertise is the most valuable resource in developing pilots that will actually be sustainable. Solar panels are no good unless they can be understood and maintained. Oral health awareness programmes will only go so far unless members of the local community are already invested in the need to avoid betel chewing and tobacco. Immunisation refrigeration will fail without an energised community health structure already in place. Just as a parish council or a CIC or a co-operative structure in Britain would collapse without the goodwill of its own membership, so too would we fail.  

This week the UNDP talks about ‘micro-narratives’, ‘platforms for encouraging civic entrepreneurship’, ‘horizon-scanning to engage social innovators’. It conducts comprehensive global surveys on ‘do-it-yourself sustainable development’. These are grand ideas from a grand organisation and they come with groovy branding and logos. Yet no one-size-fits-all policy will work in a country like Burma. Locally, ideas like these are as pointless to a villager in the Dawna mountains as a mobile phone with no charger and no signal. That is where small-scale incursions such as ours can work.


Telescope out from the microcosm of Hpa-An district in Kayin State and, in macro terms, you see a vast network of geographical, tribal, political, ethnic and religious fractures that have bequeathed legacies as convoluted as the contexts of their provenance. Any book about the politics of insurgency in this country will name at least 150 factions - the key ones - from which stem dizzying numbers of sub-groups. Kayin is no different except that here lives an insurgency that is 66-years-old. It has the highest percentage of landmines in the country. A few days after we arrived, driving into Kawkareik district to visit a village tract healthcare programme, we saw government soldiers in forest-green uniforms trudging along a road shimmering with heat. They carried semi-automatic rifles and crude rocket launchers. Despite the weaponry they looked bored. And, judging by the way the local children ignored them, they are a common sight. 

In a 4WD Toyota our Karen colleagues joke with the driver that the 6am sun is not the sun but is, in fact, the moon. The driver smells of Imperial Leather but he has machete wounds on his neck and arms, his right hand is missing its three middle fingers, and later he ruches his longyi high up his leg to show me a bullet wound in his thigh. Recruited into a rebel army in 1979 aged 18 he fought for ten years and was promoted to become a leader before defecting to another paramilitary faction. Now he is a benevolent presence beside me, pointing out teak plantations and telling me about his son studying in America. When I ask if he speaks any English he answers: “No!”

We’d left the tarmac of the Kawkareik road over an hour ago. Road gangs - mainly women - flattened piles of rocks into shallow trenches on a track that was a snaking path of gullies and hillocks, iron-red earth gouged with immense puddles the colour of brick. Without appearing to have ascended we soar above a canopy of green. From this vantage the Dawna mountain ridge looms closer, streaked with a halo of low cloud, and the red earth lightens to sand. And here, in an oasis of shady eucalyptus groves, the track ends and we come to a halt in front of a wooden panelled structure built on stilts. Off-grid and without running water this is the community healthcare hub at the heart of a village tract of seven villages in total, serving a population of around 1,900. Meeting the Karen staff and volunteers who run this place - who live in and around the hub itself, and who log the details of every patient who visits whilst running also malaria, maternal health and vitamin deficiency programmes - I felt instinctively that this place offered more solutions than obstacles. Its beauty lies not in the limestone foothills of those mountains, but in the invaluable and limitless potential of its people. Remote and rough it may be, and connectivity seemingly as distant as the pizza parlours of Yangon, yet the hunger of its residents to aid, to treat, to care, flickers with the brightness of an electric bulb. And, suddenly, the world feels a lot closer than I imagined it could.

The Angus McDonald Trust was born in the wake of a death in late February 2013 as I left Yangon alone after a short trip with my fiance Angus who had been in brief remission from terminal pancreatic cancer. Angus, a photojournalist, had been covering the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival which, under the patronage of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was an event that would have been unimaginable just one year previously. Symbolic of the shiny new Myanmar tourists thronged the city's Inya Lake hungrily gorging on copies of Daw Suu's books whilst such heavyweights as William Dalrymple, Jung Chang and Vikram Seth ambled alongside guests in a giggly atmosphere of shambolic chaos and goodwill. As the sun set on the lake we were filled with hope not only for Myanmar's future, but for our own. Yet Angus died just ten days later in a sudden, dramatic collapse at Yangon airport as we were leaving to return to Sydney. On my return flight Angus's ashes sat next to me; not him. As Joan Didion wrote: Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

I'd been planning to return to Asia to work in the not-for-profit sector for some time, and had been awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in early 2012 to study the devolving of funds to grass-roots community structures in coastal India. I could not take up my Fellowship since I chose, of course, to care for Angus. Yet I knew instantly, as the plane to Kuala Lumpur soared over the Andaman Sea, that if I could not spend the rest of my life with Angus that I would spend it doing something in his name, on the continent he loved, and of which he would be proud. 

Family and friends were our first donors, and from these kind souls we have amassed an incredible sum of around AUD$40,000. Our first project is to be a built structure in the town of Hpa-An, in Kayin (or Karen) State in Myanmar's south-eastern lobe. Local charities and philanthropists are numerous, but they require support. They need money. Our dream at the Trust is to make a tangible difference to the way that basic healthcare is delivered in the parts of Asia that Angus lived and travelled in, and with a minimum of administrative fuss and bleeding of funds. We pledge not to spend less than 90% of all funds raised on the projects themselves. And where local knowledge can be harnessed, we will always defer to the needs and wants of the communities themselves. 

You will be able to read our blogs here about the challenges and successes of our fledgling charity. On Monday we leave for our next trip to Myanmar where Alex Zubrzycki and I will be mapping out the primary healthcare system and assessing priority projects. Our amazingly talented group of Trustees have all accepted our invitation to support and guide us. Angus's wonderful photo-essay India's Disappearing Railways will be published in November and exhibited at London's Royal Geographical Society in December, and all proceeds from the work will go directly to the Trust.

Above all, we're excited about the opportunities ahead. The great lesson is that from deep sadness and trauma can come some hope, after all.

AuthorCatherine Anderson