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Burma today

Maryan Street - Burma

By Maryan Street

I had the privilege of spending last week (5th - 9th November) in Burma, with the GAVI Alliance. They are a public-private partnership of foreign aid which provides vaccines for infants and children in the poorest countries the world over. They are part funded by private philanthropists, most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and part-funded by donor countries. They also require the receiving government to commit equal funding in order to encourage ownership of the programme and commitment to its delivery.

This was their programme in Burma. They have embarked on a programme over the next 6 months to vaccinate 650,000 children with a new pentavaccine – a vaccine combining 5 vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (as we do), plus Hepatitis B, and Influenza B (Hib) which causes pneumonia. They will also roll out a second dose of the measles vaccine to 1.5 million children over the next 12 months. This visit was to launch the new pentavaccine and see how they maintain the essential cold chain to keep the vaccine chilled but not frozen (a challenge in 30C heat!) and how they propose to reach difficult rural areas where the poorest people live. One quarter of Burma’s population live below the poverty line.

It was wonderful to see midwives being trained and systems developed to activate this programme. We visited a sub-rural health centre at Thagara, which included a delivery suite of sorts (see below) and a midwives’ centre. Crowds of women and some men with their babies waited quietly and patiently for the pentavaccine, and sometimes BCG and polio as well, to be administered. These babies will have a much better chance of survival and growing up well.

A new Burmese mum admires her baby at Thagara sub rural Health Centre
A new Burmese mum admires her baby at Thagara sub rural Health Centre

The delivery room at the Health Centre at Thagara out of Nay Pyi Taw
The delivery room at the Health Centre at Thagara out of Nay Pyi Taw

Women waiting with their babies for the pentavaccine at Thagara
Women waiting with their babies for the pentavaccine at Thagara

We also visited a rural hospital in the township of Yaedashay (Yedashe) where we met numbers of women who had just given birth, or who had been referred back to the hospital some weeks later because they were chronically anaemic and in some cases, so were their babies. Families sat outside, providing what food they had for their new mums. Under-nutrition was a particular problem here. One woman who had gone into labour lived 6 miles from the hospital. It took her 3 hours to get there on an ox-drawn cart. But her baby will now get the pentavaccine and a better start.


20 year old woman with her baby at Yaedashay township hospital, built in 1954

One of the highlights of my trip was meeting up with young Burmese leaders who had been interns on a little-known New Zealand-based programme run by UnionAid here. It is supported through overseas development assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Victoria University of Wellington provides the English Language training. For the last three years we have taken 6 young leaders nominated by Burmese Non-Governmental Organisations. They come to New Zealand for 6 months, where they improve their English, study our Parliamentary system, meet with NGOs, engage with Maori and other groups and develop their leadership skills. It is called the Young Burmese Community Leaders Programme. I get to know these interns quite well while they are in New Zealand and speak to them about Parliamentary processes, democratic institutions and accountability structures – all developing facets of the new Burma. It was a great pleasure to catch up with them for dinner in Yangon. They are all in really significant positions, working in a think tank advising President Thein Sein on monetary policy, taxation, budget writing and fiscal policy. They are working for the ILO, helping to form unions as part of the ILO Freedom of Association Campaign under ex-NZCTU President, Ross Wilson, or training trainers for the ILO under ex-NZ Employers’ Federation President, Steve Marshall. They are skilled and engaging young leaders who will be significant players in the new Burma.

If John Key wanted a deliverable for his trip next week, he could announce that the programme would be doubled to take 12 young leaders. It is a small programme, but a very influential one and a great investment in Burma’s future. Doubling it has been on the cards, but Murray McCully is considering scrapping it as well. That would not be helpful. And Burma needs all the help it can get right now.

Burma’s reforms are beyond the point of no return. There is no going back now. As one who has publicly and repeatedly criticised Burma’s past regime for its gross abuses of human rights and the prolonged detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, I came away absolutely persuaded that the Minister and officials I met, together with the President and his Cabinet made up mostly of reformists, are committed to helping their people by pursuing both economic and social reforms. Now is the time to come to their aid, not stand and criticise any longer.

Maryan Street is Labour Health Spokesperson and Associate Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs (Overseas Development Assistance)

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