Trip Start Oct 11, 2009
57Trip End Mar 18, 2010
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Merlin was immensely rewarding and a great chance to develop a non-tourist perspective on Myanmar. We especially enjoyed the training sessions (leadership facilitation, excel, communication and time management) and a workshop we did with the senior management team to help define roles better. It was also good for Melora and me to work together for once. There is a draft of the strategic plan floating around and lots of good ideas from Melora on how to make the community health worker programme more effective.
The CHWs are the core of Merlin's work in Myanmar – volunteers selected from each village who are educated in basic healthcare, the diagnosis and treatment of malaria and TB, water and sanitation and maternal and child health issues
We certainly come away with a better sense of the challenges of getting things done in Myanmar. It is difficult to think of anywhere else, perhaps other than North Korea, where the government makes access for humanitarian aid so difficult. Some programmes never started as the government wouldn’t give access and others stopped at least for a few years as permits were suddenly revoked. There has been increasing dialogue of late which is very encouraging but with the elections next year things will likely get more difficult again before any change
Dinner party conversations invariably turn at some point to the regime and views range from the pragmatic to the paranoid. We had to come into the country on a tourist visa, which basically restricted our access to the field sites Merlin covers. As a tourist in the main sites one is left well alone, other than by people trying to sell art and the occasional clumsy attempt to draw you into a discussion on politics. Whether a curious local or military intelligence remains to be seen, but “The Lady” is a topic best avoided.
Out in the field things seem different - one guy we met now gets a lift home from his agent and so long as one avoids the obvious topics they seem perfectly friendly. Email and phone calls are apparently scanned for the words “bomb” and “drugs” but there are also some great stories about tapped telephone conversation with calls suddenly straying into black list topics either being cut off call or just occasionally a Burmese voice will also enter the conversation and either request the topic not be discussed or ask the Francophone members to revert to English so they can understand what is going on! There was one wonderful story of a conversation between protesters near a monastery – “We want democracy!”. Asked one protester to another “Who is Democracy?” to which the response was “Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband”.
On a totally different note, the wholesale and fish markets were a fascinating early morning visit – see photos, and we had a wonderful, very entertaining evening with one of Myanmar’s top photographers who had used a friend in Bangkok as a model for one of his recent shoots. Some great portfolios of art and commercial work as well as some great shots of the post-cyclone delta and other work that can’t be shown in Myanmar. He was arrested as a student in the 1970s during the university protests for a public funeral for the Burmese Secretary General of the UN, U. Thant. After 30 days in jail he was given the choice between signing a paper saying he’d never seek to study again in Myanmar and more time in jail. So began 24 years of exile.