“We need to make sure the ethnic areas have the same rights as the plains. …The people here are simple and honest. To be honest, they lack strong desires for their rights. Many of them don’t even know what equality means. A lot of work is needed to help them regain their rights.” – Daw Thinzar Aye (Field operations manager, Clean Yangon)

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Caption – Clean Yangon’s field operations manager Daw Thinzar Aye

An interview with Daw Thinzar Aye, field operations manager of Clean Yangon, about its activities in ethnic areas

Clean Yangon was founded in 2017 by a group of young volunteers with the aim of making the whole country clean. However, after the military coup, Clean Yangon began to carry out humanitarian activities for ethnic communities in their areas.

Activities include providing free medical care to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), distributing food, providing educational materials, conducting trainings, motivational talks and providing meals for children.

Than Lwin Times conducted this interview with Daw Thinzar Aye, the field operations manager of Clean Yangon, about their activities in the ethnic areas, the situation facing artillery and air strikes from the military council, and the education rights of displaced children.

Q: First, what activities is Clean Yangon currently carrying out? And what other activities are planned?

A: As Clean Yangon, we arrived in Karenni State in June 2021. Before that, in May 2021, we were in Chin State and provided healthcare for the first time. That was the first time we met our displaced ethnic Chin people. Then we started to help the IDPs as Clean Yangon because helping as an organization is more effective than doing individually. Since June 2021, we have been steadfastly providing the IDPs in Karenni State with basic needs and food, meals and medical care.

In May 2017, Clean Yangon brought together volunteer groups in Yangon and worked towards making our city clean and raising civic responsibility in our neighborhoods. Clean Yangon initiated monthly garbage collection campaigns to work towards a clean Myanmar. We started the campaign in Yangon because the city is the landmark of Myanmar and a major tourist destination. Yet the city is unclean, with garbage irresponsibly strewn in the streets and spit from betel nut chewing. This is shameful for our country.

Instead of working individually, the young people got together and decided to work collectively, as there was already a network of volunteer groups set up by the main volunteer organizations. Together with the young people from the network, we wanted to make a small change for the public. Above all, we wanted people to know that there is no shame in picking up trash but in littering irresponsibly. Through these campaigns, we encouraged people not to litter and not to spit when they chew betel nuts. We organized monthly campaigns by township where the public participated. With greater public participation, we also received support from the municipal authorities in the form of vehicles, funding and personnel. That was our situation.

Since May 2017, we have held regular monthly campaigns, without fail. In May 2018, we discussed our next plan because we wanted to see another change. Then, we developed a curriculum to educate school-age children about waste. In collaboration with the Department of Basic Education, we conducted talk shows and awareness-raising activities in primary, middle and high schools. In 2019. Clean Yangon organized the Clean Up Challenge, which focused on back alleys, not only in Yangon but all over Myanmar. Participants were encouraged to post a “before and after photo” from any village, town or state across the country. We spread the message that we need to clean up the garbage piles even if we are not the ones who created them for the cleanliness of our town or city. We encouraged citizens to participate and post the before and after challenge. We then awarded small prizes to those who took part in the challenge. These activities have changed citizens’ habits for the better.

We organize photo contests to further raise public awareness and attract the attention of the public to get the message that every citizen has the responsibility to keep their environment clean. During the 2019-20 Covid outbreak, people were unable to go outside. Due to the prolonged outbreak of the pandemic, people with low incomes struggled to obtain basic food supplies. They faced livelihood difficulties because they could not go to work. During this time, we distributed rice and basic rations to townships where there are low-income people. We also helped hospitals, clinics and quarantine centers with the equipment they needed. That was before the coup. Memorably, Clean Yangon made substitute products.

The project involves building a small library using   recycled plastic waste in non-profit schools. The project was almost complete. We put used, discarded coffee sachets into the discarded water bottles. We built the libraries using only these bottles. Then, about a week before completion, the coup came just before we install the bookshelves. Because of the coup, we had to finish our project in an inconspicuous way. Since then, we have been steadfastly involved in the revolution.

Q: What did Clean Yangon do before the coup? What kind of services do you currently provide to IDPs?

A: I myself graduated from the University of Nursing (Yangon). I worked as a nurse at an NGO. After the coup, we participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) all along. Then in April we had to choose our own path. At the end of April, armed clashes broke out between the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) and the military in Chin State. The clashes displaced the people there. I had previously worked in provision of free health care in rural areas as part of our main non-profit organization. I asked myself what I could do for them. I wanted to help them with what I could do. I began my journey. As I am a nurse myself, I started to provide medical care for IDP camps when I arrived in Karenni.

