Friday, 28 December 2012

Welcome Obama: making history in Burma

‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti on the roadside opposite my Yangon hotel
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
I always seem to be visiting Burma (Myanmar) at historic moments. On my first visit in June, Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting London for the first time in 24 years. On my second in November, Barack Obama was making the first visit to the country by a serving US President. On the street opposite my hotel, a large ‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti mural had sprung up, and the papers were full of the news. ‘From Sanctions to Success’ claimed the headline of the Myanmar Times, with articles inside ranging from sober analysis of the visit to a fortune teller’s predictions for Obama’s second term. Whatever else, Myanmar remains a deeply superstitious country.

Hotel prices in Yangon have rocketed this year with the influx of companies and development agencies, so I was staying at the ridiculously overpriced Excel Treasure Hotel, or ‘cel easure Hotl’ as the faulty neon sign had it. For over $100 US dollars a night, I got a room next to an eight lane highway that was so noisy you couldn’t even watch TV. The hotel was shabby and run down, although you could arguably blame sanctions rather than the management. Half the lights in my room were dead, the shower didn’t work and the iron burned my shirt. For my own sanity I had to ignore the cockroach that scurried down the bathroom drain when I went in. On the other hand, the staff were friendly and there were a few charming old world touches, like bellmen in the lifts, which I had only previously seen in 1950s Hollywood movies.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A stitch in time: street children learn a trade

Thanda sews a shirt during the vocational training offered to street children
© UNICEF Myanmar/2012/Andy Brown
Sixteen-year-old Thanda* has spent much of her life living and working on the streets of Yangon, capital of Myanmar (also known as Rangoon, Burma). She is a a Burmese of ethnic Indian descent: a small, serious teenager in a blue polo shirt and traditional longyi skirt.

Thanda’s father is a manual labourer and her mother is a washer woman. She has seven siblings. When the family earns enough, they live in bamboo hut outside town. But other times they can’t afford the rent and have to live on the streets. “I used to pick up garbage with my brothers,” she told me when I met her at a drop-in centre for street children. “We would sell plastic bottles to junk shops for 2 to 4 dollars a day. I never went to school and I didn’t know how to look after my health.”

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Thailand: Loi Krathong

Loi Krathong is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand. The name means 'floating crown' and involves making decorations that are floated down river. The ceremony is about paying respect to the ancient (pre-Buddhist) river goddess and is supposed to bring good luck for the year ahead. We went to Phra Athit Fort, just down the road from the UNICEF office, to watch the ceremony. Afterwards, we went to the temple fair at nearby Golden Mount Temple.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Coping with tragedy: the legacy of war in Laos

Peter Kim, a young bomb survivor, at the COPE centre
© UNICEF/Laos 2012/Andy Brown
Peter Kim is a victim of the Vietnam War. But he’s not a Vietnamese or American veteran; he’s a 20-year-old Lao youth living in Vientiane. Four years ago he lost both his hands and eyesight to one of the millions of unexploded bombs that still litter the Laos countryside almost four decades after the war ended.

Peter Kim grew up in a small rural village in Viangchan province, where his father grew rice and kept cows and buffalos. “On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school for an exam,” he told me. “I came home with my friend. On the way back, my friend saw something on the ground. He picked it up to show me. I tried to open it and that’s when it exploded. It happened very fast. Afterwards I couldn’t see or hear anything.