An inspiring organisation
Today was my first day back in Mae Sot, Thailand, it brought back memories of the time one year ago when I first met Johny Adhikari, a refugee, a tailor, a rice farmer, a cook and a very intelligent young man, since we met last year we have kept in touch via an internet phone we bought him.
Today Johny took me to the office of an organization he has been volunteering with, they are called the Peoples Volunteer Association,This is an amazing organization who are genuinely all volunteers, that is, not a single one of them gets any salary yet they work from 7am to 10.30pm every day without holiday to help the Burmese refugee and migrant community in and around Mae Sot. Most of them are refugees themselves, and many were involved in the past democracy protests.
They are not an NGO, and are not even funded by NGOs , they are funded by their members, Burmese people who pay atleast 10Bhat per month (about 30c) as well as some Burmese people overseas who personally know the volunteers.
Many people have asked me about which organizations are really worth donating to, and my usual response is that I always prefer to donate to local organizations in poorer countries, instead of the big NGOs. My experience with the PVA was so moving that I gave them $150 on the spot and intend to give them more. If you find you are interested in supporting these guys then let me know and we can work out some ways.
Jhonny lead me down a small street with a few simple houses and some children playing,At the bottom of this was the tiny office of the Peoples Volunteer Association, a couple of wooden tables an old computer and many posters of the Burmeses democracy movement
Johny introduced me to Thein Sun a friendly man in a cowboy hat who was the leader of the organization, he himself had been a commander in the All Burma Student Democratic Front (after the Burmese military massacred some 3000+ students, this group was formed of students with no military training with the purpose of defending the ethnic Burmese people from the Burmese military), later Than San decided to start the PVA as a non-violent way of helping the Burmese people.
Thein Sun said he was happy to meet me but unfortunately he was busy at the moment as there had been a motorbike accident where a man had died and another one sent to hospital, and he had to send people to give them assistance. I would soon find that this was hardly an unusual situation…
Johny then showed me some pictures on the wall of some protests, apparently there had been a Burmese migrant killed by a Thai man in a factory in Mae Sot, the Thai authorities didn’t follow up the case (which is a normal experience for the disempowered Burmese migrant community here) over 3600 Burmese people started a protest, the police had started using a fire hydrant hose to scare the protestors due to the mounting tension Than San came in to tell the police not to use this method. He then got the crowd to be quite and facilitated a negotiation. According to Johny and the pictures, he calmed the Burmese people down and negotiated a resolution with the factory owners where the murder was finally tried in a just manner
A few minutes later a man and a child came in to the office and the man was shouting and waving his hands about in fighting gestures, I asked Johny what was going on…
It seemed the man (in the red t shirt) was the uncle of the young boy, and the boy had been attacked quite violently by his employer, Thein Sun was trying to listen to the story, later his wife examined the boy.
Soon after a man comes in and talks to Thein Sun and Johny explains to me that there has been another accident, this time a Burmese migrant who couldn’t speak any Thai was cycling and got hit by a Thai man on a motorbike. Than San called two of his staff who in almost fireman-like fashion, ran in to a back room and came out with PVA t-shirts, they then hurriedly put these on and went of (by bicycle) to the scene of the accident.
Than San explained to him that he must commit to the 3 principles of PVA which were stuck up on the wall.
Johny tries to translate the meaning of it:
- PVA is made of members who have to be good hearted and act from kindness, this is why we made this association
- PVA is for helping the needs of people, we have to try our best to help (we never say we cannot help)
- PVA is ready to provide help for people anytime
Johny then introduced me to U Thin Htun who had been held as a prisoner by the Burmese military for 19.5 years because of his work for democracy, he now lives and volunteers full time as the secretary of the PVA, like all the other staff of PVA, he doesn’t work for any pay but is given food and a place to sleep.
You can also see in the photo, that at the same time, they were making a PVA ID card (the yellow book on the table) which as written on the card, certifies that ‘This person respect and obey law”
You see, the Thai government refuses to allow the UNHCR to register refugees here, therefore many of the Burmese who have fleed from violence then arrive in Thailand and have no form of identity, as a result they are vulnerable to police who sporadically catch Burmese refugees and demand large bribes from them, threatening to send them back over the border. Jhonny himself has been put in jail 3 times in the last month for this, which is when he was offered the card by the PVA.
