Friday, August 30, 2013

Monsoon Living in the footsteps of George Orwell

Aerial view of Rakhine State.
I am sitting in rainy monsoon struck Myanmar (i.e. Burma but we’re not allowed to say that because that’s politically not supporting the current regime) in Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan State) where I’m working with the Muslim population of internally displaced people (or as they call themselves, the Rohingya – but we’re not allowed to call them that because that acknowledges that they are an ethnic group that belongs to Myanmar and not a bunch of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as the government calls them).

Sittwe Town from my hotel
Sittwe is a beautiful little village. Just what you imagine a rural decrepit town in Myanmar/Burma might look like. Old colonial houses dripping with dark patches of damp, overgrown and lush green gardens, gorgeous mango trees and coconut palms and people walking by in their lungis with things balanced on their heads and carrying umbrellas to shelter them from the rain and the sun. There is a golden stupa in the middle of town with a giant golden standing Buddha next to it peeking out over the top of the tree canopy and gazing at the Bay of Bengal.  The sense of neglect is visible in all the buildings, the few newer ones are garish and cheap looking with that weird reflecting tinted windows that seems so common in the Middle East and China. There aren’t many cars here. People can travel around town on bicycle-driven rickshaws  where they can sit two very very thin people – not Americans- , one facing each way and the bicyclist wearing a conical bamboo hat, cycles alongside you. Or there are lovely Burmese ladies perched on the back of bicycles always carrying an umbrella to shade themselves from the sun or rain. Or you can ride in a “tuktuk”. These are different than the ones in Bangkok - more of a sort of truck bed with two benches in it and a canvas streteched over the top driven by a motorcycle or a tractor . There are a few scooters and the cars that are here are old jeeps or Landrovers from the NGOs. Men wear button down shirts, flip flops, and lungis – the patterned long piece of material that they wrap around their waist and constantly have to adjust. Many women wear traditional dress and put this pale yellow clay on their faces to protect it from the sun and wear flowers in their hair. There are police and military officers as checkpoints all over the city. The sense of a military dictatorship is still very prevalent as we all have to wait on travel authorizations and permits to leave the town.

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
In Sittwe where the humanitarian crisis is  - it definitely feels like the place that time forgot. Time moves slowly here and I’ve had to detox (which is a good thing for me!) - I’ve maybe had internet access for 6 hours of the week since I’ve been here and I was issued a mobile phone that works very poorly so I feel very cut off from the world.
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
If you haven’t read about it, here’s a brief synopsis: the humanitarian crisis here is a symptom of ethnic and religious violence in Burma – the majority Buddhist population here has been fighting with the Muslim community and burned down their houses and villages in October of 2012 driving them to live in scattered and remote IDP
(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.
Rohingya girl
Many of the people are just waiting for the rains to stop so they can try to board really unsafe ships and seek out work in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and next door Thailand (where an immigration official was recently arrested for trafficking them to work on fishing boats as slave labor). They are known as the “Rohingya” and are a separate
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
However, it’s a great group of people working here. The humanitarian world is really small – I got here and word got around and an Italian colleague from MSF who I met in Colombia in 2009 reached out to me and invited me to dinner last Friday night which was nice as there’s not much else to do in Sittwe. There is a movie theatre here but I think it only shows local films and is un-airconditioned (in this humidity and heat –it would be like sitting in a steam room with 100 people and watching a movie). There are a few local restaurants and tea houses but since its raining like mad, I’ve basically been holed up this weekend in my hotel room watching the BBC World coverage of the unrest in Cairo and Battlestar Galactica on my computer and reading training manuals and reports. I’ve caught up on any sleep I was missing in Thailand which is nice but I miss Simon, the Siamese cat and a variety of food. They have interesting salads here – and I am fond of a seaweed salad with sesame seeds and chilis that they make here. But mostly they use half a bottle of cooking oil to make anything here and
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
Well that’s it from here -  not much news to report. One year down as an independent consultant and the future is still unclear. I’ve got another 6 weeks work in Burma and then I’m back to Thailand where I’m presenting a paper and chairing a panel at an international conference on sexual violence. Then it’s back to Papua New Guinea for another month’s worth of work and then I’m free! I’m not enamored with the life as a consultant. The supposed “freedom” is not there yet as I still feel like I have to hustle for work and can’t turn anything down but I prefer being busy to not having enough to do. I think that makes me go a bit crazy. I still think I’d like to find an interesting
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!

Work Commute