The Military Coup in Myanmar and the Marist Mission in Ranong [Frank Bird, Kiwi Marist, writes from Ranong.]
While the rest of the world has been watching the horrific scenes of the recent coup in Myanmar, or perhaps looking the other way, our Marist Mission in Ranong, Thailand, has been affected by collateral damage. Visits were made to the Marist Centre by special intelligence officers to declare protests were not allowed. Every child and adult became fixed to their phone worried for their family members back in Myanmar. The Thai Government designated Ranong as one of 9 areas on the Thai Burma Border to allow fleeing refugees and asylum seekers to find shelter and safety. We hope the situation in Ranong does not develop into a full-blown Humanitarian Crisis.
In Ranong we work together in the mission with Burmese RNDM sisters who also have a community across the Myanmar border in Kawthaung. The Sisters across the way shared on the phone recently they were all sheltering together in the small toilet room away from windows, lights out because of gun shots. An estimated 10 people have now died in Kawthaung. With Hospitals closed and Doctors protesting, the ability for the wounded to receive medical attention is minimal.
There is a profound sense of grief in the hearts of all our Myanmar Migrant Families in Ranong. Most of our Myanmar Teachers are in their early – mid 20's. While they are not inside Myanmar, all of them have been educated in our Marist Education Programmes and recognize the power of the pen and not just the sword. They joined with the peers inside Myanmar calling themselves 'keyboard fighters'.
Stories are shared of families at home in Myanmar fleeing villages and now hiding in the forest afraid of what will happen next. Families living in Yangon are trying to protect their young children from tear gas coming through doors and windows. Young and old are unable to sleep and terrified to go out on the street. Young people write their name, phone number, blood type, and willingness to give their organs to help others and attach this information to their arms. They kiss their parents good-bye and bravely go out into the streets to demonstrate for justice knowing very well that they are risking their lives.
It is now almost four months since the coup in Myanmar and some of our teachers are emotionally and psychologically exhausted. Some share they can now no longer bear to read or follow social media anymore. It is too distressing. They need hope.
An icon of protest for young people: 19 year old Kyal Sin was claimed as an early martyr of the protest movement.
As the young teachers share their pain and frustration with us in Ranong, we try to invite them to put their energy and talent to good use. As a Marist Mission our education goal is to give the next generation of Burmese a much brighter future with education. Not denying their sadness, they can choose to use their gift of education to build a positive future. Tragically, while all schools in Myanmar have been closed for the past 18 months due to Covid, and the 9 Migrant Learning Centers in Ranong were closed by the government in 2019 because of fear of undocumented foreign migrants, our Marist Education Programmes have miraculously struggled on – and thanks to the Society of Mary's encouragement and supportive Donors we have increased from 75 to 230 students.
With the unfolding drama in Myanmar it is obvious that what Myanmar needs is confident and capable young leaders to negotiate the challenges ahead. We won't solve their problems, but we can support their education so they can solve their problems. We teach in 3 languages (Burmese, Thai and English) which enables them to enter relationships and sit at decision making tables. Our graduates are often requested by Government and NGO's to translate and support inter agency and multi lingual meetings. We develop leaders who will serve and not dominate – reversing a strong cultural and historical trend from being dominated by the military for the past 60 years. It is great watching their energy developing service projects in their community. We engage them in critical thinking and technology skills to negotiate complex future challenges – 60% of Myanmar people are still without electricity. It is amazing to see young students switch seamlessly between Thai, English, and Burmese keyboards on the computer. We aim to grow Marist hearts filled with compassion, respect, learning and service – values to create real community development. It is very inspiring to see our graduates lead Sunday Migrant Classes for fish factory workers who left school at 12 to begin work. They want their community to develop.
Myanmar people are frustrated with the lack of International Support. They now turn inward for solutions but there are fears an extended civil war could engulf Myanmar into further chaos.
In Myanmar and Ranong, people are frustrated with the lack of International support. They now turn their gaze and hope to their own Ethnic Armies – for support and protection. These ethnic minority groups and their armies were previously seen as 'terrorists', but now the roles are being reversed. The Myanmar Military is now labelled 'Terrorist' and the Ethnic Military groups are now looked upon as the 'Saviors of Myanmar'. International Commentators and the United Nations share concern this evolving situation could well bring about a long civil war.
Myanmar Migrants in Ranong are stuck in a difficult situation. Many parents work in the fishing industry which has been greatly affected by Covid. Factory closures, lack of work, expired work permits, complex systems to maintain valid migrant documents and legal registration, all cause immense stress and hardship. Many were considering return to their home villages in Myanmar just for survival. Hard border closures and a lack of salary is also compounded by the lack of education opportunities. What does one do without work, without documents, without access to health care, without education for their children? Families fall into debt. There are more requests for food support. More tearful requests to not pay tuition and transport fees for our students. Even before Covid and the Military Coup things were extremely difficult. Now it is tragically desperate.
Sr Ann Rose Nu Tawng begs Myanmar Police and Military to spare the children
Being close to the Migrant Families we begin to feel their fear, anxiety and frustration. Daily life experiences are on the verge of hope and despair where very effort and good work makes a real difference. This is seen in front of one's own eyes almost daily. Delivering food to a family who are on the brink of despair. A mum waiting at the school gate with her child hoping for education. Our Health Team caring for children orphaned by HIV AIDS.
Ordained Marists: Frank Bird, Larry Sabud, Kevin Redmond
The Marist Ranong mission to Burmese Migrants is journeying with people in the context of untying a very tightly bound knot. We wriggle fingers with determination and patience in the right places. Filled with Resurrection confidence and hope, we know education and health will keep families well and give children brighter futures.
We ended our school term at the beginning of April with a final day at the beach. I was struck hearing the story of some of our young 17-year-old girls. On their day of celebrating finishing 4 years of our Burmese Migrant Secondary Programme, two of them stood screaming at the top of their voice to the sea – in the direction of Myanmar – angry. It is painful to watch dreams being smashed. We work through this time of suffering and death and are waiting to welcome the inevitable Resurrection. But there is plenty still to do. As Aung Sun Suu Kyi says frequently, "hope is not enough." We must do something.
Fr Frank Bird