Thein Sun has a personal relationship with the police here, if a refugee is carrying this card which is personally signed by him then they would in most cases not demand bribes from them.
By this time I was so inspired by this organizationthat I decided to become a member (this would only cost 30c a month but I figured Id donate some $150), Thein Sun then indicated to someone who then pulled out some documents from the drawer of the wooden desk and they then asked to take a photo of me. For a background they held a blue cloth behind, it felt really nice to be becoming a part of this amazing group.
Through the whole time we were there, which was only a few hours people kept coming in and calling Thein Sun with a whole variety of problems, it was really awe-inspiring to see him organizing everything, talking to people, and in the few breaks come and tell me about what he was doing.
I got a chance to ask him about his hat, which he seems to always be wearing in the pictures, apparently he had seen the Australian army wearing it when the went in to East Timor. He had mentioned this to an Australian friend of his who then went through some lengths to get him an Australian Army hat. I suspect its an Akubra.
Meanwhile, the uncle of the child who had been attacked was helped to write a statement if the incident, remember this all happening in one small room, on 2 wooden desks over about 3 hours.
A man comes in with a PVA football t-shirt, apparently they organize some social games to help the community get together. This principle of unity is apparently a big part of the principles of the PVA, to create more unity between Burmese people, the idea is that this unity will then help them to work together for democracy and also help to create a more harmonious country when they do some day get democracy.Check out this audio of Johny talking about the issue of unity among the Burmese ethnic minorities
Thien Sun also took some time to explain to me about his 11 years as a commander for the student army, proudly showing me a picture of his group.
Next a staff member gives me my membership form and asks me to fill out, they ask details of my height, birthmarks, education and blood type. Thien Sun somehow finds time to offer us some Boo Di Joh, a traditional Burmese food, here Johny is enjoying some..
While talking Johnny points to the street outside and tells me that last month when some 40,000 new refugees fled over the border from Burma the whole community on this street got together and cooked lots and lots of food to give to them, the whole area at the bottom of the street was converted in to a big kitchen. It always lovely to be reminded about how much of the most important ‘humanitarian’ aid is actually from within communities. I think sometimes development workers forget that.
At the prompt of another staff member, Johnny shows me an email they recently received, it is from the personal assistant of Aun San Suu Kyi herself, she had told her assistant to write us because she had heard of our organization and was asking for our help. She said she normally never asks for help like this. Recently Aun San Suu Kyi had visited a hospital for HIV victims and soon afterwards the Burmese junta tried to close the hospital in an effort to undermine her. One of the PVA staff knew Aun San Suu Kyi’s assistant personally and the PVA decided they would help by trying to collect money from their supporters, ie - the Burmese migrant community in Mae Sot. Again, this is the beauty, poor Burmese refugees and migrants getting together to help even poorer refugees
Meanwhile the child who had been beaten and his uncle came in, Johny told me that the PVA staff had gone and found the man who beat the child and had convinced him to come to the PVA office to discuss everything together.
After much discussion everyone agreed to a solution where the man would pay 500 Bhat for the child to get a medical check-up and would also sign a statement that he would never again beat any child. In the picture below, Thien Sun starts by signing the statement himself, while his little daughter looks on.
Another man then comes in to the office and sits with me and Johny, Johny introduces him as Dr Aung Moe (the man with glasses in the picture below), the resident doctor, because the refugees are at risk whenever they try to come in to the town to get help, Dr Moe instead goes out to the villagers to help them, his equipment; one thermometer, one stethoscope and one blood pressure band, like the rest of the PVA staff, he is a refugee volunteering full time for nothing but food and lodging.
Wow, what an amazing day and amazing people, I had the chance to talk with Thein Sun about how his organisation is funded, in a very animated talk (I can see why he's such a good leader) he tells me how there are many NGOs here in Mae Sot but they are not solving the problems, if he got funding from an NGO they would try to control him, try to make him act according to only that NGOs mandate "and then my life would sink down down down". So instead they rely on private donations from their members as well as from some Burmese people living overseas that he is friends with. I asked Johnny why they dont try to get funding from non-Burmese individuals overseas, and he says its too difficult, "Burmese people they understand, when you tell them some refugees have crossed the border they send the money immediately". I think to myself, perhaps there may be a lot of people in the richer countries who would understand and want to give something.
Wanna help? Send me a mail, write me a comment, there are ways...