Since June 2021 when the IDPs arrived, Clean Yangon has seen some of them with only the clothes on their backs. Some IDP families have children. Patients with chronic illnesses often have neither the necessary medication nor medical records. After being displaced, they had to hide in the jungle. We therefore donated essential items for them, such as materials for shelters. When they needed bamboo to build makeshift huts, we provided them with bamboo. We provided them with toilets, clothes and personal hygiene items. We provided them with rice and other rations when they were struggling to make a living due to the ongoing displacement. To this day, we have been distributing food rations and providing nutritional meals on a daily basis. We have also provided medical care to the adults.

As for the children, many of them deal with psychological trauma. The children in this area are too exposed to air raids and artillery shelling. When the children hear certain sounds, they panic and hide in their bomb shelters. In such situations we can’t cope with them, but we try our best to give them some relief by playing with them and giving them toys they like. The children here really like woolen toys. They tend to hug their toys when we give them to them. They love the toys. And we teach them how to play games, do physical exercises with them and tell them stories. We give them snacks that they like. Children are happy when they can try out new snacks. In addition, there are many IDP camps here. The longer the displacement lasts, the more educational facilities are needed for the children. As Clean Yangon, we provide school buildings, playgrounds and educational materials for these children.

Q: What memorable experiences did you have after being on the ground to help IDPs in ethnic areas during the armed conflict?

A: I have had many memorable experiences during the revolution. The first time I went to Chin State, the founder of Clean Yangon himself was charged under Section 505(a) and his arrest warrant was announced on TV. So when we went to Chin State, we had to everything with great caution, including our choice of accommodation. We were worried whether the car that picked us up was really there to help us or whether it was on our side. When we arrived in Karenni, we witnessed damage from air strikes and things I had only seen in movies. I had never seen or heard the loud explosions of artillery and air strikes in person before.

We didn’t know where the heavy weapons were being fired at. There were many patients waiting that evening. There were over a hundred of them sitting in front of the house. Around 5:30 or 6:00 pm it got dark in that part, so the village got a solar-powered lamp. While we were sitting there talking about the patients, a flare came down from the sky. We didn’t realize it was artillery fire. We were like “Look at that. A flare is falling from the sky.” We didn’t know what it was. As we all stared, the flare came closer and then we heard a booming sound. The resistance comrades nearby told us to turn off the lights and warned us that planes might come after the artillery fire. But I didn’t know how to turn off the solar-powered light because I wasn’t familiar with it in Yangon. So I had to broke the wires. That was the first memorable moment I experienced.

We had another memorable experience, which unfortunately is not amusing to recount . Innocent civilians lost their lives when planes came and bombed the hospitals and IDP camps. When a hospital was bombed, a mother lost her life just two days after giving birth. The two-day-old child was left motherless. We had such unforgettable experiences that should not remain in our memories. In another bombing raid on a IDP camp, an innocent father and his son lost their lives. I witnessed it firsthand. They came and bombed the IDP camp and the innocent father and his son died. We have seen things like this before. This military council is targeting people indiscriminately. They see everyone as an enemy. They don’t care if it’s an IDP camp or a hospital; they shoot at everything with heavy weapons. There have been huge casualties. We face things like this every day. There is nothing amusing. Everything is just painful, outrageous, and full of losses.

Q: What differences have you noticed between urban and ethnic rural areas?

A: When I worked with our main organization in Yangon, we built libraries and schools and donated wells in mountainous and underdeveloped areas. Even before the coup, people in ethnic areas did not have equal rights. The coup has made their situation even worse. Under the government elected by the people, the installation of electricity and water supply began. Roads were built. But after the military coup, the military council cut the electricity as part of its usual “Four Cuts” strategy. They cut off communications. They didn’t just cut communication access, they paralyzed it completely, so (the revolutionary forces) will have to start all over again if they gain control of the area. We need to make sure the ethnic areas have the same rights as the plains. Before, they were close to having access to electricity and then everything went backward again. The people here are simple and honest. To be honest, they don’t have strong desires for their rights. Many of them don’t know what equality means. A lot of work is needed to help them regain their rights.

Q: Finally, can you tell us something about the current educational situation of children in ethnic areas? What kind of feelings do they have?

A: Their education had been interrupted for about two years before the coup because of Covid-19. After the coup in 2021, their education was interrupted again. So they were disconnected from formal education for three years. However, we have noticed that the children here are really looking forward to going back to school. They want to reunite with their friends when schools reopen. The children in these areas have a strong desire to learn. For various reasons, their education has been interrupted for about three years. An education system has been introduced here since 2021. With the establishment of the interim government in Karenni State, it will be possible to do more for the education of the children here, including the displaced people. As ethnic children, many of them are highly motivated to pursue their education. They have a strong desire to learn. But there are also children who have become so disconnected from education that they no longer want to go to school. However, the number of these children is very small.

Sent by Than Lwin Times.

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