International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Burma/Myanmar, “obscure and obscured”

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies is preparing to travel to Thailand this week to visit camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese refugees who have fled conflict and economic hardship at home.

“Burma/Myanmar is, after North Korea, probably the most obscure and obscured state in the contemporary world.”  
- David I. Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (2009)
 
This is from one of the books I’m reading to prepare myself for the trip to the refugee camps.  The quote is from the first line of the first chapter, and it came as a big relief.  I’d been feeling awful about how little I knew about the country: a year and a half ago, before the IRC approached me to be a Voice for them, I did not know there were refugees coming out of Burma/Myanmar.  Nor could I have found it on a map.  
 
I’ve been involved with the IRC for nearly ten years, attending lectures from field workers, reading reports, and making annual donations.  I’ve followed the work the IRC has undertaken in Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti.  And even if I’d never heard of the IRC, I’d be familiar with most of the crises in these areas thanks to news coverage, movies and celebrities who explore them from various angles. 
 
But Southeast Asia?  Most of what I know ends with the Vietnam War.  I’m embarrassed to write this, but it’s the truth, and maybe I’m not the only one.  If I’m not, here are starter stats to give folks following this blog some context for what you’ll read in the coming weeks. 
 
Ten Basic Facts about Burma/Myanmar:
 
1. The country is approximately the size of Texas.
 
2.  The population is estimated at between 47 and 58 million as of 2008. (Accurate statistics are endemically elusive with this country). 

3. It shares borders with India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand.  

4. It was under British rule until 1948. 

5. It is a natural resource-rich nation with reserves of oil, natural gas, gems (primarily rubies and jade), and teak.  

6. Per capita income is estimated to be about $290 (U.S.) a year, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

7. It’s a diverse nation with 135 ethnic groups, eight of which make up the majority of the population: Burman, Shan, Karen, Kayah, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Arakanese.  Among these ethnic groups are those who practice Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.  

8. From 1962 to 2011, the country was ruled by a military junta that maintained one of the world’s most tightly controlled censorship regimes.

9. Although the country’s new military-backed civilian government has undertaken a series of reforms recently, the social and economic situation remains dire.
 
And I’m going because: 
 
10. Burma/Myanmar is the source of the world’s second largest refugee population, estimated at over 200,000 people.  The majority live on the Thai border in refugee camps I’ll be visiting soon.  
 
That’s the nutshell version, which doesn’t tell you much, I know.  I’ll try and tell you more before I go and while I’m visiting the camps.  It’s worth pointing out that I won’t actually set foot in Burma/Myanmar while I’m in Southeast Asia – I’ll be strictly on the Thai side of the refugee camps along the border.  
 
I’m off to do more reading now, but I’ll leave you with this quote from Rudyard Kipling (a poet I was raised on):
 
“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about."
 

You can read all of Sarah Wayne Callies's blog posts here. Look for Sarah's update from Thailand next week.

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