Editor’s Note: Journalist Anthony C. LoBaido, while blacklisted from Burma by the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, slipped into Burma – renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta – by the back door of Tachilek in the easternmost corner of the nation to obtain the following report.
“Sisters are doing it for themselves.
Standing on their own two feet,
And bringing home their own bread.”
— Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox
NUANG KAN LEPER COLONY, Kengtung, Burma – It is an ancient disease shrouded in a deep fog of mystery and confusion. It would seem the more things change for lepers between biblical and postmodern times, the more they remain the same. Lepers are synonymous with the darkest emotions of the human condition – fear, pity, isolation, abandonment and despair.
By clinical definition, leprosy is a “chronic, mildly contagious disease of tropical and subtropical regions, caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, characterized by ulcers of the skin, bone, and viscera and leading to loss of sensation, paralysis, gangrene, and deformation.” Leprosy is also known as “Hansen’s disease.”
In New Testament times, lepers were ritually pronounced unclean and could not expect medical care, love and compassion from society. These days leprosy has turned the corner. It is highly treatable with drugs such as dapsone, and its transmission is seen as remote.
Over 90 percent of the world’s population is immune to leprosy, and there are only 400,000 lepers left in the entire world. Most of them can be found in countries such as Madagascar, Brazil, Mozambique, Nepal, India and surprisingly, even Japan. The stigma of the disease in the social sense does, however, remain. The plight of the leper still is seen in some quarters as a sort of divine punishment from Almighty God.
As such, the quest of the
Sisters of Charity
to maintain a leper colony of healing and acceptance in Burma rivals in its own way the struggle to build both the Burma Road and the Burma Railway or “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” To be a leper anywhere is to be a disgrace. To be a leper in Burma, a pariah nation eschewed by the international community is doubly hard, for the ruling Burmese junta only provides each handicapped leper with 2 cents per month in assistance.
While the British East India Company looted India, plundered an untold fortune in rubies and other gems, and caused famines which starved countless millions to death under private warlords such as Lord Clive and other common ex-street hooligans, the modern image (real or imagined) of the colonial scene in Burma was dominated by the likes of writers such as Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
They described Burma (which is a perversion of one of the country’s many tribes, the “Bama”) as a place of almost limitless beauty, charm and riches.
Burma was administered as a province of India through the year 1937. Thus Kengtung, the home of Nuang Kan, would be the final town in the eastern-most reaches of what was then the British Empire – stretching from Pakistan to India through Bangladesh and into Burma today.
Burma became independent from Britain in 1948 just after World War II. The British Empire had subsumed the nation/colony/province between 1824 and 1886. In 1948, a bright and talented journalist and teacher named U Thant was promoted to the position of director of broadcasting by the government of Burma. Then in 1961, this same man, U Thant, became the United Nations Secretary General when U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold died in an airplane crash in the autumn of that year. U Thant would serve in that post until 1971. This bolt from the blue provided Burma with cover at the United Nations, much in the same way the People’s Republic of China provides international cover for Burma today.
Ne Win took over the government and ruled between 1962 and 1988, when he was deposed by the current ruling military junta. For most of the time between 1989 and November 2010, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was either in prison or under house arrest while her National League of Democracy, the winner in a national, popular election, was kept out of power.
Ironically, in a twist of “truth is stranger than fiction,” Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, created the Army of Burma during World War II with the help of the occupying Japanese military. Aung San was assassinated in 1947 at the age of 32. He had studied to be a lawyer before entering politics. Even today the British Army remembers Aung San as the man who fought alongside the Japanese Imperial forces against Great Britain and the Allies during the darkest hours of World War II. At this same time, the Karen hill tribes fought against Nazi-like, slave-labor barbarism of the Japanese, and assisted Allied POWs and downed pilots. Aung San’s British National Army arrived in Burma alongside the invading Japanese in 1941. The BNA had been receiving training in Japan. But after seeing how cruel the Japanese were to his countrymen, Aung San switched sides and helped the British and the Allies. Over 200,000 Japanse soldiers died in Burma during World War II.
