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By Robert Semeniuk
Published: December 26, 2007
"Sweat runs off the faces of the two boys, 17 and 20 years old, who crouch in the front trench with us. After each shell hits, they strain their eyes to see through the dust, and over the logs piled in front of the trench to prevent grenades from rolling inside of it, and shoot blindly down the hill, where the Burmese soldiers are. After the chaos and paralyzing panic comes the eerie silence between artillery barrages and machine-gun fire. This morning, five Karen soldiers were killed and nine injured."
I wrote this in 1988, after walking for days in the jungle, up and down steep hills, with a group of young Karen soldiers heading to fight the Burmese military.
We slept on the ground and ate only rice and fish paste. The nights were freezing and the days humid and hot. We passed groups of people carrying small children and whatever little else they could, wrapped in little bundles on their heads. They were heading to the relative security of the border, away from their destroyed village, which we walked through days later. Nothing was standing, everything was charred.
Another day, we met a group carrying a boy swaddled in a bloody sling hanging from two bamboo poles. He had stepped on a landmine while running from a village shelled by the Burmese military.
I saw the boy a few weeks later in a clinic near the border where a Karen doctor had successfully amputated his leg. Now he was being treated for malaria. So was I. I had contracted it from sleeping too many nights in the jungle with no net, and not enough smoky fires. It was gruelling. I was exhausted and sick, and I had only been on the move in the jungle for a few weeks. The Karen have been here either resisting the dictatorship or running from them, since 1948. The young landmine victim died of malaria. I never knew his name, but I've never forgotten the young doctor who treated us.
Cynthia Maung was freshly out of medical school and on the run from a government in Rangoon that was imprisoning and killing democracy activists. Her mission was to give emergency medical attention to fleeing students.
Today, Dr. Cynthia is called the "Mother Teresa" of Burma. She is internationally acclaimed for her enduring dedication to human rights and helping the displaced people on the border. She is the director of the multi-department, 120-bed Mae Tao Clinic that sits on the outskirts of Mae Sot, Thailand, five kilometres from the Burmese border. Last year, with a staff of 300, the clinic treated 8,000 malaria cases and over 100,000 patients. This is only a small portion of the estimated 1.5 to 2 million political and economic refugees uprooted by the world's longest civil war, its darkest dictatorship, and an unbearable economic disparity.
Burma's biggest killer
It is prenatal day and scores of mothers and children quietly wait to have their blood tested for malaria parasites and to have their babies weighed. If malaria is diagnosed early it can be treated in 24 hours. The sound of children crying is barely audible over the chirping and whistling tropical birds that populate the courtyard trees. I can't hear the mosquitoes, but they are here. The jungle is their perfect habitat and this battlefield is home to the planet's most drug resistant plasmodia parasites and the most lethal strain of malaria, "falciparum plasmodium."
Despite widespread human violence, malaria, transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito, is Burma's biggest killer.
It is the rainy season, mid-July, not yet 9 a.m., and two new malaria patients have been admitted to the clinic. One woman is unconscious. The plasmodia parasite population is exploding in her blood stream. The attending medics, all trained here, explain that she needs an immediate blood transfusion, or she will die. They gather around her, needles ready. They cannot find a vein because she is too dehydrated and anemic. She is one of the 350 to 500 million people in over 100 countries ravaged by this sophisticated parasite that multiplies and mutates and hides from the immune system.
"If they make it to the hospital, they almost always live," says a medic when I ask about her chances of survival. At least one million people die from malaria every year -- some estimates go as high as two million -- with half the fatalities being children under five years old. The number is increasing because of lack of treatment, drug resistance and mosquito persistence. Warmer temperatures, deforestation, increased travel and indiscriminate anti-malarial use are expanding the mosquito habitat. The fear is the world's fastest killing malaria will find its way to Africa and the temperate zones.
The other new patient is barely conscious. There are no vacant beds, so they lay her on the floor. She is already connected to an IV. Twenty-six years old, very thin, delicate features, beyond pain, she looks innocent and bewildered. Then her head sways back and forth like it is too heavy for her neck. The whites of her eyes roll and her arms flail over her head uncontrollably, like a possessed rag doll. Fever and delirium come in waves. It means the parasites are reproducing, bursting the red blood cells before they return to the liver and the cycle begins over again.
Her father carried her here, a five-day journey, with the help of members of the Back Pack Health Worker Team. This group of medics, trained at the Mae Tao Clinic, trek for months in the Karen and Shan States, at great risk and with meagre resources, to deliver emergency and primary health care to an estimated 140,000 internally displaced people.
The total number of internally displaced people, or IDP, along the eastern border of Burma is estimated to be between 500,000 and 600,000.
Many of these people are always on the run. Their communities have been systematically destroyed by soldiers. They are denied land, education, healthcare and freedom of movement. They live in the jungle, often without the basics of food, clothing and shelter. Malaria and malnutrition statistics among the IDP in eastern Burma rival the worst in the world.
Then there are the refugees on the Thai side: 160,000 of them are registered and live in 10 UNHCR camps. The rest, over a million of them, are undocumented migrants, with no legal status. Other than drugs, these migrant workers are likely Burma's biggest export. The Thai Government is attempting to ID and register some of this huge, cheap labour pool. Until then, no legal acknowledgment means migrants are vulnerable to extortion, arbitrary arrest and deportation, abuse from employers and police, torture and poor health, especially malaria.
