Election Section

Organization holding auction to buy medical supplies for Burmese tribe

By Bruce Gerstman Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday October 02, 2001

The glow of short, white candles dimly flickered onto a mother holding her baby. The tiny girl shivered in the humid Burmese evening.  

“That little baby was a blanket of convulsions,” said Jennifer Zurick, program director for the Burma Humanitarian Mission, a nonprofit agency located in North Oakland. 

In a recent interview, Zurick recalled that night when she watched the child’s parents who feared the worst. Although that was a year ago, Zurick remembered the details as if it had happened today. The thatched roof, the parent’s eyes, the smell of wood. The child was dying of malaria and a young medic, who goes by the name of Flower, spent the night keeping the child alive. 

The story ends well because Flower administered medicine supplied by Zurick’s mission.  

The organization is hoping such stories will help make donors anxious to attend their Friday dinner and auction at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall at 1924 Cedar St. 

The mission delivers medical supplies to Flower and other medics, who, like Flower, are volunteers and belong to the Karen minority ethnic group, a hill tribe inhabiting the eastern mountains along the Burma-Thai border. The mission treks through the mountains, hiding from soldiers of the military dictatorship, known as the State Peace and Democracy Council. The council has ruled Burma since 1962. 

Zurick and four others formed the mission three years ago. They originally met in 1996 at a Los Angeles protest against Unocal. The gas company gave $200 million to the Myanmar government, according to The Action Resource Center, a Los Angeles-based human rights group.  

The government then permitted Unocal to build the 260-mile Yadana Pipeline to shuttle natural gas from the Andaman Sea across Burma into Thailand. Jeremy Paster, now the mission’s medical liaison, spent time in jail after being arrested for civil disobedience at the Los Angeles protest. He spent the night talking with immigrants from Burma, also protesting. Paster “got a very personal sense of what these people’s condition were,” Zurick said. The group of activists then began planning the mission. 

Now Zurick works out of a one-person office in her North Oakland home. She explained that although she and her partner, Jeremy Paster, are trained wilderness medical technicians, they stick to their mission’s principles of respectful non-intervention. 

“We prefer to step back and let the Karen treat the people,” Zurick said. “We have to consider what impact we have on them. We need for them to be empowered to face their situation.” 

And from previous visits, Zurick is well aware of how tricky that is. 

At the Thai border town of Mae Sot, four mission volunteers meet up with local medics, usually in their twenties and with only rudimentary medical training. The medics describe what supplies they need. They never ask for painkillers, which Zurik said the Karen consider nonessential.  

The mission then travels into Bangkok to purchase the medicine, as well as backpacking supplies. The medics will spend the next six months doling out the medicine as they trek from devastated villages to overcrowded refugee camps.  

The medicine is in demand. In 2000, the World Health Organization evaluated health care systems in 191 countries. They flunked Burma (Myanmar), rating it at 190 – only Sierra Leone fared worse.  

Last year, the mission’s antibiotics, vitamins and other medical supplies served 10,000 displaced refugees suffering from malaria, a slew of childhood illnesses and landmine injuries, Zurick said. The volunteers who make the trip pay their own travel expenses to Burma. 

Since Burma took its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, the ethnic Burmese majority and about 135 ethnic minorities have struggled in successive civil wars. The current martial law regime originally called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council when the army seized control in 1962. Western countries objected to human rights violations and began setting sanctions, and in 1990 the government held a democratic election. The Council lost, but the military, now led by General Than Shwe, has kept the winning party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize Winner, under house arrest since then.  

The winning party, the National League of Democracy, remains unrecognized by the Council. The military regularly imprisons the League’s members, according to Amnesty International. 

International organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and The United Nations Commission on Human Rights – as well as the city of Berkeley – continue to condemn the Myanmar government for their systematic forced labor, murder, rape and beatings of the country’s minority groups. Over the last five years, the military displaced more than 300,000 civilians, according to Amnesty International. 

To survive, the Karen grow rice around their villages and camps, said Dang Ngo, a mission member. January, when they will arrive, is the rice harvest, when junta soldiers raid and confiscate the crops, according to Ngo.  

Ngo described how last year they passed craters in the ground from landmines and bullet holes in trees. They navigated the steep, neglected trails through bamboo forests and subtropical jungles, never stepping more than a foot off path, steering clear of landmines.  

Karen volunteers tote rifles and carry medical supplies in long, colorful, all-purpose cloth squares commonly used for hauling most anything – from food to children – on one’s back. 

While Zurick and her partner don’t help in the treatment, they plan to step back even further this year. Remaining on the Thai border, they will supply the young medics with necessities and say goodbye. This also helps for the safety of the villagers. According to Ngo, the government plants spies in the villages, and when foreigners come in, suspicions rise. “It presents a danger to the locals when we go in,” Ngo said. 

Zurick said that their goal is to raise $12,000. Since they pay all of their own expenses, all funds go directly towards purchasing medical supplies.  

Providing that medicine is inspiring, Zurick said, recalling that night last year as the infant fought malaria. The next morning she found Flower, sleepy from spending the night awake. The infant, though pale and crying, was eating food, on her way back to life.