Burma, a leper-like nation in the transnational sense on a par with North Korea, Iran, Cuba or even the defunct apartheid regime of South Africa, seems to embody the macro and the micro of the horrendous disease of leprosy. Amid this background the Sisters of Charity must operate.
They are the first, last, best and only defense for the lepers and their families.
Yet as the diminutive and seemingly indomitable 63-year-old Sister Stefania walks through the wide, unpaved streets of the leper colony of Saint Peter’s Parish, nestled in this remote hidden corner of Burma between Thailand and the People’s Republic of China, the sun breaks out through the clouds of the rainy season like the parting of the Red Sea. The nun’s smile is resplendent, perhaps even ebullient. Stefania’s personal brand of joy is a joy few will ever know – the joy of being a human angel carrying out a mission that defies the limits of both heaven and Earth. Global sanctions, geopolitics and resource wars are meaningless here.
The air is still until a lilting breeze sweeps across the colony as we walk past the simple bricks of the new church under construction. It is to be named after Saint Peter. When will it be finished?
“Who knows? But for now we have a temporary building where we can hold Mass and pray,” says the sister without pretense or worry in her voice. It is the voice of calm which has made a habit of knowing the unknowable. The voice of reason and sanity in a world of sickness run wild. It is the voice echoing the conscience, heart and soul of this leper colony – a colony in the truest sense of the word. A colony built inside an erstwhile colonial backwater of the British Empire. A riddle wrapped up inside an enigma hidden within a conundrum. Most sane people run away from lepers. The Sisters of Charity instead willingly choose to run towards them with an embrace.
Under construction, the church at the colony
Sister Stefania readily points to her faith, which believes Saint Peter was the rock upon which Jesus Christ would build His church, “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
While you might think this leper colony would be a page out of hell, it’s not. There are gates however, and they are surrounded by what seems like a peaceful forest where birds fly and chirp and do all the things birds are likely to do. “Not a sparrow falls that God doesn’t know about it. How much more valuable are you, or these lepers?” Sister Stefania might say.
So it should come as no surprise to those who truly believe in the quantum power of a Supreme Being, that at Nuang Kan, scores of children run about, playing childish games as children are wont to do; happy, shouting, shrieking and even outright leaping at times as though in possession of some grand secret. The secret only a child can truly know. The secret of children who have not yet learned to watch the clock ticking away. There are 200 such children living here in what is sometimes called “The Happy City.”
“I know most of them by name,” says Sister Stefania.
She also knows that by some grace, they are healthy children for the most part. The most famous leprosy stories of the New Testament, Luke 17:11-19 and Mark 1:40-45, find reaffirmation at the colony on an almost daily basis. This is because of the love, faith and good works of the Sisters of Charity.
Stefania is one of seven “Top Nuns” who provide education, housing, food, jobs and health care services for the 400 lepers and their children living in the colony and at points beyond. The Sisters of Charity, who have taken a vow of chastity, obedience and poverty, are nevertheless rich in all of the things money cannot buy in the postmodern 21st century. Things like love, kindness, honor, courage and mercy. It is their sincere belief that God and Jesus Christ have called out to them from a place beyond the invisible to meet the challenges of this almost incomprehensible task. That task is to bring dignity and health to lepers suffering through a life of hardship that when properly contemplated would stupefy the human mind.
As the 100th anniversary of the Sisters of Charity approaches in Burma (in 2016 they will celebrate), the sisters have ample reason to reflect on their great commission and their anointing in helping those whom society would rather pretend simply do not exist.
In this wild, untamed place where few if any journalists have ever dared to tread, perhaps the time has come to ask exactly why these Sisters of Charity do what they do? What is their driving spiritual, mental, moral and emotional touchtone? What do they hope to gain from their work? What is their view of God and Jesus Christ? Have they ever encountered anything miraculous?
How is it that they have brought to life a seemingly immaculately clean colony free of litter, graffiti and methamphetamine labs? It is a community in the truest sense, a place without locks or alarms nor keys. It is a place where adults stricken with leprosy allow their children to roam freely without a care in the world. While they are poor, there can be no doubt that in some strange way they are rich in other things like peace of mind.
