Paula Bock

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How (repressive) Burma-Myanmar promoted grassroots aid strategy | 

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My initial goal: Describe a local organization, Partners Asia, led by some interesting Seattle folks who have long been working to assist vulnerable populations in Myanmar, aka Burma. 

Delayed by confusion: I’m not sure what to make of the celebrated political reforms. Nobel Laureate activist Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free and speaking out. US Sec. of State Hillary Clinton declares the country open for business. Still, nobody agrees on which name to use, UN staffers get thrown in jail and Buddhist monks are accused of inciting riots. Is this place really, fundamentally changing? I don’t think anyone really knows yet.  

But humanitarians working ‘off the pitch’ under the oppressive regime offer some valuable lessons.

NOTE: A series of Seattle lectures on Myanmar/Burma featuring Partners Asia starts Sept. 22

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Flickr, jmhullot

Ancient Bagan in Burma-Myanmar

As the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi starts her celebrated U.S. tour this week, the story line on the country variously known as Burma or Myanmar is that it is undergoing major democratic reforms.

Dissidents have been freed from prison, opposition politicians have been elected, some members of the previous military junta have been demoted and replaced by civilians, press censorship has been relaxed, labor unions are now allowed and, most recently, as Voice of America reported, Burma releases partial list of names trimmed from Blacklist.

So wait, is it Burma or Myanmar?

“We use both,”  said Paula Bock, a former Seattle Times journalist who now devotes her time to working with the poor and disenfranchised in Burma-Myanmar through the Seattle-based organization Partners Asia.

“To make a real difference here, you have to learn how to get along. We work with everybody, on both sides of the border, and we don’t want to exclude or antagonize anyone. Burma, Myanmar — I’m happy to use whatever name it takes to get things done. “

Yeah, well, it’s lot more complicated than that.

This is a story about Partners Asia, and why I think their approach should be of interest to everyone in the aid and development community, but first I need to talk about me.

Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett

Paula Bock and girl in Burma-Myanmar

I had approached Bock, who I’ve known since the days when we were both regular newspaper hacks and the mainstream media was financially healthy, to ask about Burma-Myanmar, and about what her organization does there. As I learned more, it seemed to me they had an important lesson for the entire aid and development community. I’ll get to that in a second.

But writing about aid in Burma-Myanmar turned out to be difficult for me, in part because I knew so little about the place, the news out of Burma-Myanmar kept shifting – and also because Paula and her colleagues operate, uh, unofficially there.

The people they often work with, many of them refugees or troubled ethnic communities along the borders, also have to keep their collaboration away from official eyes.

Paula and her colleagues have to be careful and didn’t want me to use words like “covert” or “secretly,” preferring I describe what they do as “discreet” or “out of the spotlight.”

Partners Asia, Prasit Phasomsap

Teaching migrant children on Thai-Burma border

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