RPN 19 published May 1995

11. On the Burma border by Crystal Ashley-duVerglas

Olivia Saiduangchai, aged 54, is a descendent of Thai hilltribes. Educated in Liverpool and Rangoon, she is also a health professional, a community developer and what you might call a horticulturalist for humanity.

The Kwai River Christian Hospital, where she has a small office, provides medical relief to the hundreds of impoverished local tribals on both sides of the Burma/Thailand border. The ethnic groups here, mostly of the Mon and Karen tribes, overlap the political boundary where the jungles sprawl for hundreds of square miles. Sharing language and culture, these Thai and Burmese also share many of the same health problems: this is one of the worst regions in the world for malaria. Tuberculosis and leprosy are common, as are anaemia, malnutrition and edema.

But since the bloody crackdowns on rural minorities by the Burmese government in recent years intensified against the Karen, devastating injuries from landmines and gunfire are usually borne by the Burmese alone. There are over 75,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. Forced to flee villages which are burned by troops or bombed from the air, abandoning farms because the government has repeatedly confiscated their harvests and left them starving, the Mon and Karen often arrive in Thailand with nothing but crying babies and terrible fear.

Olivia is on call every day of the year: at the hospital, going from house to house for check-ups and follow-ups, and making lengthy, exhausting forest treks to refugee encampments. She tends to her pregnant patients, following them for several months each, and has regular rounds to rural school huts to monitor the children there.

The `orchard' is yet another of Olivia's far-reaching community health projects. For about a decade, she has collected shoots, saplings, seeds and plants of the species she collects for people to eat. The payoff is astounding. Olivia's meagre eight acres flaunt mango, jackfruit, cashew, coconut, betelnut, pomelo, tangerine, banana, papaya, durian, guava, star apple, mangosteen and passion fruit trees. With the help of refugee friends, she planted 1,000 pineapple plants during her short two week vacation one year, her goal being 1,000 new banana trees as well.

`Two or three hundred sugar canes would be nice, too', she adds.

`The family of refugees living with me right now feel so good when they can harvest and sell our produce.'

`Most of all, I always encourage people in poverty to earn a living if they can, and not depend on others,' she explains. `I try to find out what they know how to do, then provide the raw materials. I get vegetable seeds for them. I buy thread and yarn and if they can do their traditional weaving, I sell it to foreign and city friends of mine, always giving the weavers the profit to keep production going. Now, many of the ladies are buying their own weaving materials.'

But what about `burnout'? Thirty years is a long time to see people suffering, especially to see things worsen. Olivia tells of once coming upon a family with all six members shivering from severe chronic malaria, all very anaemic. She brought them to the hospital for treatment and nutrition supplements. She relates now the happy sensation of, one year later, seeing the whole family fully recovered; one of the sisters had even given birth to a healthy baby. `That keeps me going,' Olivia smiles. `My mother used to say: `If you can, always share. Then you'll never need.' That's why I feel so satisfied. I have enough to eat, and extra to share.'

Crystal Ashley-duVerglas has worked with refugees in six countries and is an education specialist currently training teachers in Hungary.

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October 1996