How is it that the Sisters of Charity have invented the world’s first time travel machine and turned back the clock of the Western world to the 1950s? While the British Army and British Empire have long ago faded, leaving behind a dilapidated Hill Station not far from the colony, the wooden crosses of the Christian faith remain standing in a region best known for the communism, mass murder and suffering brought to mankind by Mao, the Pathet Lao, the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge. The name of this place may change from “British Empire” to “Burma” to “Myanmar” but the message of the Cross never changes one bit.
One need not be criticized for asking about the chain of command, philosophy of leadership and support structure of such an organization. It is an enterprise which functions as a seamless machine of nursing, education, job training and spiritual discipleship. Not surprisingly, at the head of the Sisters of Charity stands 88-year-old Sister Elizabeth Cavagna, who grew up during the Nazi occupation of Italy during World War II.
It is she who actually volunteered to come to Burma in 1952. It is she who runs a school where 1,600 Thai and local hill tribe children receive an education just across the Burma border outside the city Chiang Rai, Thailand. It is she who faced down communist soldiers who surrounded her mission, church and school in Burma with a plethora of machine guns back in 1964. They were simply no match for her wiles, faith and decency. Nor were they any match for the strength of her heart for God and the vow she made to serve the least of brethren no matter what it might cost her – for the doing of such things “brings God glory and makes Him happy.”
“It was my mommy who first taught me about God and about Jesus,” says Sister Elizabeth, whose given name is Teresa.
She is at ease when talking about her life, which has been an amazing adventure, including contact with both the late Pope Jean-Paul II and Mother Teresa.
Speaking with a steady tone of Italian-accented English, and still displaying both her keen mind and cooking skills over a plate of spaghetti at her convent, Sister Elizabeth explained how an isolated group of nuns can out-smart and out-faith all comers, and defeat enemies both terrestrial and spiritual.
“It was long ago … the Nazi Army, the Wehrmacht, had invaded Italy. I was young then and of course I was very afraid at times. There were the aerial bombing raids and when they came my mother would grab me and hold me tight to her bosom. We couldn’t go outside and play. The Nazis came to our village and then eventually found our house. They took everything they could carry off … food, medicine and blankets. They even took away our mattresses. But as you know, people adapt when facing a cruel and evil enemy and so too did we partisans adapt,” explained Sister Elizabeth.
Two women walk near the leper colony
“What we did to throw off the Nazi army was to choke off their supplies from the local community. We learned to hide things. For example, we would hide food, medicine, wine, cheese, blankets and bedding in a certain room while posting on the door a warning for ‘Typhoid.’ When the German soldiers saw this they went running off.”
Sister Elizabeth then added, “Eventually the American soldiers liberated Italy and they tore down the statues of Mussolini … he was a very bad man. The Americans did a great thing for Italy. When they arrived it was a festive occasion and people threw confetti from the balconies. Today however, American culture through Hollywood and TV has brought a disaster to the whole world. The youth are particularly at-risk to this … and so we have to teach the children the right way which leads to God.”
Asked about her prayer for the peoples of Burma, Sister Elizabeth said, “That the people increase their faith. How many are Christians outside of the Karen? Perhaps 1 percent? I love Burma … it should be a very, very rich country. Look at all of the natural resources. Look at how it is located right next to both China and India … all of those people surrounding Burma. Burma is the road to both those giant nations. For me, I pray that the people of Burma will place their hope in God and in Jesus. The providence of God is always ready … On January 4th the Burmese government wanted everyone to celebrate the date the British Empire left. For us, every day we celebrate the arrival of God’s providence in our lives.”
Another nun, Sister Anita, who hails from India, spoke of the Sisters of Charity’s outreaches to the hill tribes of the region. Sister Anita is a real life nurse who takes medicines directly to the poor.
