Organizing Behind the Lines

P1010011Mae Sot We stacked our laundry, weighed it by the kilos, and stripped down what we were taking to the essentials, leaving laptops and luggage, to head to the border over the mountains 5 hours away at Mae Sot abutting Burma.  We shuffled our few things into rooms there that were straightforward and simple (5 rooms for $70 USD), and crowded into transport to make the most of our day.

We started at Dr. Cynthia Muoung’s Mae Tao Clinic, which is legendary along the border for the health and social support it has provided refugees coming from Burma for over 20 years.  Dr. Cynthia is sometimes described as the Mother Theresa of southeast Asia, but we found her to be a direct and soft spoken woman totally engaged in the minute details of the operation, while also generous and gracious with her time with us.  She started with a small barn which has now grown to a sprawling compound of scores of buildings with 800 workers of various stripes serving more than 100,000 patients annually and handling everything from basic surgery to direct counseling and AIDS prevention.  Mike Orders from the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) had now joined our delegation since Chiang Mai and Dr. Cynthia had just flown in from Vancouver herself the day before.  Mike sits on the board of the Just Aid Foundation which provides support for the clinic, so we were met as friends.  For me the most poignant moment of this visit was watching a young victim of a buried land mine working skillfully to make prosthetics in that department.

Joining us there was the director of the Backpack Healthworkers, oneof the programs of the Clinic.  Their workers take 60-70 kilo packs of health supplies across the border into Burma to remote villages in what they call the IDP areas, which stands for Internally Displaced Persons, in other words people hiding in-country from the military occupation of their homes and villages.  He made the program sound simple and matter of fact, but the fact that the Backpackers are also sent in with armed guards to do their job of maintaining the health supply lines makes this something more than a health welcome wagon.

Our meetings became grimmer as we then visited with the AAPP (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma).  We were meeting with men who had spent 8, 10, even 14 years in Burma as political prisoners for having participated largely in student activities around the demonstrations of 1988.  Bo Kyi, the co-secretary was being congratulated at the announcement that he was to receive a special award from Human Rights Watch for his work with AAPP.  The men described for us their organizing and support work with political prisoners and their families, both still in Burmese prisoners as well as those released and now in Thailand.  Earlier most political prisoners were kept in Insehn prison close to Rangoon, but now the junta has shuffled political prisoners hundreds of kilometers away making it impossible for families to afford to visit and provide basic necessities to the prisoners.  More than 2000 political prisoners are known to AAPP.  We walked through a separate room, almost a model of a cell, with pictures of various men and women who had been imprisoned or killed because of their simple roles in standing up for democracy in that moment in the face of the junta.

Later that evening we met with two men who were part of the Karen Human Rights Group.  They could neither be identified nor photographed in order to prevent future targeting.  Though their job simply stated is to document human rights abuse, like forced labor of Karen villagers by the military, there real job was more like organizing, especially through a program they called “community agency.”  They have 30 “staff” in Burma with about 10 full-time and 20 part-time, who organizes meetings at the community level to talk about people’s experiences, usually designed in their model for ten participants but often including 30 or more as excitement builds in a village.  Here their human rights “assessment” discussion takes on a different meaning which any organizers would recognize, as people begin talking and find that they share common problems and issues, which are documented in various ways and then gotten across the border to be digested into reports and bulletins in the rest of the world.   The network is supported by clandestine visits every few months by our friends and their colleagues who stay a month or more at a time in order to keep the system working.

All of this organizing is heavy stuff.  Luckily, they do the work smartly and are favored with good fortune.  When asked what they would do if one of their organizers was caught, we were surprised that they did not have a clear contingency plan here.  People understood the risks and knew the consequences.  They had no glib response for us, because it was obvious to them, and should have been to us, that such an event was one where all they could do would be to support the family later.  Our two friends from KHRG discussed between themselves one of their workers who were shot by the military, but this was not connected to their specific work so they did not “count” it as directly involving KHRG.

Perhaps, but it was hard for any of us to forget the price organizers here were willing to pay simply in the hopes that the democratic moment might return sometime in the sweet by and by.  They hoped soon, but none of us could tell why or how they were able to maintain their optimism.

We were humbled.

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