Recently, my wife and I went to Thailand and visited this organization. They fetched us from Phuket and took us two hours north, to a seaside town near the Burmese border that had been wiped out by the Tsunami five years ago. Po Po, the project officer who picked us up explained, “Officially, there are 2 million Burmese living in Thailand. But we put our own estimates at over 4 million.”
“Wow. How many Thai people are there?”
Po Po spoke to the driver, who by law must be Thai because Po Po is herself Burmese and moved to Thailand 20 years ago, so cannot drive herself.
“About 60 million, the driver says.”
That came as a staggering statistic to me. Perhaps as much as 7% of the Thai population are Burmese. These people have no rights as citizens and are under a form of martial law. Burmese exiles cannot vote, travel, drive, own a cell phone, start a business, receive medical services, and until recently, attend schools. According to David Mar Naw, founder of the NGO “Where there is not a doctor” (www.wtinad.org) whom we also visited, the Police check ID cards on highways and can round up hill tribe peoples on a whim, since most of these are from Burma.
Both of these NGOs serve Burmese migrants and asylum seekers. I got the impression that some in the Thai government are hostile to organizations that help these people. Even talking about it carries repercussions.
GHRE focused on human rights for Burmese migrants when it began ten years ago, but changed its name (now FED) and focus in order to become more effective at serving the people and gaining access to the halls of power. Now they practice a quieter advocacy. A powerful senator in the Thai parliament sits on their board. That connection, along with a close relationship with the ministry of education, has allowed GHRE/FED to become the first officially registered NGO in Thailand that addresses the plight of Burmese migrant workers. This year that advocacy and maneuvering enabled them to open 8 official primary schools for Burmese, as that powerful senator on their board helped create and enforce a law that gives all people the right to attend schools, regardless of nationality.
Zurine took us around to the various projects. We saw a school for kids ages 5-12 with about 40 to 60 attending. We also visited their first high school, with 22 Burmese students who will take the GRE at 16, since there is no official diploma for them yet. The legislation only provides a legal right for all to attend primary school. Enforcement of this law is still spotty, hence the need for GHRE to run its own schools.
We spoke with volunteers at these schools. I asked Max, one who had been here four years, why he chose to work with GHRE.
Max said, “I came here after the tsunami and worked with a few NGOs but this one is where I really like working. The pay is heinous, but the experience is wonderful. Hopefully today you got to see the need for what we’re doing. So many migrants are coming to the most touristed country in the world and they have no protection.”
We also saw an AIDS/HIV hospice and a community center for children. They are trying to encourage Burmese migrants to leave their children in the same school for several years so that their education and social connections will improve. GHRE does a lot to help Burmese children integrate into Thai society, while at the same time preserving their parents’ culture. All of their schools teach Burmese, Thai, and English, and they also offer Saturday school for Burmese language and culture for those attending government schools.
GHRE maintains a bus and driver pool to transport Burmese to and from these social services, as they would be deported for driving otherwise. This Burmese bussing service is central to everything they do, and deserves its own project on GlobalGiving.
Everywhere I go, I ask about how the NGO listens to the community, because I believe that organizations who do the will of their communities achieve better results. Po Po noted that most of the staff are Burmese and speak directly with community leaders. Also, GHRE has two weekly radio call-in shows where they educate Burmese migrants about their rights and ask them to call in with their needs.
“Wow!” That kind of direct feedback is what I wish everyone did. “Could you possibly post a transcript of one of your shows to your GlobalGiving project page?” I asked.
They’re working on it. But I hope you’ll be able to read what the community says directly in the future.
Overall, I think this is an excellent groundbreaking organization. Thus far much of their fundraising has come through former volunteers, their circle of friends, and word of mouth. A school in the Netherlands adopted GHRE and held car washes and bake sales to help them, and GHRE participated in the Global Open Challenge in 2009. From my visit, I can say those fundraisers are enabling GHRE to do great work. Thanks.