“Gastro issues, joint pain, wide spectrum antibiotics, inflammatory medicine … they are things the people need. They are poor. They have no Thai National ID Card. I speak of the Karen and Lahu and Ahka peoples. When the poor suffer and respond to our love and kindness, this fills me with joy. I feel like we can demonstrate the passionate love of Jesus for humankind. We can spread His Kingdom. This is what matters most.”
Asked about how someone from India, a predominantly Hindu nation, becomes a Catholic nun, Sister Anita explained that, “Around 1860, Italian nuns traveled to India and set up a mission in Calcutta. Many of these nuns died from the heat and from the food … their spirit was strong but they were overcome by the climate … such things we willingly face.”
While Sister Anita speaks with her own purposeful prose of passion, behind her seat at the kitchen table of the convent outside of Chiang Rai, one can see a photograph on a bulletin board. It features Sister Vincenza, one of the two founders of the Sisters of Charity (along with Bartolomea) at the Lovere back in 1832.
Just below Vincenza’s photo is the credo of the Sisters of Charity, which reads, “Radically follow Jesus the Redeemer … Chaste, poor, obedient in the common life in order to serve our neighbor with the vigor and demands of the vow of charity.” (Acts 14:3.)
The beauty of those words is personified through Sister Jesilyn, also of India, a young nun who is just flat-out beautiful. Sister Jesilyn smiles her unparalleled smile – a supermodel’s smile – while saying, “We serve Jesus. We serve children. We are here to serve.”
Her life is not a life spent in a search for meaning and purpose. Rather Sister Jesilyn’s existence, like the other nuns she is bonded to, is a life whose searching ended the very day she realized she would never tire of seeking out those she might give meaning and purpose to.
Between Heaven and Earth
While Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military philosopher long ago wrote that “all warfare is based on deception,” the Sisters of Charity rely on their sword of truth – God’s Holy Word, and the light that tells them to walk along the narrow path of honor, service and love. The disastrous world of BP and the Gulf of Mexico, depleted uranium munitions, Abu Ghraib, Fukushima, Katrina, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, the neverending and unwinnable wars, financial disaster and the collapse of Western civilization, all seem meaningless and even trite when compared with the physical, mental, moral, spiritual and financial struggle the Sisters of Charity face at the leper colony on a daily basis.
Leper woman. The government allows her 2 cents per month
They are the tip of the spear of the Christian ideal. They have taken up the ministry of Jesus Christ in an attempt to make the miraculous ordinary. They are truly the light of the world. If they don’t shine, it can be safely assumed it will indeed be dark.
“The Myanmar government only provides 15 Kyat (pronounced “Chet”) per month for each of the handicapped lepers,” explains Sister Stefania, while flashing her electrifying white smile. When she says “15 Kyat” she is saying “U.S. 2 cents.”
Asked about the hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars the Burmese junta could marshal from jade, rubies, rice, teak wood, pink marble, oil (until World War II Burma was Asia’s third leading exporter of oil) natural gas, uranium (several major mines run by the Russians) not to mention the illegal opium trade of the fabled Golden Triangle, the Sister simply waves her hand like a magic wand and says, “Oh … I wouldn’t know about any of that.”
Her brand of Christianity does not involve envy or judging or punishing others. “It is what it is.” There is the economy of man, the flesh, the world and the pride of life. Instead of lamenting the lack of social justice in a world where giving must come from the heart rather than judicial fiat, the Sisters of Charity are busy building a new world under the worst conditions possible.
In Burma, Caesar has already been rendered to in a way the Praetorian Guard could only dream about. So instead of rubies and jade and gold bullion, ink and paper and electrons shuttling about on the computers of the Federal Reserve Bank and IMF, the sisters are busy issuing a currency all their own.
It is the currency of sweat, labor, pride, morality, security, safety, of teaching children the right way concerning prioritizing actions, adaptability, perseverance, chasteness avoiding all impurity, honesty, truth, courage and kindness. At the leper colony, all of these traits are fully redeemable for the shunned lepers driven to the fringes of society.