They are smuggled around Thailand to wherever there is work. They find it in the sex industry, construction sites, restaurants, farms or in one of the hundreds of sweatshops hungry for cheap, obedient labour. The migrants work long hours for miserable wages and living conditions. I met Win, 23, and Sony, 26, (I asked her name, she said "just call me Sony") at a shelter run by the Burmese Women's Union located about a half-hour motorcycle ride outside Mae Sot. I got there through an introduction from a medic at the Mae Tao Clinic. I was given a phone number and a name, Rebecca. Not her real name.
I'm not surprised, because many people don't want their names used. Administrators at Dr. Cynthia's clinic suggested I not publish patients' names. "It is illegal for anyone to leave Burma without proper documentation. The human rights work I do here is seen as anti- state activities to the Junta. For most of us, it is better to remain anonymous," Rebecca says, while translating as Win and Sony tell me about working in sweatshops.
They currently work in a garment factory, but they have also worked in a sweatshop that made electronic components. They often work seven days a week, for a minimum of 12 hours a day, and sometimes up to 18 hours a day. They pay their employer "security fees" (for payoffs and work permits that often never arrive) and an allowance for food (they eat rice) and "accommodation" (they live in the factory). Their take home is $30/month. Or it would be if they had a home and they took it. "We send it all back to our families in Burma," they say.
They look tired beyond their years. Their faces are resigned to the utter lack of control they have over their lives. I ask the older one how long she's worked, eaten and lived in sweatshops. She says "nine years" -- washing her clothes and dishes in the same water and sleeping on crowded shelves stacked four high. "If you are too sick to work, they fire you" she says. Neither one smiles. They have experienced too much. Or too little. "It is modern slavery" a doctor at a clinic remarked.
The low pay is no deterrent for people struggling to feed their families in Burma, where unemployment is 80 per cent. More and more migrants and refugees stream across the porous border. At the bottom of the ladder are 200 migrants that live on the Mae Sot garbage dump, and the hundreds of "illegals" that end up, every week, in the holding tank behind the police station. The latter are herded into a caged truck and hauled back to the border, only to return again another day. They have no legal rights on either side of the border.
The increasing number of dislocated people reflects the elevated suppression, and isolation of the dictatorship. Elite cadres get rich on booming trade with China, Thailand and India, but the masses remain dirt poor, disenfranchised by decisions that affect their lives. Persecution is rife in Burma, where secrecy, fear and systemic corruption rule the day.
The Burmese government does not want foreign eyes witnessing its brutality or the plight of its people. Organizations like the Red Cross and MSF have pulled their missions out of Burma because of increased restrictions imposed by the dictatorship. The United Nations Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was forced to withdraw its five-year, $96 million dollar grant agreement with Burma.
Disease, an oppressor's ally
Without the backpackers, the internally displaced people would have no medical care and there would be no documentation of the link between poor health and human rights abuses. Through use of epidemiologic tools, field observations and surveys, the Back Pack Health Worker Team estimates that malaria accounts for half the deaths among internally displaced people and that at least 12 per cent of the IDP population is infected at any given time. Infant mortality is twice as high among the internally displaced population as it is in stable households.
Households that suffer theft or confiscation of food, physical abuse or forced labour at the hands of soldiers are many times more likely to suffer from malnourishment, diarrhea, night blindness, malaria and landmine injuries.
In Mae Sot, I arrange to meet "Eh Kalu," a leader of the Back Pack Health Worker Team, at their office off the highway on the way to the "Friendship Bridge," which is the only official border crossing.
"We don't call it an office, it is a house. Because of our illegal status in Thailand, we are not allowed to have offices, only houses," Eh Kalu tells me, as he shows me around their two crowded rooms. In one corner are bales of mosquito net material. A huge map detailing their operations covers one wall. "Most of the time, a curtain is rolled down over it," he says.
Ten or 15 young people, mostly in their 20s, sit at computers, working on tasks including the creation of training manuals and medical hand-out sheets, funding applications and record keeping -- budgets, logistics, statistics and maps. He tells me "there are hundreds of unofficial places to cross the border, and they change depending on the security in the area." He means military clashes near the border and the periodic clampdowns by Thai border guards.
'Backpackers' risk death to heal
I learn there are 300 backpackers in 76 teams. They have 284 health workers inside Burma and they have trained over 7,000 village health volunteers, including more than 500 traditional birth attendants.
They do their work in the face of overwhelming difficulty. How can they not be overwhelmed? Their home is the jungle path. They have been beaten and shot by soldiers who confiscate their medicines. They distribute medicine knowing that soldiers who find it will beat those they are trying to help -- or worse.
Since 1998, when Dr. Cynthia helped establish the organization, eight backpackers have stepped on landmines. But they are not overwhelmed. They walk on alongside a frightened father, helping him carry his delirious malaria-stricken daughter five days to a crowded clinic. And their research is chronicling how and why the Burmese government is making people sick, and contributing to the spread of infectious disease.
When freedom is denied, the vulnerable become invisible and human rights are held with little respect. Burma spends two to three per cent of its budget on health and 40 per cent on its 400,000-strong armed forces. The dictatorship has created a new capital 460 km north of Rangoon: a fortress with boulevards, new buildings, highways and apartments, carved out of virgin jungle.
This is a regime that aims to be isolated.
In the meantime, millions of people suffer, mostly from malaria, but recently from a 500 per cent increase in cooking gas prices. And the world sits by.
Robert Semeniuk, a veteran photojournalist based in B.C., has covered war and injustice around the world for a quarter century. This article was made possible with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency. Semeniuk's latest, newly published book is Among the Inuit.
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