I remember when I first read a report of how women and girls were suffering under the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. I think I was about sixteen.
Widows were starving – literally dying of hunger – because they weren’t allowed to shop for food without a male guardian. Girls were kicked out of schools and forcibly married, often to much older men. I had never felt so awful about an overseas tragedy and so powerless at once. I was a teenager on the other side of the world and there wasn’t even anyone to donate to.
A decade or so ago, the leadership of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi brought the similarly disastrous situation in Myanmar (or Burma) to my attention.
A nation closed to the world, run by a military government engaging in conflicts with several ethnic minorities. A country that wouldn’t even open up to allow effective aid delivery when the worst natural disaster in its history, Cyclone Nargis, hit in 2008.
What could I do? What could anyone do?
The good news and the bad news in Myanmar
Things are changing a little in Myanmar. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
She is about to hold talks with the powerful Senior General Min Aung Hlaing about handing over power.
That’s why I call it the ‘most democratic election’ rather than a ‘democratic’ one. In a democracy, the winner takes power. In Myanmar, the winner talks to the military about whether it might be possible to do so.
Also, millions of people from ethnic minorities either were not allowed to vote, or were unable to because of ongoing armed conflict. Myanmar is still a country with serious civil wars between the military government and ethnic minority groups. Remember: Myanmar spends around 21% of its GDP on the military, despite having no external enemies.
State discrimination against minorities also extends to refusing some the right to vote at all. Most horrifically, the Rohingya, a Muslim people group in western Myanmar, have been disenfranchised, persecuted, and forced into squalid internment camps. Many thousands of Rohingya are among the desperate refugees risking their lives by fleeing with traffickers.
Even if every citizen had been legally and practically allowed to vote, this still wouldn’t have been a democratic election, because the military leadership reserves for itself the three most powerful ministries and a quarter of seats, which in turns gives it a veto over changing the constitution.
Not only is the military dictatorship of Myanmar a cause of great harm against its citizens, the country also has to deal with natural disasters from the Boxing Day Tsunami to catastrophic cyclones and flooding. And just this week a mining disaster claimed hundreds of lives.
Myanmar is overdue for some good news.
What you can do to bring some good news to people in Myanmar
You may know that my family has just relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with Partners Relief & Development, an international NGO that works primarily in and around Myanmar, to bring free, full lives to children affected by conflict and oppression.
We’ve been here for two weeks! So I’m scarcely a voice from the inside (yet) but I can tell you a bunch of ways you can join with Partners and others to make a real, tangible difference on the ground to people in Myanmar who are living pretty tough lives.
Here are four specific ways you could bring good news to the oppressed people of Myanmar, right now and over the next few months.
1. Put Giving Tuesday (1 December 2015) on your calendar
Did you notice all the #unselfie pics on Giving Tuesday last year?
This is a newish global initiative to highlight all charitable giving and prompt us to set aside some of our cash to make the world a better place.
This year the money donated to Partners on Giving Tuesday will go to providing healthcare for children of the Karen ethnic minority:
1 in 7 children in Eastern Myanmar will die before their fifth birthday. On this #GivingTuesday, December 1st, you can help keep these vulnerable children alive by supporting a Karen clinic. A gift of $30 provides medicine and care for 10 children in areas with limited access to health services. Watch the video and see how you can help today!
[Read more at Partners Relief & Development.]
2. Donate your next birthday to kids in Myanmar
3. Give (and receive) good gifts this Christmas
Any charity worth its salt now has a set of ‘alternative gift ideas’ and Partners is no different.
This year there are ten specific gifts, for just about every budget, that you could encourage folks around you to look into. It’ll save on the hassle of shopping, too!
The ten gifts range from $10 to $100. For just a few bucks you can feed a displaced family. For $100 you can enable a village to start a business to fund its own primary school.
Pick something for a friend, or pick something to request on your family gift list.
Do you reckon your colleagues might even go for this in a Secret Santa format?
Please feel free to add a link to your favourite charity gift selection in the comments below.
4. Volunteer at home or abroad
Laura, who’s in the clips above, donating her birthday and talking about Giving Tuesday, is one of the posse of volunteer interns at Partners in Thailand.
Right now, around Thailand and Myanmar, people like her are teaching English, strengthening communities, doing design work, managing IT, working in administration, providing healthcare and more: pretty much anything.
Volunteers come to Partners for anything from a couple of months to a couple of years. Some people do their university practical placement here, some come in between study and work, or at another crossroads in their lives, or for a taster to see if they want to move here long-term.
If you see the enormous need in Myanmar (or elsewhere) and feel tugged to respond personally, maybe you ought to get in touch with Partners or another on-the-ground organisation to see how you could serve people here.
We really can do something
Just on our own, we can make financial sacrifices, or spend our time to raise extra cash for donations. Every dollar can be put to good use on the ground. Obviously I’m recommending Partners as an excellent candidate for your donations, but if you’d like to explore other good options, try checking out these metacharities and their guides to strategic philanthropy:
We can all make a difference just in our own wallets and households. And if we team up with our friends and family, we can make helping people in Myanmar a community project. Donate your birthday, like Laura, or dedicate your family Christmas to funding life-changing initiatives in hard parts of the world. Ask any kids you know how they would like to make an impact.
If you have more time and energy to devote to the people of Myanmar – or elsewhere – why not investigate short- or long-term volunteering? In another post I’ll tell you all the best things so far about moving to Chiang Mai (I need to warn you, though, that it’s a thoroughly shallow list so far, and includes frequent Thai massage and this amazing service that really should be everywhere.)
Please, watch one or two of the videos (and there are more excellent clips at the Partners Vimeo), and keep at the front of your mind while watching: we can all do something about this.
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You may also be interested in these related posts:
Six ways kids can change the world (and how adults can help them)