Sister Stefania points to the statue of Father Caesar Colombo, the founder of the leper colony. The Italian missionary founded this place long ago. It was called “The Happy City.” Father Colombo was a Caesar who rendered unto others, not a Caesar to be rendered unto. He was a surgeon, bricklayer and priest. At the height of terrorist attacks and communist infiltration of the Shan Region bordering China and Thailand, Father Colombo would organize 100 leper men into an asymmetrical counter-insurgency militia in order to protect the colony from attacks.
Aided by eight soldiers sent by the Burmese government, the rag tag militia did its best to defend the lepers. Some of those leper soldiers died in combat, probably wondering to their last breath how a luckless people so ravaged internally by a disease they could not even begin to understand could actually be attacked by the outside world.
“Father Colombo took in lepers who walked to the colony from all over Myanmar, and from China too,” says Sister Stefania. Those tribes marched through the jungle, subsisting on whatever they could pick or catch. He built a hospital brick by brick (the bricks were fashioned with mud from a local lake) complete with a surgical bay. He cared for many lepers from various tribes and other religions as well.
Asked how she herself came to be a pillar at Nuang Kan, Sister Stefania explained, “I was orphaned and grew up in a convent since the age of 2 … I lived in a long neck area of Karen (who wear rings of metal around the neck and wrists to avoid, they believe, the mortal bites of a tiger.) At the age of 11 I was sent to Mandalay to study. During World War II the Japanese drove out the British and occupied this nation. The Japanese burned churches and missions and schools and convents. The year 1943 particularly stands out in my mind. …
“I remember that the Karen were fighting back then (The British considered them good soldiers.) This is the background of my youth – the convent and World War II. I know I am 63 but don’t know my exact date of birth. But I do know that the best education available was in the church.”
The lepers emerge
The sight of the lepers themselves is something out of a Cecil B. DeMille film like “Ben Hur.” They are segregated into male and female quarters. The women in particular actually seem happy. They bow and greet their visiting journalist with folded hands. I turn away from them, about to cry, but I soon turn back again as though pulled by an irresistible force. I see missing fingers and black feet. And then their reality begins to sink in. They are lepers inside a leper country. They are the ultimate outsiders, unwelcomed inside a nation unwelcomed by the so-called civilized world.
They smile at me as if alien beings who know that this world, the flesh and the pride of life is all passing away – molecules and quarks of radioactive decay. The lepers to a man and to a woman could be described as content. The handicapped amongst them have been abandoned by their families. Those with land holdings can and do hire others to subcontract a farming detail in order to assist their financial situation. The lepers who I meet have no land and have been abandoned by the children they gave life to. Can there be any crueler fate in this world?
There are others the world would call victims that the nuns of Nuang Kan also meticulously serve, including those residing in town at St. Mary’s Convent at Kengtung. Some are stricken with polio and blindness, while others are simply crippled. The Mother Superior at St. Mary’s, Sister Rose Mary, guides me through the convent and the surrounding area. She is a stately woman yet humble. She reminds me of what St. Peter must be like in guarding the Gates of Heaven – strong, filled with wisdom, kind and singular of mind while beholden solely to God.
“Why do you do what you do?” she is asked, again and again. (Weeks later the sister would e-mail me, saying that my question is almost haunting her mind.) “Based on my personal experience … in time of helplessness and in time of difficulties I feel strongly that God loves me as I am. So, too, He loves each person as they are. So it makes me strong to serve those who are under our care and to build up [the sense of] community. I think and think of your question now and then. Your question is so helpful for my spiritual strength and encouragement [during] my spiritual journey.”
Pressed for a definitive answer, Sister Rose Mary says only this; “What we do here … the dispensary … handing out the medicines to the poor in this city of Kengtung … caring for the sick … did you see that boy in bed with polio? He is smiling even though he can never get out of the bed – ever … did you see the blind woman doing gardening on the side of the road? Did you see that other pretty blind girl grinding up all the peanuts? We give them hope you might say. We trained them to do a job you might say … what I would say is that what we do here, what happens here … none of it could possibly happen without the power of Jesus Christ.”
