“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Can't help

Most of the staff from school have left now, and all the business
regarding the end of the year has been concluded, which leaves us free
to volunteer our services to anyone needing assistance. The problem
here, is that many organizations don't want it!! It's not exactly as
cut and dried as that, however. They would love to use us, but
foreigners are a liability in terms of what we can achieve. If we're
buying supplies, we pay higher prices. If we're on a trip, they stop
the bus. If we try to help, it's hard finding meaningful things for us
to do where we won't be arrested or deported. European foreigners are
simply not welcome (Asians are, but more on that later). It's so
frustrating to feel so ineffective. We had a school trip to an
orphanage go out (it was stopped at the checkpoint because of the
foreigners--we negotiated and begged and were finally allowed
through), and that felt like a contribution, but other than that it's
so hard to do meaningful work. The best thing we're good for is our
wallets (and our friends wallets). Raising money is the best way we
can help. The government wants to put their name on all the aid, but
of course aid agencies are all competing to have their name on the
goods. Every group is buying up the soon to be scarce supplies. I've
never seen so much tarp or so many sacks of rice.

One guy I know was working down in the delta and just happened to be
in Yangon when the cyclone hit. He's spent the past week down there,
and while he can't do much, the people say they feel comforted just
knowing that he's there. His agency sent him back to Yangon for a bit
of well-deserved rest. He is wiped out and stressed, and changed for
life. He talked about the stench of the dead bodies (animals and
humans) piled up there, the helplessness he felt, the complete and
utter devastation of the towns down south, where not a building is
left standing and no aid is arriving. His boat drivers did not
survive. Few boats remain because they were destroyed, and no aid is
getting in. In the places closer to Yangon that most people would see
if they got to the delta, things are recovering, just like they are
here, but down there, they really need air lifts of supplies. In one
village, a headman went to the nearest town to get supplies, and when
he returned empty handed, his village decapitated him.

For a brief while, I was confused with being a stellar journalist who
was able to record all this in several amazing photographs and submit
them to agencies and the media, but sadly, I don't really have that
kind of access. It's rumored that cameras will be completely banned in
the delta if ever the aid gets through.

For the last while, the government has been isolating itself further
and further. Europeans are too abrupt and demanding and challenging,
so the government wants them out. They prefer ASEAN countries which
they perceive to better understand them, and be less likely to
challenge them due to the culture of saving face. It is unfair, of
course, but Japanese, Indians, Indonesians, etc that apply for visas
are far more likely to get visas and permits than the likes of us.
Even the new Australian ambassador is rumored to be of Asian
ethnicity. The time for appearing Asian is now.

The long-suffering Myanmar people are getting frustrated. Simple city
mechanisms and facilities have not returned to many areas, and the
government troops presence has completely disappeared. Everyone's
power will only be returned at a price (corruption at it's most
basic), and the scalping, gouging, overpricing and other nastiness is
widespread by all sellers of all commodities. They said change would
happen in September, but it didn't. They say change will happen now.
Who knows if it will? The people are aggravated, but will they be able
to bring change when even an alternative government would be
challenged to solve these problems.

A few people from outside are filtering in on tourist visas.
Journalists, advisors, and other helpers. It's pretty chaotic but
things are happening--even if they're not happening in the places
where they're most needed.

As for me, the volunteer project I was hoping would materialize to
change the course of my life from teaching towards relief work hasn't
materialised. I am feeling at a lost to effect change, so I think I
will probably leave. I am not sure how my shipping will work out, but
I think I'm going to head to Perth after this! So many new things to
work out!

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