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2011 News Releases

Two members of Longwood community visit Burma, explore study-abroad possibilities

March 2, 2011

Woman dressed in the traditional formal Karen dress
Woman dressed in the traditional formal Palaung dress. The hill tribes Melanie and Deb visited were Palaung tribes.

Two members of the Longwood University community recently visited a country where, for much of the population, two of the most pressing needs of everyday life are water and firewood.

Dr. Melanie Marks, professor of economics, and Deborah McWee spent 10 days in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in January just before the spring semester began. The trip was led by David Radcliff, director of New Community Project (NCP), a faith-based nonprofit organization concerned with environmental, agricultural, economic and human justice issues. This was an educational tour that provided opportunities to meet people from some of the ethnic groups in Myanmar and learn about environmental issues currently impacting the country.

"We went to the remotest hill tribes, who live in some of the poorest areas I've ever seen," said Marks, who left Jan. 5 and returned Jan. 17, less than 24 hours before the semester began. "In some of the places we visited, it's possible they have rarely interacted with white people before. Despite their poverty, these were some of the loveliest and most hospitable people I have ever met."

The trip evolved from the NCP presentation at the Longwood sustainability conference in March 2010. Deborah McWee, who has been an adjunct instructor in the Psychology Department and the Department of Education and Special Education, became interested in this trip after seeing an NCP brochure describing the tour. McWee spent the first 10 years of her life in Burma, where both parents had been appointed missionaries. Her father was head minister of a Baptist church in Rangoon (now Yangon). McWee went on the trip, her first return to Burma since her childhood, as did three students from other universities. She and Marks visited the hill tribe in the Shan State, then traveled to the Delta area which had been hit by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

"Economic development is desperately needed in the rural areas, and NCP is assisting with small grants to provide sewing machines, seed money for small enterprises such as raising pigs or making fish paste," Marks said. "As an economist, this was particularly fascinating for me to see how successful, or unsuccessful, these women's groups were in their first capitalistic venture."

In explaining her interest in participating in the Burma program, Marks said, "I'm starting to develop some expertise in Asia, and I wanted to visit a country that was less economically developed than those I have visited. I've led trips to Thailand and Malaysia, which are far more economically advanced than Burma, and this summer I'm running a study-abroad program at Qinzhou University in China, another country that is quickly developing."

Dr. Melanie Marks with some local children Dr. Melanie Marks with a local child.

Deborah McWee hikingDeborah McWee hiking.

Burma is the poorest country in southeast Asia and one of the poorest countries in the world. According to CIA data, its average annual income of $1,100 per person makes it poorer than Bangladesh, Haiti, and Uganda. It is often in the news due to pro-democracy opposition leader Suu Kyi, who was detained for 15 years, much of that time under house arrest, until being released in November 2010.

"For Americans, there is no cell phone reception in Burma, and you can't use credit cards," Marks said. "Our country has imposed trade and investment sanctions on Burma, which has been run since 1962 by a military junta. Other than the fact that the currency of choice is U.S. dollars and you will find an occasional Internet café in the cities, you can feel completely cut off from civilization, especially in the rural villages. There were times before my trip when I thought 'What have I gotten myself into?' You could tell you were in a country that is not free in the same way that we are as American citizens. It has a different feel, but it was not as intimidating as I had envisioned."

Marks has talked to the tour company about taking students to Burma. "There are great opportunities for study-abroad programs in Burma," she said. "Despite the sanctions, any U.S. citizen can go there, though you can't land in Burma using an American carrier. We flew into Thailand going and coming and continued to Burma on a domestic airline. I also hope our students get involved in New Community Project, whose mission is well connected to the Longwood focus on citizen leadership. Many of their global projects have no overhead; all of the money sent to them goes to help people in the countries where NCP is involved."

Much of Marks' and McWee's trip was spent in Burma's countryside. "We were off the beaten path; we didn't spend much time in cities," Marks said. "This was definitely not a luxury trip, although it was an incredible experience. There were nights we slept on a mat on cement floors in church buildings with no shower. We used outhouses on hills, sometimes walking past oxen to get there. We went to some places we could get to only on foot or by boat, walking up to about 12 miles into the mountains to live with one hill tribe. As we trekked to the hill communities, where we spent two nights and three days, we passed people in ox-carts, families who had traveled to the markets on foot, and monks in sandals and traditional robes. It often felt like being in another century."

Two young boys at a school
There is a shortage of school supplies. The black things are homemade chalkboards used because there is no paper.

Women working in the fields
Women are always the ones who work in the fields.

Young monks on their way to collect food for the day
Young monks on their way to collect food for the day. It is considered good luck to feed a monk.


"The people in the hill communities were always lovely and hospitable. They invited us into their homes and served us tea and asked us to stay for dinner, even though they had very little. In some of the villages we visited, the women would put out a beautiful spread of food for us - often bananas, dried fish, and their version of rice cakes. Both children and adults were clearly fascinated by us, especially by our pale skin. In one village, a young girl had painted 'LOVE' on both cheeks backward because she had written it in a mirror. The locals make a paste from the bark of a tree which they use to cover their faces, either to prevent sunburn or as makeup.

