5Qs – Visiting a Burmese Refugee Camp | Monday Mag
This article is an interview that my aunt had with Monday Magazine that came out today. Diane is the reason I am going to be chained to my kitchen for the next day, baking for her tea to raise money for the people of Burma. Its a great article and a great cause!
A well in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border
Credit: DIANE PENNOCK
5Qs – Visiting a Burmese Refugee Camp
Posted By: Otiena Ellwand
06/02/2010 8:00 AM
Diane Pennock helps the people of Burma
Victoria resident Diane Pennock knew little about the country of Burma (officially known as Myanmar) when she first decided to accompany a friend there in 2009, but meeting the Burmese people, who are some of the poorest in the world and have been dealt brutal cards (nearly 50 years under a military regime and a deadly cyclone that hit in 2008), changed her life. In a month’s time she visited 10 orphanages, a leper colony and a remote medical clinic, and knew she had to share her experience upon her arrival home. Pennock also knew that she would be back soon. Last January she embarked on her second trip—this time to the Thai-Burma border, where there are millions of refugees living in squalor. She volunteered with a few Canadian charitable organizations that work with Burmese orphans, met children who’d been bought and sold into trafficking and were now being protected in safe houses. She also met some of the Karen people, a minority group who do not consider themselves to be either Thai or Burmese and have been struggling to keep their identity for over 60 years. “The SDPC [Social Development and Peace Council, a.k.a. the Burmese military] routinely burns down villages and crops, beats and kills the men, forces the boys into the army, beats, rapes and kills the women and girls,” says Pennock. “When I was asked to speak, I talked about my family and my home, and how I have taken for granted the peace and security I have known all my life.”
Monday Magazine: Can you explain what you think the main issue is here?
Diane Pennock: How little is known about Burma, its political climate, the human rights violations and the plight of the people. I had heard of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, but didn’t know she is Burmese and has been under house arrest for most of the last 20 years. And some people are aware of the difficulty that relief organizations had in getting into Burma after Cyclone Nargis. But for the most part, Burma is rarely in the news, the general public isn’t aware of what goes on there and, as a result, it isn’t high on the priority list for charitable donations.
MM: When you got to the refugee camp, what do you first remember about it?
DP: I was overwhelmed by the size of the Mae La refugee camp: 40,000 people living in close proximity, basic shelter, no running water, no electricity and very basic food rations. This is one of only 10 refugee camps on the border that are recognized by the Thai government. They have been in existence for 25 years or more; some of the children were born there and know no other life. There are also lots of informal camps that are built by the Burmese who have fled their country because of poverty and human rights violations. When the Thai army discovers these makeshift camps, they are burned down.
MM: What did you do at the refugee camp?
DP: While at Mae La I visited two dormitories for “unaccompanied children.” This includes orphans and other children who have arrived on the border without adult guardians. I met the young people who live in the dorms and gave a talk to encourage them to keep studying. They have so little access to the outside world, and although hungry for knowledge, they have no context for how it will help them. A sense of hopelessness permeates the camps and results in a high rate of suicide.
MM: What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about your experience?
DP: People sometimes ask me why I have become involved in the Burma issue, and there is no simple answer to that—except that we really do live in a global village, and a little-known country with an estimated 55 million people is being subjected to unimaginable atrocities and for the most part, the public knows nothing about it. If I had been told a couple of years ago that I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed it. Burma wasn’t even on my radar! And yet here I am.
MM: What’s next for you?
DP: Good question! I have to decide whether I am going back to Mae Sot to do volunteer work or to just continue the work from here. It is an interesting time for Burma, as the first elections held in 20 years are coming up in October. The Burmese have been patiently waiting for this election for many years, but most observers predict that nothing will change. It’s hard to say what will happen when the people realize that. M
There will be a fundraiser tea from 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Matthias Church Hall. Tickets are $15 at Ten Thousand Villages and Full Circle Studio Arts. All funds raised go directly to the Room To Grow Foundation in Mae Sot (roomtogrowfoundation.org). For more on volunteering at the refugee camps, contact Diane at firstname.lastname@example.org.