It was in 2007 that I first came for 3 weeks to stay and work with the Marists in Ranong, a town of about 100,000 situated in Thailand on the border with Burma, now called Myanmar. Three friends came with me. What an experience it was. It was my first time in Asia and it felt like a different planet. No handshaking, lots of bowing, taking off your shoes when going into a school or house. A ceremonial bow instead of a handshake. Two races of people, Thai and Burmese, very polite but inscrutable to an Irish Marist priest. Everything so very different. This is definitely was not Europe.
We received a wonderfully warm welcome from Fr. John Larsen and the Marist community.
Then off to teach every morning in the lashings of rain in a learning centre (not allowed to be called schools) for Burmese children. Ranong is the wettest place in Thailand if not south-east Asia.
The first day, there I was sweating heavily and in bare feet trying to teach a class of 30 boys and girls with an average age of about 11. I will never forget the first girl who left the classroom and came back with a plastic glass of water and a straw. How very kind and presented with a courteous bow. After a few minutes the container was dripping on my desk with condensation. Three hours teaching in that class room was exhausting; like going three rounds with the late Muhammad Ali then lunch with the principal. Rice and chicken in orange sauce…but not as you know it. Please mind those tiny bones and note: orange coloured sauce, not orange fruit sauce.
Back then for a well-deserved rest. After that, a bit of marketing, that is shopping in the market and taking our turn at cooking. Tesco Lotus had to be more or less avoided. Then chatting with the community over dinner about the mission. All incredibly exciting.
The learning centres at that time were supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Marist Mission Ranong was helping staff them. They were little more than garages and reminded me of what I thought Irish Hedge Schools must have looked like. One year I had three teachers and three classes and no text-books all in the one room. We came to an agreement not to let the students repeat in chorus too loudly what we were trying to teach.
All so different and amazing. The second year I took with me two young teachers from St. Mary’s College in Dundalk and 6 pioneering students who taught in pairs. They were courageous, braving mosquitoes and humidity and heat. We have been doing the same every year but now we take nine students and run English language camps for Burmese and Thai students. This style of camp is very popular in Asian countries as there is a desire and an economic need to learn English.
They open and close ceremoniously with representatives of the education officials of Ranong present and formal certificates are presented to each student. Each year we make a one day trip to Kaw Thaung a port 40 minutes away by boat from Ranong.
Has Myanmar changed? Judging by my yearly one day visit I would say to some degree. It appears more relaxed. Going through immigration used to be a foreboding experience. All officials in military uniform and dour about checking and indeed taking your passport and giving you back a temporary one. Now you only see the uniforms hanging in the back room. Just ordinary vests are worn.
After immigration a more than kind Fr. Gregory showed us around in his battered jeep. He filled it with petrol from what seemed a metal milk jug. We were only allowed go no more than two miles from where we embarked. We visited a beach where we bumped into young Burmese trainee monks (about 10 years of age). They thought they were seeing aliens, certainly we were the first Europeans they had laid eyes on. Then back again across a very rickety wooden bridge. And alongside that bridge were the concrete pillars of a half-finished new bridge, begun by the charity World Vision but refused permission to continue by the then Burmese government. We never visited that beach again as Fr. Gregory was officially reprimanded for taking foreigners to it. I think however it is now possible now to visit it in the new more relaxed Myanmar.
Then off to Fr. Gregory’s parish and mission compound. There we had lunch with Burmese Sisters who were allowed to run a kindergarten. Everything was so simple but the poverty was so evident. There was a feeling of fear that day in the Burmese air. And a certain silence or hostility to strangers as we left the Kaw Thaung port for Ranong.
In Ranong things have much improved. The Marist Fathers have a wonderful new school with about 200 students thanks to Misean Cara. We also are able to offer support to about 75 people living with HIV and AIDS.
Nine years ago on many occasions I heard a trio of young Burmese girls singing, ‘sad movies always make me cry’ and the whole class on other occasions would sing and act out a song called ‘Pharaoh, pharaoh, let my people go’. When I think about that now, those songs were a lot more than songs, they were statements of a dawning reality.
Special report by Fr. Jimmy McElroy from the Marist Fathers in Ranong, Thailand.
Photo Caption: Shane and Padraig are two of nine students who travelled from the Marist School in Dundalk, Ireland to teach Burmese migrant children English in the Marist Mission, Ranong in Thailand. Photo: Marist Fathers.