The Lived Experience of a Medic from Burma

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Mia and Ci Sae (friend/translator/CHEPP Assistant Coordinator) interviewing Khaing Zaw Wun at the Back Pack Health Worker Team facility

Each week that goes by, I am exposed more and more to the lived experiences of those who live in Burma. At Back Packers, I have had the opportunity to interview medics about their experiences of growing up in Burma, training to be a medic in Mae Sot, and going back to Burma to provide medical care for those in need. I have interviewed people from many different ethnic groups, including the Palaung, Karen, Kayan, Mon, and Arakan groups. Each medic has a different story, but they all have the same goal – to help their people and to make Burma a better, healthier place. The first time I was made truly aware of the hardships people in Burma face was while interviewing a medic named Khaing Zaw Wun who is from Arakan statea state in Southwest Burma.

In Arakan state, hospitals are few and far between. The Burmese government has completely overlooked the rural areas, providing medical services only to populated cities. Without passionate individuals, such as Khaing Zaw Wun, who have noticed the lack of primary health and have thus decided to turn being a medic into their life’s work, Arakan state would have a much higher mortality rate. For example, Khaing Zaw Wun reports that in the past, the rate of maternal deaths during childbirth was very high due to the lack of health services in Arakan. Statistics like this is what inspired Khaing Zaw Wun to join the Backpack Health Worker Team back in 2012.

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Khaing Zaw Wun is from Arakan state, highlighted in red

Because BPHWT is not recognized by the Bangladesh, India, or Myanmar government systems, Khaing Zaw Wun has had his fair share of nerve-racking situations. He has endured many transportation difficulties, sometimes causing his team to lose their medical supplies – especially in rainy season. Khaing Zaw Wun recalls one experience in which his medicine was ruined in part by rain, and in part by the military: “The medicine was destroyed by the rain but not by the people. But on purpose, the military blocked our transportation. They told us: ‘There is military movement in this area, so you have to stay here.’ So the distance that has to travel only 3 days took 5 days. Then, in the rainy season, the medicine got destroyed by rain.” Luckily, Backpack Health Worker Team expects this sort of obstacle to arise during travel, so the organization sends money along with the Back Packers so they can make the journey to neighboring countries, India in this case, to purchase more medicine.

Khaing Zaw Wun explains that his situation in Arakan State is quite different from the Karen state because he is situated very far away from other countries; his border is mostly the sea, so his people have no easy way out. Because the government does not like the Back Packers treatment, they create restrictions for them, such as allowing Back Packers to only go into their “targeted area.” If they go out of their targeted area, they are subject to arrest.

Military abuse does not end there. Khaing Zaw Wun describes a time when there was a fight between the Arakan Army (AA) and government military that broke out in 2012. During this time, the government troops did not allow the medics to enter their own villages because they thought that the Back Packers were going to treat AA members. If the medics chose to disobey these orders, the government threatened to burn down their villages. Another time, military members forced an entire village to move to a new village. Their reason: there was “military movement” by AA and another organization. Back Packers were not aloud to go to either village to give medical help. Khaing Zaw Wun has even been in a situation where he was forced to leave a patients side because he had to run from the government.

When he is not running from the authorities, Khaing Zaw Wun is able to do some incredible work. He treats common diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and other common diseases. He has seen three patients who were complaining of acute abdominal pain. Two of those cases were successful, but in one case, he had to refer the patient to the hospital. Unfortunately, the patient died because the trip was too far. The hospital that him and his team refer their patients to is a journey of 3-5 days away. Patients cannot go directly to the hospital – they have cross the river, move into India, travel through India, and come back into Myanmar in order to avoid the military checkpoints. Khaing Zaw Wun reports that patients sometimes die because they lack the funds needed to rent a boat for crossing the river. Additionally, getting into India is difficult because only those with Indian registration cards can legally enter India. Khaing Zaw Wun and his team do as much as they can for their patients before referring them, but BPHWT is the only organization working in healthcare in certain areas, making their job very difficult when they have a limited amount of medical supplies.

Khaing Zaw Wun wants the international community to know more about what is going on in his area. To begin, he explains that his community has difficulties accessing clean water. They use water from the stream but in summer, the stream goes dry. So before summer arrives they must dig a hole beside the stream, such as a well, to access the water. This untreated water leads to diarrhea cases and other minor illnesses. So Back Packers does their part in helping the community get safe drinking water by educating students and community members on how to dig a well beside the stream, how to cover the well, and how to treat the water before drinking it.

Arakan State suffers in more ways than one. Khaing Zaw Wun explains that the government has cut off funding in 4 healthcare departments in Arakan state: transportation, food, medicine, and education. These cuts made by the oppressive military regime have made it incredibly difficult for Arakan State to build a solid infrastructure. Khaing Zaw Wun estimates the reasoning for these cuts: “Mainly because there was fighting with ethnic minority and the military. So in order to fight the ethnic minority groups, they cut off everything because they think if they cut off everything there will be no rebellion, no one who can rebel.”

In order to move forward, Khaing Zaw Wun wants the international government to “first arch the [Myanmar] government more, to focus on healthcare in my region. It’s a place where humans are assisted in a very small amount, so it’s kind of a forgotten area.” Khaing Zaw Wun and his team members feel proud that they are able to provide healthcare where there is no other health care system, inspiring them to work continuously. However, he is hopeful that the international community will become more involved in the situation in Burma and provide more healthcare assistance in his community.

The other medics I have interviewed have reported stories very similar to Khaing Zaw Wun’s. Military members forcing villagers out of their homes, arresting innocent citizens, and burning down villages without reason are stories I have been hearing about every day. Inhumane treatment of innocent people occurs often enough for these horrific acts to have become normalized to citizens of Burma.

The people of Burma have grown to not expect anything from their government, especially not medical care. When I hear reports of Back Packers being the only medics in certain areas, I have grown to wonder what Burma would look like without the help of Back Pack Health Worker Team. When I ask the question of “What was the medical situation in your village before Back Packers arrived?” I receive answers about long journeys to the hospital and stories of death due to inaccessibility to healthcare. But, thanks to Back Packers, many lives have been saved. To give you an idea, the Back Pack Health Worker Team treated 104,808 cases in 2016 alone. Their numbers will be even higher this year.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to hear about the lived experiences of medics. I am inspired by their work and humbleness, and I am motivated to share their stories. So, thank you, BPHWT, for sharing your lives with us students. It is my promise that your stories will continue to be heard.

~Mia

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