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Marko Cunningham


March 10, 2014

New frontiers an article by Marko Cunningham

March 10, 2014 | By | No Comments

That’s right, Marko even finds time to write his own articles about his work and life.

Check out the first part of this article where Marko explains his efforts to educate the traditional communities of Myanmar so they can help themselves.

Article by Marko Cunningham

Last weekend after a month of planning, I finally made my trip to Myanmar to the Karen State. I had arranged to meet U(Mr) Hla Tun who ran the first ever Karen run rescue service. I had first met him on Facebook of all places, with the relative ease of internet access on the border town of Myawaddy, it has opened up the flow of information from the once closed state, but in saying that, most Burmese still have no idea what Facebook is,

and those who do have it, have only had it for a year or so. Some of this has been edited since I do not want to get too political or make problems for myself or any of the staff of this organization.

The Karen (or Kayin) are a minority people but still number at an estimated at 7% of the 50 million in Myanmar, for years they have been persecuted by the Burmese Junta and many of the Karen continue to live on the Thai side of the Thai-Karen border. NGO’s have found it almost impossible to enter Myanmar from the eastern side and only a few are active in the capital Yangon.

The UN is relatively inactive in this area despite a 60 year civil war and thousands of documented human rights abuses. Just 2 years ago the border was closed as war broke out in the town of Myawaddy and has only recently re-opened. Landmines litter the banks of the river and under the border bridge. This week you have seen on the news how the government has kicked out and blocked Aid workers in the northern part of the country, the country is supposedly getting better but it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back.

The KNLA is the military branch of the KNU (Karen National Union), and are still very active in the states’ jungle areas. Each dry season an offensive by the military Junta takes place, this can lead to more displacement and human rights abuses for the civilian population of Karen living in or near these areas.

I asked about the news of Japanese investment, the opinions were mixed, with a general consensus that they Karen would see little or no benefit from it. And I can understand their passive resigned feelings, we can all pretty much see from past examples that the big companies and countries(one in the same) will come in a take all the resources, the elite and powerful of that country will get rich, and that will pretty much be it. It’s the same scenario all over the world.

Anyway, it was therefore with some surprise that I found myself a month later in the Myanmar town of Myawaddy meeting with the first ever rescue service run by the Karen people (The “Myawaddy Free Funeral Services Society”). Many people warned that I risked arrest for helping the Karen people there but in fact I was introduced by U Hla Tun to the Burmese immigration official who welcomed me to the State. I felt very comfortable the whole time there. Of course I know that this could change in a split second and there are several foreigners currently residing in the infamous Insein prison, but these are the chances we take sometimes to follow our dreams and to do something worthwhile.

Admittedly part of this first visit was to see that everything was as it seems. In a country that has been relatively isolated from the rest of the world and corruption in every part of Asia at an all time high, I had to make sure before committing further resources.

After my 2 day visit I was more than satisfied that this foundation is the real deal. Very real people, with a good cross section of the local society and religions, predominantly Buddhist with Christian and Muslim members too. Roughly 70% male and 30% female but all slightly older than I had experienced in Thailand. This could be due to the outflow of younger people looking for work in Thailand. The total number of registered volunteers is around 200 but many of them are busy trying to make a living or just finding their next meal.

One of the obvious problems in Myanmar is that there is no work. In the Karen state there are no factories or other places to work. Almost everything is imported and local goods are often more expensive than imported. The average income is less than US$1 per day with thousands of homeless people and people without families. HIV, TB, Malaria and many other third world diseases are rampant here. The foundation is busy every minute of the day, the volunteers sometimes work all day without time to even eat. One meal a day is the norm. I felt incredibly guilty and uncomfortable at having a large spread of food set out for me, and strangely no one else ate with me.

The one government hospital in the town has the only other ambulance but will not go out unless the patient can pay for it. That also goes for treatment, the hospital will not treat anyone unless they have money, U Hla Tun’s foundation often takes patients to the Thai hospital over the border in Mae-Sot. He laughs as he tells me, they never complain when we take Burmese patients there. They give them bills but know they will never pay. That is not to say that all Thais are sympathetic to the Burmese people, there has been a lot of criticism about the treatment of Burmese people in Thailand, but that is beyond my scope of knowledge.

We tried to visit the government hospital but not long after we stepped inside the only doctor there came running out and said I had to leave. He politely but strongly insisted that I must have permission from the Burmese government to look inside. I get the hint immediately and push our group to leave quickly, they seem a little surprised at the doctors attitude and a little embarrassed, I wonder how much do they really know of the seriousness of having a foreigner delve into Myanmar’s’ affairs. Am I the first foreigner to visit them in this way? I suddenly feel worried for U Hla Tun should there be any back lash of my visit but a week later there seems to be no problem and he is asking me when I will return to start teaching the volunteers.
I spent the rest of the day talking (in Thai) with U Hla Tun and his volunteers, it was a pleasure to meet a man who had the same ideals as myself, that is, free education and healthcare for all. I also come to know that his efforts are not only concentrated here, the is no running water in the hill areas of Myawaddy city. Only the parts of the city on the flat have running water, therefore a lot of effort and time is spent distributing water around the city, this worsens in the summer months.

I spent the first day just talking and visiting clinics, schools, morgues, temples and getting to know the staff there. On the second day I had an impromptu EMS lesson for the ambulance workers who I found out had never had any training whatsoever. I made notes and plans and made a plan of action for the development of the rescue-ambulance service. I also made note of other services that need to be looked at in the near future such as drinking water and child education.

U Hla Tun tries to manage all this by himself, needless to say he sleeps and eats sparsely, his loyal workers joke to me that he drives them like slaves but you can see the love in their eyes of a man who leads by example. U Hla Tun left his house several years ago and has never returned, he now sleeps in the office that he runs the foundation from. He has given up his life and devoted it to others.

He impressed me so much and has now given me rejuvenated energy to do more. I am already planning my next trip back to do some formal EMS lessons and also take some basic EMS equipment for the ambulance. I’m so keen on it I am not even waiting to find sponsors to help with paying for the equipment as I have never had much luck with them anyway, instead I’m using this month’s(and maybe next’s) pay check from my school to buy the things they need. Saying goodbye was quite sad even after only 2 days and since I have been back home I can’t stop thinking about them all and can’t wait to get back.

After returning to Thailand, once again I’m surprised at the ease of the whole trip. I see large NGO’s with million dollar budgets making endless reports and working only on the Thai side of the border. My trip only cost me about $100! And I am now the only foreign representative in the town of Myawaddy that is working with the rescue service getting immediate essential education to local EMS staff that cover a very large portion of the whole Karen state.

That’s not a reflection of my skills or ability but a reflection of how wasteful and bureaucratic large NGO’s have become. I often chide my friend who works for the UN in Bangkok mocking his luxurious condominium and saying that it would cost me my entire salary to afford that for a month! I’m always surprised that he keeps our friendship when I am always complaining about the UN and other NGO’s.

Marko still returns to Burma periodically to maintain relationships and help the U Hla Tun foundation achieve their objectives. Help Marko help people all over Southeast Asia by Donating to his cause.

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