“We work with 39 villages in the southern Chin state,” explains Aung Khant, program manger at Solidarités International. “Of the 39 villages, we can access two by car and 10 by motorbike. We must hike to get to the remaining 27.”
Solidarités International is one of the few international NGOs with boots on the ground in Kanpetlet, one of the poorest towns in the Chin state, the poorest province in the country in the hilly west of Myanmar.
The ethnic Chin people — the tribe whose older women still wear the traditional facial tattoos — number approximately 1.5 million and are spread between Myanmar and neighbouring India. At best, this majority Christian ethnic group has been ruthlessly ignored by the military government that has ruled the country for the past five decades; at worst, they have been one of the most persecuted in all of Myanmar, as groups like Human Rights Watch have alleged.
Foreign travellers were not allowed into the Chin State during the closed military regime, however today travellers – who must apply for a permit from the central government – are allowed in small numbers. Hikers, birders and travellers looking for one of the fewer and fewer locations off the well-worn tourist trail have started to come to the state in small but increasing numbers, bringing to the region tourist dollars and a sense of change.
Almost 10 years ago, Twee Twee, a young woman from the Chin state, noted that young children were particularly vulnerable to the ills that come with rural poverty, and had no hope of a social safety net. Initially with the help of the Baptist Church group in her town and now independently, she started Metta Home Orphanage.
Today, Twee and a handful of volunteers at Metta Home care for 48 children aged 4 to 16 years old. The orphanage takes in children who have lost their parents and those from remote areas of the Chin state whose families could no longer support them.
“Some of the children come to us from families who do not always have access to food,” says Twee. Not only are the children fed, but the orphanage also ensures they are able to attend school.
The children attend local school for primary and secondary education, with fees – the equivalent of approximately US$50 – paid for by the orphanage, and eat food that until a few years ago was all grown on the organization’s adjacent subsistence farm.
“The majority of children we see under the age of 5 years old are malnourished,” explains Khant, whose NGO work with villages exposes him to approximately 1,600 households living under extreme food insecurity, living off of mainly subsistence farming that can usually provide for them little more than six months of the year; families often foraged in the nearby national park to supplement their food.
With increased access to the region in recent years, the travellers have started to trickle through the still difficult-to-reach area and donate everything from money – US$35 pays for vaccinations and a year of healthcare for a child – to sweets and school supplies.
Although Than Win Aung, Solidarités International Field Coordinator, was hesitant to say that tourism has been a catalyst for change in the region, he does note that, “some roads have been built in recent years, thanks to additional government attention.”
“Five years ago the state was almost unreachable during certain times of year, [but] today there are more actual roads connecting the Chin state to others,” he explains. It’s improvements like this that will hopefully bring about the change Khant and Twee hope to see.