Friday, January 28, 2011


There’s a bank of fog on the eastern horizon and some scattered mackeral clouds in the sky, tinted gold against the turquoise blue by the sinking sun to the west. It’s been a lovely day, like its predecessors, clear mostly, bright, and a lot warmer than a week ago, so that I can be in light cottons in the daytime and even into the evening. Running in baggy cotton shalwar-type pants (that date from Udaipur and a nice tailor there, in 2003) and a loose light cotton top before eight in the morning I am running with sweat by the time I’ve done my little two to three mile trot in the morning. The coldest of the cold season seems to be over, is what I’m saying.

Last Friday I headed north in a car with Fern and Noi, who is also from Chiang Mai, and an American friend visiting from Beijing. We stayed two nights at Fern’s lovely farm (checking things out before the immersethrough crew arrives) where the bougainvillea is in bloom, and the garden flourishes. We ate Jam’s wonderful Shan (Tai Yai) food one night and the second night brought home lots of eats from the Fang market and picknicked on it all, sitting by the fire outside.

Up north at the farm the mountains on the Burmese border are right there, dominating the western horizon and making the air cold, especially at night. It was strange and wonderful when I woke up that first morning to see my breath in great puffs and feel chilly when I ventured out from under the covers. There was dense fog in the morning, frequent in cold season up there. Everything becomes mysterious and dew drips from the trees and bushes. Eventually the sun breaks through and drives the mist away, and the world is transformed. Gone the mystery!

As I was running yesterday morning I was thinking about bad sidewalks and the pleasures of running. What makes it so great? There can be cars and exhaust, and hot or cold weather, and bad sidewalks, and yet it is still such a pleasure to just trot down the street. I guess endorphins truly are an addictive drug, and running is the easiest supplier of the drug, so there we go!

Speaking of pleasures, there’s a new Burmese restaurant in town, a place called D-Lo. Went there last Monday with a small crowd, including J and A, who were the ones who told me about the restaurant. By the time we pushed back our chairs, several hours of eating and conversation later, we’d tasted almost every salad on the menu as well as a number of curries. (Burmese salads are just brilliant. Naturally then, the salad chapter of my Burma book (manuscript due in June, book should be out in 2012) threatens to drown the rest. It’s a nice problem to have!)

D-Lo is so good that Fern and I think we’ll take the immersethrough group there next week for supper. Burmese is another piece of the northern Thai culinary landscape, less embedded than Shan/Tai Yai, but definitely connected. The more I learn here and in Burma, the more I know I don’t know, but at least I’m seeing more of the cross-connections, geo-political and cultural and culinary too.

The cross-connections in this complicated endlessly interesting region were the focus of a seminar I went to yesterday at Chiang Mai University. The Social Sciences Faculty is now putting on a series of talks and events relating to Burma, about one every two weeks it seems. The news about the situation in Burma is not common knowledge in Thailand. These seminars are a chance for university students and others to get informed. This one was titled “A Man Made Disaster: Implications for Thailand of Burma’s Health Catastrophe.”

In Burma the government surplus is in the billions of dollars but government spending on health care is less than one dollar per person per year. Most of that spending these days seems to be on buildings, not on services for patients, and most is in Rangoon and Mandalay. The consequence is that people in eastern Burma on the Thai-Burma border area, and also those in other border regions, have no health care at all. In eastern Burma the infant mortality is staggeringly high (30% death rate for children under five), and one woman in twelve dies in pregnancy or childbirth.

The seminar was concentrated not so much on these distressing statistics as on the fact that because of poor health care and lack of preventative medicine in Burma, and because of the war being waged by the Burmese army against the ethnic minorities in the border areas, diseases that have been all but eliminated in Thailand are endemic in the border regions, diseases like tuberculosis, filariasis (elephantiasis is one version of the disease), and malaria.

There are over two million displaced people from Burma in Thailand, and a constant flow of people fleeing across the border. It’s an ongoing humanitarian crisis. But even for those not moved by the plight of others, the situation bears thinking about: like it or not, the dire medical health situation in Burma can and will affect Thailand in a serious way sooner or later.

One group that’s working to try to help border populations is the Backpack Health Worker Team. They use volunteers from the communities that are being helped (Karen people in Karen areas, Mon in Mon areas, etc). The volunteers travel into Burma on foot carrying packpacks full of medical supplies such as vaccines, antibiotics, etc. It’s been going for nearly fifteen years and now serves hundreds of villages.

All this would not be necessary of course if the govenment of Burma were providing services or at least not waging war on the border populations. It’s one thing when there’s a natural disaster or endemic poverty; it’s another thing when the suffering is largely wilfully caused and avoidable.

How do people deal with their rage and anguish in this situation? Many flee to where the living is easier, and who can blame them? But many others become involved in trying to help, as teachers or community activists or Backpack volunteers or...

It’s all another reminder that a lot of the pain in the world is caused by people hurting people intentionally. Those of us not born into that kind of situation cannot imagine it. We can only try to stay aware and find our own individual ways of trying to help.

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