Children of Myanmar migrant workers are all smiles in one of the five schools on the border supported by Glocal Action. (Photo courtesy of Lin Chi-yang)
Taiwan Can Help advance international efforts to assist displaced persons in western Thailand.
Mae La in western Thailand’s Mae Sot district is home to more than 30,000 displaced persons fleeing regional conflict. Comprising non-Thai speakers mainly from the Karen ethnic group, the 184-hectare community of thatched homes interspersed with dirt paths is an oasis of tranquility underscoring the success of international humanitarian initiatives.
For Taiwan, Mae La is a great source of pride. The country is playing an important role in supporting the camp and eight others along the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Since the establishment of the communities in 1984, Bangkok-based The Border Consortium (TBC)—an alliance of nine international nongovernmental organizations (NGO)—has provided food and shelter to residents. It receives funding from around the world, with Taiwan the only donor in Asia. “Our country was once a recipient of foreign aid, but now we’re giving back,” said Lai Ming-chi (賴銘琪), director-general of Department of NGO International Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).
Camps for displaced people like the one at Mae La started to form on Thailand’s western border in 1984. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Taiwan is a regular TBC donor of 10 years’ standing. Funding reached US$880,000 following the inking of the sixth agreement by Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Thailand and TBC in late October. Witnessed by Lai, the signing ceremony in Mae Sot took place in conjunction with activities marking the 35th anniversary of the communities.
Lai and his MOFA delegation capitalized on the opportunity to exchange ideas with other TBC partners while touring Mae La—the largest of the nine camps. They also participated in seminars focused on further improving conditions for residents, as well as promoting regional peace and stability.
According to TECO, Taiwan’s donations are largely used for TBC food and education projects, particularly purchasing nutritional supplements for children during their first 1,000 days in the camps. TECO head Tung Chen-yuan (童振源) said such items help keep the younger generations healthy and capable of resuming normal lives when the time comes. “They also prevent malnutrition that hinders learning ability and leads to poor academic performance.”
The significance of Taiwan’s tailored approach is not lost on TBC Executive Director Sally Thomson. “It ensures children get the best start in life,” she said, adding that this also paves the way for them to become fully functioning and valuable members of their communities.
A Mae La camp resident sells vegetables in a market. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Taiwan’s contribution takes on greater importance given TBC is tackling health issues stemming from chronic malnutrition. Although the rate is comparatively high compared to nondisplaced populations, marked decreases have been recorded in recent years. TBC’s 2018 annual report reveals that the prevalence of stunting among camp children aged 6 to 59 months was 40.8 percent, 35.1 percent and 31.8 percent in 2013, 2015 and 2017, respectively. TBC has its eyes firmly on the World Health Organization’s acceptable rate of under 20 percent.
Tung said at the same time Taiwan is supporting camp residents via TBC, the country is growing its footprint in other parts of western Thailand through Mae Tao Clinic—another partner generating international headlines for all the right reasons. Set up in Mae Sot 30 years ago, the facility provides free medical services to at-risk migrant workers from Myanmar. In 2002, its founder Cynthia Maung received the Ramon Magsaysay Award—named after the late president of the Philippines—for community leadership. She was also honored with the Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award five years later by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a nonprofit headquartered in Taipei City.
Tailoring and automotive repair classes are arranged for young women and men at Mae La camp. (Photos by Chin Hung-hao)
The clinic started receiving funding via TECO in 2008. The most recent support in April, which brought the total to US$300,000, was used to build office space and upgrade equipment. “This backing is without question the right thing to do as health is a fundamental human right,” Tung said.
Taiwan NGOs like Taipei-based Glocal Action (GA) are paying close attention to the plight of displaced persons and migrant workers in western Thailand. GA Secretary-General Sam Lai (賴樹盛) said after seeing the situation on the ground, he could no longer remain uninvolved. “It’s impossible not to be touched by the extensive human cooperation and selfless sharing in the face of limited resources.”
Lai and his fellow Glocal co-founders are working tirelessly to raise public awareness in Taiwan of a tough situation not too far from its shores. They attend seminars and deliver speeches to great effect, resulting in the lion’s share of GA donations coming from individuals on a monthly basis. About half of the funding is allocated to an education program making it possible for 700 children born to Myanmar migrant workers to attend class in five regional elementary schools. Other undertakings include organizing training sessions for teachers, as well as sponsoring the Mae Tao Clinic.
A highlight on Glocal’s calendar is four nine-day experiential and fact-finding trips to Mae Sot each year. A total of 45 percent of participant fees, excluding airfares, is disbursed to NGOs, schools and social enterprises such as Borderline Collective. Co-established by Sylvia Lin (林良恕) of Taiwan, the organization focuses on employing women to produce handmade textiles bearing vibrant colors and patterns of the region.
Chi Mei Medical Service team members check the health of Myanmar children and share personal hygiene practices. (Photos courtesy of Chi Mei Medical Service)
Chi Mei Medical Service (CMMS) is another NGO flying the flag for Taiwan to great effect in western Thailand. It has been cooperating with Kwai River Christian Hospital (KRCH) in Kanchanaburi province since 2010. Supported by Chi Mei Medical Center in southern Taiwan’s Tainan City, the organization sends volunteers such as physicians, nurses and pharmacists to KRCH twice per year before visiting selected villages. Many patients are treated on the spot, with complicated cases sent to KRCH for further diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Kao Yuan (高元), who took part in the most recent CMMS trip to Kanchanaburi in November, finds assisting those in need deeply rewarding on a professional level. “But the personal payoff comes from working with health care personnel on the front line,” he said. “A simple smile and nod of appreciation is enough to keep me coming back for more.”
Myanmar people are enjoying brighter futures through the assistance of Taiwan nongovernmental organizations. (Photo courtesy of GA)
Another constant in the Taiwan Can Help equation is Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. Headquartered in Hualien County, eastern Taiwan, the world-renowned NGO is considering offering free medical services in western Thailand after its representatives took part in MOFA-organized inspection trips to Mae Sot over the last two years. Since 2015, Tzu Chi’s Bangkok chapter has assisted an estimated 5,000 displaced persons from 39 countries and territories.
MOFA’s Lai sees the involvement of Taiwan’s NGOs in western Thailand as instrumental in demonstrating the deep-seated commitment of the country and its 23 million people to playing a bigger role in the international community. “Humanitarian issues transcend borders and race, religion and ethnicity,” he said. “Taiwan is willing and able to tackle pressing problems and deepen the country’s bonds with the world.”