A school in Shan State, Burma

Getting To Know Burma

September 17th, 2014

Getting To Know Burma

Gemma Heard explains why she fell in love with Burma, and invites you to join her as she learns more about this fascinating country.  

I find as I bumble my way through life, there are certain landmark points you have when you come across people or places that really hit the mark. There are a lot of fabulous causes out there, each serving its own mission and purpose. But when you find an organisation that really resonates with your own vision and passion, that’s just something special.

I came across HART about 2 years ago, when I heard Baroness Cox speak at an event. I listened to her passion and calling to serve forgotten people in forgotten lands, and I knew this little organisation was something special. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to visit Burma as part of a trip I attended with the NGO I work for. I spent 3 days visiting the amazing city of Yangon, and a couple of its surrounding villages. We were fortunate enough to have a tour of Yangon and the Pagodas, and also to visit some projects that the British Council are running in the more rural areas.

Visiting Burma was like finding my second home, and I instantly fell in love with it. The land, the people, the culture – I was overwhelmed by its beauty and couldn’t compare it to any other country. Yangon has a life and personality that is quite unique. The combination of the stunning pagodas, together with the Colonial style buildings with very European characteristics, shows visitors that Burma’s history carries a mixture of influence from different countries and cultures. I was also struck by the natural beauty of Burma, its landscapes and gardens. Although there is extreme poverty, there is also a beauty that seems to push its way forward, both from the people and the land.

I’ve since decided to embark upon a little (!) fundraising challenge to cycle almost 400km across Mon-State in Burma. Knowing that I am returning to Burma, I’m taking the opportunity to discover more about the country – its people, its history and the human rights situation. Writing about my venture gives me a fabulous opportunity to delve deeper into discovering Burma as a country, and in the process, I hope to learn more about the work that HART do and to help share this work with other people.

HART’s partners work in the Chin, Shan, Karen and Karenni regions, all of which are remote areas, still largely cut off from the rest of the world. Conflict between ethnic groups and the military continues, with attacks and atrocities committed by the Army forcing villagers to run for their lives in the jungle. These civil conflicts have been occurring for decades. Armed resistance groups have formed over time in order to defend the ethnic national peoples from the military. Under the rule of the former military Junta, major offensives were launched to try and control these “rebel” groups, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, who have been forced out of their villages and homes. Despite the recent transition to a quasi-civilian government many people in ethnic national areas continue to suffer severe violations of their human rights by the government and the army, including forced displacement and torture.

At a glance, the situation in Burma may look horrific and overwhelming. However, the changes that have taken place in just the last couple of years are very encouraging. Progress is slow, but already change can been seen in the areas of education, technology and Burma’s position on opening up to the rest of the world. Now technically a “democratic” country, the government have released hundred of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years. Many humanitarian, education and other organisations are now gaining access to different towns and villages, and are gradually being able to implement programmes and projects to improve the quality of life and increase opportunities for the Burmese people.

HART are partnered with a number of organisations in Burma who are working on the ground to help isolated and vulnerable communities. Their partners in Shan State, the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) are extending primary health services into remote rural areas, particularly focusing on maternal and infant health. They also support Burmese women living in Thailand who find themselves in crisis situations, such as needing urgent medical care for their children. Without official refugee status, Shan women are highly vulnerable to exploitation. HART’s recent visit report sets out SWAN’s work in more detail. In the Karen and Karenni regions of Burma, HART supports cross-border mobile medical teams who risk their lives to improve access to medical care for displaced people. Meanwhile, in Chin State, HART supports ‘Health and Hope’ – a remarkable project training local villagers as Community Health Workers.

So what is next? As I started to embark upon my training and fundraising for my bike ride, sometimes I would wake up and think “What have I done! I’ll never make it!” – I occasionally still do think this! But looking back, 6 weeks on, I’m much fitter than I was then, and I’ve raised over half of my target. The progress may be slow, but change really is happening. The change in Burma is, in some ways, similar – it may be one small step at a time, or one person’s life at time, but its there. The most important thing in all of this – don’t give up. Even when it seems hard or pointless, and beyond your doing, just keep going. Just keep peddling.

Find out more about HART’s work in Burma here.

For more information on how you can support HART’s work, as a fundraiser or volunteer, click here

 If you would be interested in taking on a sponsored challenge in support of HART, please visit this page

Gemma Heard

By Gemma Heard

Gemma works as a PA for British Council, which has opened up a variety of opportunities to travel and work within the field of International Development. Since spending a year studying in Australia in 2007, she has developed a love for travelling and working in an international setting, and has a particular interest in the East Asia region. Having written articles for local magazines, she is keen to use her love of writing to raise the awareness of situations within countries that are more challenging to reach and are often overlooked in the media. She is a keen fundraiser for a number of charities and likes to keep herself busy with sporting challenges, currently she is in training to cycle across Burma later this year.


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