"In the rural communities, where many of the people are doing subsistence farming, the biggest needs are water and firewood. Some people have to go to another village to get water, sometimes walking up to two miles with their children, laundry and water jugs. The problem isn't always having enough water but rather getting it to the people. Nonprofits have funded some water projects by providing the materials needed to divert water from the hills. Apparently, offering a lunch of pork and rice is enough to get enough volunteer labor to dig trenches for the pipes. It's women's job to collect firewood, which consumes huge amounts of time. They strap a basket to their back and carry firewood as they travel miles from home. Families cook and heat over an open fire that is literally inside their homes. It's chilly in the hills, so there are a lot of respiratory problems as they breathe in the smoky air all day and night.

"Education also is a challenge in Burma. The government provides free education for girls and boys only up to the fifth grade, and in some remote areas it is difficult for the government to staff the schools with teachers. After fifth grade, children can continue their education only if they are able to afford a private school. In the remote villages, where there are not many schools, this often requires children to attend boarding schools. The New Community Project is funding girls' education under the theory that if you educate a girl, you can educate a village. The cost ranges from $250 to $500 for an academic year. Resources are limited, so students will not always use paper and pencils. Instead, they may use wood painted to create miniature chalkboards. Rural citizens also have little to no access to healthcare. When we stayed with the hill tribe, there was a medical clinic. However, we were told that it was almost never open since it had no medicines or supplies."

Local food vendor in the capital

Local food vendor in the capital. Women carry stuff on their heads!

Basket weaver working

Basket weaver working in the village in the hills where Deb and Melanie slept.

One of the famous leg rowers on Inle Lake

Inle Lake is famous for its leg rowers. The boats are paddled by using the leg.


Marks and McWee visited, by boat, some of the areas in the Delta in the south that were devastated by Cyclone Nargis. The tropical cyclone, the worst natural disaster in Burma's recorded history and the eighth worst cyclone in history, killed at least 138,000 people.

"In one community, we were told they had lost more than two-thirds of their children in Nargis," Marks said. "The told us their account of surviving the cyclone - of the water rising over their houses, clinging to the branches of trees for 12 hours, and watching their children get swept away and being able to do nothing. And, sadly, the government knew the cyclone was coming, but, due to the lack of radios and cell phone in these areas, couldn't notify the people to evacuate. And even if they could have, it was not clear that there were enough boats to accommodate the need. A lot of these people live in thatched huts, have small gardens, and raise pigs. They lost everything they had. In the city of Panthein, we visited a boarding school that was trying to raise money to house and educate students who were orphaned by Nargis."

While spending the night in the former capital, Marks had an eye-opening experience with a food vendor selling food on a stick. "I gave her the equivalent of one dollar and 20 cents and signaled for her to sell me as much food as this small amount of money would buy. She started to pack up all of her stuff - her entire stand - and give it to me, but after she filled up two bags, I put up my hand to stop her. For $1.20, she would have given me her entire store! And her husband was so happy he came over to shake our hands. A lot of these people probably live on about a dollar or less a day. The food turned out to be fried potatoes and fried dough with a sweet chili dipping sauce and was quite delicious. We shared it with a homeless family that we passed on our way back to the hotel."

"The monetary and financial systems in Burma are quite distorted. The government has given businessmen an incentive to operate in the black market since the government has an artificial exchange rate that overvalues their currency. For example, if a Burmese businessman receives a wire transfer through a bank, the money will be converted into the Burmese currently using the government's exchange rate. But, the black market exchange rate is three times as high. So, it encourages businessmen to set up their finances in a country like Thailand in order to avoid the banks in Burma.

"Burma is a good example of the danger of having insecure private property rights, something that economists point to as being a deterrent to economic development. Citizens in Burma may own property, but their property rights are not secure. For example, we met with the head of an environmental organization that has been encouraging rural areas to reforest by developing community forests on their private lands. However, this made the land attractive to the government, which harvests timber to export. The community forests became targets for government takeover. The nonprofit organizations now promote family forests, which are more dispersed and not as attractive to the government. Lumber used to be moved by elephants; now it's moved by helicopter, suggesting that logging activities have increased dramatically in Burma, something that has created environmental challenges."

Burma is next door to Thailand, a country with similar resources, Marks went on to explain. "However, Thailand has enjoyed economic development and is currently seven to eight times richer than its neighbor. Burma is a living, breathing economics lesson that I would love to share with my students."

McWee and Marks visited the church, Immanuel Baptist Church, that McWee's father once pastored. It's in the former capital, now Yangon, which remains the country's commercial center. "It's across the square from the Sule Pagoda, which is called the 'peace pagoda,'" McWee said. "The church, which has multiple-language congregations, was easy to find and still looks the same as I remembered it."

McWee said that she and Marks visited Karen villages in the Ayeyarwaddy River delta (the Karen are one of Burma's more than 30 tribal groups); Palaung villages in the Shan State in the north and east; and Inle Lake, which is "famous for its floating lotus-vine island villages and unique style of fishing in which, while standing, they row with one leg wrapped around the oar."

"Overall, Burma is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I hope to be back there, perhaps with Longwood students, in the near future," Marks said.

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