Christmas in Burma
A relief team leader
We walked into the hiding place after four days spent looking at
Burma Army camps. The people in this hiding place site were all displaced
earlier this year by one of the new camps we just photographed, and had been
fleeing since the Burma Army first started their attacks in this area of
Western Karen State in 1972. Since then, they have fled attacks many times.
One 62 year old man told us he thought he had been displaced 500 times in
There are 17 families hiding here in a small ravine in a bamboo thicket.
Their homes are small shacks made of bamboo and grass, some covered in tarps
that our teams had given them earlier. There are two small water points
where pieces of bamboo channelled the small flow of a little stream. Here,
the families can collect water and bathe.
As we walked into the site, there was a plastic tarp spread on the ground,
with children sitting on it, with one of the team leading them in songs and
games. Mothers and fathers stood in front of their small huts, holding
babies, smiling and laughing. As we got closer, the team handed out presents
for the children, and then the whole team sang a blessing song - a very
moving melody, with powerful words about God being with us at all times.
I felt very sad that the people had to live like this, but at the same time
I felt the more powerful emotion of love, hope and joy, as the team and the
families bonded together. I thought, ‘this is wonderful and the Burma Army
probably wouldn’t believe it if they saw it’. Here are people that they are
chasing who have lost so much, who are still smiling and singing and who
haven’t given up.
I looked around the cluster of small huts and the smiling and happy people.
I looked as the medics began to prepare for treatment and I thought, ‘this
is a wonderful thing’. I felt satisfied. Not satisfied with the situation
and the people in hiding, but satisfied that all of us at this site were
happy together and that on this day, we would all eat well and sleep well.
Later that same night other Karen from different displaced villages came to
sing carols at the hide site. They went to every family’s house and sang. As
we looked up at the stars and listened to the singing, I thought, ‘This
really is Christmas’. I want to thank all of you who pray for, love, and
help these people, and all of you who help us here.
God bless you and Merry Christmas.
What a relief …isn’t it?
That’s it for another year! Did I hear the same collective
female sigh of relief echoing through the night air at approximately
12.30 p.m. January 1 as I used to hear in the West, or was it just
another firework spluttering its last?
Through all the years I’ve been ‘celebrating’ Christmas and the New Year
in various UK homes, with various different shapes, colours and sizes of
female friends (with the odd - some very odd - males thrown in for light
relief) the same question seemed to be on all our lips – “Why the ***
are we doing this?”
Of course, in the West it has to be the ‘full Monty’, with Christmas
trees, beautifully wrapped and carefully chosen presents, the delicious,
moist and definitely free-range turkey with all (and I do mean all) the
trimmings, six different vegetables (all fresh, of course), the Buck’s
fizz on Christmas morning and the mulled wine on Christmas night, plus
the huge amount of brandy sloshing around in the Christmas pudding. Add
to that the traditional seasonal fact that anything that can go wrong
will go wrong. Repeat with seasonal variations a week later at New Year.
Roughly translated, this perfect (and usually unattainable) scenario
boils down to the following: Hours spent finding a tree that isn’t half
dead (you just hate the non-biodegradable plastic versions, don’t you?);
more hours spend checking every single minuscule bulb on lights which
worked perfectly last year after hours had been spent checking each
bulb; the annual turkey panic when the local butcher (Halal, of course)
can’t find your order and delivers you a frozen nasty too large to go
into the oven; the endless search for fresh Brussels sprouts and
chestnuts in the local supermarket, packed out like Man U’s terraces at
a home game.
Then there is the annual Sellotape hunt at 1 p.m. Christmas morning, the
realisation that you’ve forgotten to buy at least 5 presents, wash your
hair and do your nails, invite the next-door neighbours and cater
adequately for the single vegetarian on your guest list! By the time,
some 5 hours later, you get to the first Buck’s Fizz, you don’t only
deserve it, you desperately need it … I’m not even going to mention how
much worse it is if you have kids, and/or a massive hangover. It’s
hardly surprising that divorce lawyers find a queue down the street and
round the corner when they reopen after the festivities.
So, why do we do it? Tradition, maybe - certainly, in most homes these
days, it’s not a lot to do with the birth of the founder of one of the
world’s largest religions - even our kids know about the council of
‘wherever it was’, at which all the major dates in the Christian
calendar were decided.
The commercial spend-fest (evident even this sorry year) into which this
essentially family occasion has been transformed, plus the annual
unusual tragedy (man made or otherwise), which regularly occurs in at
least one location in the world, combine each year to make peace and
goodwill seem like a vision from another planet. Yet, we still do it.
Maybe it’s just that we have a need to return occasionally to our
childhood days, when the anticipation as the advent calendar unfolded
was almost too much to bear, and we tried so hard, on the long awaited
Christmas Eve, to stay awake to catch our parents playing Santa. A time
in our lives when all our dreams seemed possible, and we had all the
years ahead to make them happen.
Perhaps our New Year’s wish, whatever it was last week, should have been
that we are allowed to rediscover some of that childhood magic, and
transfer it into our new lives here. Peace and goodwill, in this
increasingly troubled world, are a lot to hope for – they always have
been - but at least let’s recapture some of our dreams.
