Steaming rice for meals during a seminar in Tahan
Salvationists and other volunteers who took part in the seminar
Delegates to the seminar look for ways to improve the projects
A home visit in Tahan
Local children — one of the programme's target groups is AIDS orphans
Major Inger Marit Nygard is Projects Officer in The Salvation Army's Norway, Iceland and The Færoes Territory
Norway/Myanmar: Cautious but Fearless
by Major Inger Marit Nygard
I met many Salvationists in Myanmar. They carry out their work in difficult circumstances and, in many ways, must be cautious – but they do not live in fear. For them the most important thing they do is spread the gospel.
The Salvation Army was established in Burma, as the country was then known, in 1915. Salvationists have developed their service despite restrictions and closed borders which followed a coup d’etat in 1962. When the borders reopened a few years ago, The Salvation Army was still there and it had even more members than before. Myanmar is still lead by a strict military regime, although the country is more open today than it has been previously.
There was some uncertainty as to whether it would be possible to fund any projects in Myanmar because of relationship between Myanmar and Norway has not always been easy. But cooperation between The Salvation Army’s Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar Command and Norway, Iceland and The Faeroes Territory, Dr Mirriam Cepe and the Asia Pacific Regional Facilitation Team, and the Norwegian Interdenominational Office for Development Cooperation (BN), a Project Proposal for support to an Aids programme in Myanmar was made and sent to NORAD – the Norwegian Government aid agency – during 2001. NORAD, in agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decided to approve funding for a community and home-based HIV/Aids programme in the Tahan and Tamu Districts of Sagaing Division of North-West Myanmar for five years. Things were underway!
In order to see the progress of the programme, I visited Myanmar in November 2002 together with the Asia Pacific Regional Facilitation Team. What I saw, and the people I met, impressed me and made an impact on me that I had not foreseen.
Despite all the years of living with severe restrictions, there was no pessimism or resignation from the people I met. Even though there are still strict controls, even though it is difficult for people to get passports and visit other countries, even though there is poverty, I found Salvationists full of energy, optimism and commitment to the Lord and to his service. They must be cautious, because they know that they what they do is closely monitored. They do not fear for themselves, but their greatest concern is that they may do something that will damage the ministry of The Salvation Army.
As a visitor, I also experienced the strict control of the authorities. Most of the time we stayed in a little town called Tahan where there is a Salvation Army District Headquarters. We were not allowed to travel more than three kilometres outside the town and a representative from the government visited us a few times during our stay. The other district that is involved in the Aids program is Tamu, which is close to the Indian border. We were not allowed to go there, so the officers, soldiers and volunteers from that district had to travel to Tahan.
There are many challenges in Myanmar. Poverty, Aids and illiteracy are the main problems. There are no statistics to show how many people have died from Aids but what is beyond doubt is that the disease is spreading and more and more children are being orphaned. The Aids project supported by The Salvation Army in Norway helps orphans, financially, so they can buy things such as schoolbooks.
I am impressed with the way the programme works. The Salvation Army has its own network consisting of Salvationists and volunteers. They are visiting homes, schools, villages and people who are sick. Two Christian clinics are also involved in the programme. Since malaria is a big problem in Myanmar, the hospitals need blood donors. In order to give blood, a donor must not be infected with HIV. To get the blood tested is expensive, and the blood donors cannot afford to pay for the testing. The outcome is a lack of blood. To combat this problem, The Salvation Army has established blood donor groups. Members of these groups are tested for HIV, and half the costs for the tests are paid for through the project. The blood donor groups have also become a social event, and even those who cannot give blood are welcomed.
Myanmar is a poor country and many families cannot afford such basics as food for breakfast. An average family has one or two meals a day. Illiteracy is widespread because the schools are too expensive. Most families also need their children to work in order to increase their income. The Salvation Army is also looking for ways around these problems. There is an intention to start agricultural projects in order to increase the income of the people.
During the days together in Myanmar we discussed and shared plans, budgets, visions and strategy. Everyone participated with enthusiasm – officers, soldiers and other volunteers from other denominations – even from other religions. From my point of view I could see that The Salvation Army in Myanmar has come far – much further, perhaps, than many other places, because the people are together on this. Everyone is listened to and feels involved and important, and together they — and we who support them with our expertise and our funds — are strong and will win the battle.
The more I see and the more I am with colleagues around the world, the more I realise that we are partners together.