Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part two

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 10:57

Tired and hot, Emma and Joanna guzzle coffee and find out from the ActionAid Myanmar team that even getting people here to realise they have rights is a struggle.

After two hours sleep, I feel like I've been run over. Miserably hot, Joanna Kerr and I pile into coffee to stay awake, staggering off to the ActionAid offices in Shihab’s car, whose front door doesn't open. Even the cheapest cars are immensely expensive here and a SIM card costs an average of $500.

3 PM: We are sitting barefoot on the floor with all the staff, talking. Shihab is so impressed with the Fellows that now ActionAid wants to work exclusively with them. Tindy is excited about meeting them “because I am YOUNG too!” he hisses at me pointedly. “Are there any old Fellows?” I ask. “No” says Shihab.

Our conversation quickly highlights some major differences between the work that must be done here and that of other countries.

The first stumbling block is that most people have no idea they have rights. They have been rendered powerless by twenty-six years of dictatorship. They rarely do any development without the involvement of an NGO, creating a disastrous dependency, the very model for Bad Aid.

Another big difference is that there probably still exists a complex spying system, so that everything undertaken is reported on. Naturally, this makes any community feel extremely nervous and it’s certainly not conducive to the building of freedoms in thought and speech that have been so conspicuously lacking here.

Another is the ethnic diversity and the longest-running civil strife in the world – there are seven different ethnicities and the policy of the military has managed to keep the levels of strife well up with the obvious, negative results.

In the face of these challenges it doesn’t surprise me to hear that ActionAid is involved in policy-making – there is, for instance, no law against domestic violence and the Deputy Director General wants the organization to help develop one.

We talk about money – 85% of their budget goes into the projects which is very impressive. People here live very modestly. Two young female physiotherapists who look, to me, no older than my 12 year-old daughter Gaia, tell us they’ve been running a project for the disabled since 2009 with no money at all. There were so many people disabled by the cyclone that people came on board to help willingly.

Carry on reading Emma Thompson's diary