Does Osteoporosis drug
cause jaw bone disease?
Many of us, if not sufferers ourselves, will know women in our
group of friends who do have the distressing and irreversible
disease, osteoporosis. And most women who do will be taking
prescription medication manufactured by the major pharmaceutical
Disturbing research results at a USA university’s dental
faculty, published recently in the American Dental Association’s
Journal, and backed by reports from UK and USA dentists and
orthodontists, suggest that a side effect of the drug may be
osteonarcosis of the jawbone (ONJ). This condition leads to
long-term infection which can result in destruction of the
jawbone itself. The study results suggest that as many as one
woman in every 25 could be at risk.
Despite claims from the manufacturer (which largely dismisses
the report) that the risk seems to be confined to patients who
are receiving the drug Fosamax intravenously, UK and USA
dentists are seeing an increasing number of otherwise healthy
women who have developed this problem, and are advising that any
major dental work should be carried out before a course of the
drug is started. They are concerned that the trauma of major
dental work such as implant surgery in a patient who is already
taking the drug (even in tablet form) may trigger the onset of
A London, UK implant specialist states that, “Doctors
prescribing this medication should advise patients to delay
taking it until they have had dental treatment, especially
implants and extractions. We need to get the mouth healthy and
keep it that way to minimise the risk.”
A spokesman for Merck said the study had “methodological flaws
and scientific limitations, making it unreliable as a source for
valid scientific conclusions.” He would though, wouldn’t he.
Online forums -
a blessing or a curse?
In the earlier days of the internet revolution, online
forums were originally seen as a means for the newly
computer-savvy world to talk to its neighbour freely,
informatively, controversially and without fear - widely
regarded as a kind of cyber ‘speakers’ corner.’ Anyone could
post, on any subject, in any country, using any language, and
present their views, however reactionary.
Everything changed, and with the increasing sophistication of
the truly world-wide web, the increasing concern of certain
governments about their murky secrets being online for all to
see, combined with increasing amounts of porn and similar
material, the nature of forums began to alter. Moderators were
introduced, governments blocked outside and local access, and
the ‘control’ game began.
Human nature and ingenuity being what it is, on many sites,
serious discussion and the dissemination of essential
information continued, and, happily, still does.
Increasingly, though, some forums are becoming dominated by
posters who delight in whingeing, mithering (both words
originate in the north of England - rough translation -
miserable moans) and generally being unpleasant. Moderators, in
their turn, seem to have become conscious of the power they
hold, and have been known to manipulate subjects and opinions in
a way which, presumably, reflects their own feelings, by
slashing posts or simply closing threads, whilst ignoring
downright rudeness in many cases.
Many of us, before we arrived in Chiang Mai, will have spent a
good deal of time reading posts on the local Chiang Mai Visa
Forum in order to give ourselves a feel of the city itself and
its expat community. The practical information in its pages is
often accurate (although rather more so on pubs, bars,
restaurants and shopping than on visa matters or political
upheavals, for example), but the community and discussion posts
over the last several years seem to have declined in number and
content and attract little relevant response. Prospective
incomers and new arrivals will find few recent posts containing
current informative material on how best to live and what to
The general and totally inaccurate impression given is that
Chiang Mai is simply a warmer and cheaper version of ‘home’. Is
this what is considered suitable by the forum’s moderators? A
similar fate overtook the Expat’s Club forum some months ago,
once the venue for occasional lively debates, now a graveyard of
shopping requests with very few posters and very little which
represents the ‘real’ Chiang Mai.
It’s all slightly reminiscent of the creeping police states in
our home countries, and not at all what was intended when online
forums began, many years ago.
Over Christmas week, two relevant threads were started, both
containing controversial material with possibly negative effects
on at least one respected Chiang Mai organisation, and
information on a problem which had been a subject of discussion
in several sections of the community for some while. Information
concerning the second thread had already been distributed in
hard copy at a public meeting.
One thread resulted in a large number of private messages from
concerned parties to the poster, but both threads were locked
before too many people (it was Christmas week, after all) had a
chance to read them and perhaps post a reply.
A further thread, objecting to the locking and removal, made it
onto the page for at least 5 minutes before it was answered by a
robot, ending with the words, ‘Further attempts to re-open the
previous topics or discussing this again in the public forum
will result in a warning and/or suspension.’
Concerned parties will just have to return to muttering amongst
themselves, and the wider community will have lost the
opportunity to both have its say and increase its awareness as a
result of information received and considered. And people
researching Chiang Mai before they commit themselves to
emigration may well wonder why free speech on seemingly
important issues was not allowed beyond a certain point.
Those of us working in the media are fully aware of the
restrictions on printed content and the legalities concerned.
However, if an online forum thread which does not breach these
specifically Thai regulations, and which addresses problems
which concern the community at which it is aimed, is blocked or
even deleted with no rational explanation, perhaps we are
entitled to draw our own conclusions about the control of our
right to free speech that this implies. In spite, of course, of
the small print on the Thai Visa website.
So, online forums - are they a blessing or a curse? Seems it
depends on where you live!