The Sisters of Charity are careful not to move even a micro-millimeter out of their prized zone of humility. Their ultimate prize is that they have no false pride and hand out zero prizes to their select group of nuns. They realize they are the Super Bowl, the World Series and the World Cup of the purest form of Christianity left on Earth. They are holy and godly and God is with them. And so there can be no doubt that in such a place as this, where godly women who have spent a combined centuries of time on this planet, would have seen their share of outright miracles.
Asking them to detail even one miracle is no easy task. They are not used to such questions, or any questions for that matter. As far as anyone knows, no print journalist has ever been here before. There is no Internet or Google record of any published stories on the leper colony from the major mass media.
But these kinds of signs – a peaceful community living in harmony and safety, the love of Christ, service to others, the restoration of dignity – are not the signs many Christians want to see these days, for they are hooked on the appeals of the flesh. The Middle East, so-called “End Times” events, the Antichrist and superstorms are considered the “real signs.” Two thousand years ago the miracles of Jesus Christ, which included healing lepers and children with blood disorders, were not enough for the religious leaders of that era. According the Sisters of Charity, Jesus told them, “Wicked and perverse generation, you seek a sign but none shall be given unto you.” (Matt 16:4.)
Fully comprehending the meaning of true spiritual power, the sisters gather to reveal one of their special stories of God’s miracles they’ve witnessed. This is not some fantastical event you might see on an HBO series such as “Carnivale.” This is hard core, this is an NFL training camp and the landing of the Marines at Iwo Jima in the spiritual sense. This is the Rosetta Stone of what it means to dwell inside the tent of God. These are the kind of nuns who face down Nazis and juntas with the aplomb of a fat king tossing aside a drumstick at a Thanksgiving feast.
If nuns had baseball cards, this would be the All Star Team. The Sisters of Charity are Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Tom Seaver and Ted Williams dressed in blue tunics with white habits. Their Field of Dreams are Nuang Kan and its sister colony at Loi Mooi not far away. They are catechists who are good with languages. They are nurses, missionaries and helpers. They are also witnesses to the odd miracle. They won’t care if you don’t believe in miracles or even believe in God. They’ll simply say, “Don’t worry my child, God believes in you .”
Feeling God’s power
And so after a quick huddle, the nuns of Nuang Kan agree to a sit-down meeting. This is their debut in the world of the media and of status and personal consideration. No one has ever bothered to ask people like them why they do what they do. No one has come to ask them the “who, what, why, where and when.” They have been called out of this world, so it shocks them to learn they are spiritual superstars. They simply cannot fathom why anyone, any journalist, would travel all this way, and spend all that money, and brave the food and stomach problems and the Burmese military junta and the constant rain and the mud just to bask in their presence.
Somehow again, the nuns realize that in a small way, this is their moment in the sun. This is their chance to offer lexis to their secret cognitive and spiritual motivations. They are children at the carnival. They are spiritual superstars. They are Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vogue. They are Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot at the buzzer for the NBA championship. They are Megan Fox and Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and Lilly Aldridge and Tom Brady.
They are a weekend in Rio and a Dove chocolate bar and a home run at Yankee Stadium. They are cotton candy and a well-lit Christmas tree. Suddenly for a brief moment, they are no longer toiling for decades in complete anonymity. This shocks the Sisters of Charity, almost to the core. The fact that they are in possession of something money cannot capture or even touch.
Children whose parents are afflicted
In 2011, the average person will receive more messages in one year than a person in 1900 would have received in their entire lifetime. These Sisters are caught between both of those worlds in an information technology sense, for they have a once-in-a-lifetime message.
The world, that world “out there,” desperately wants and needs a sign of God’s power on this green Earth. That same world that wonders how the Sisters of Charity make due with 2 cents per month for each handicapped leper in their colony? The world which longs to realize Revelation 21:4; “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
While the nuns debate what they wish to say, on my I-Pod the music group Train sings, “I need a sign to let me know You’re here. All of these lines crossing over the atmosphere. My TV set just keeps it all from being clear. I need a reason to build up some kind of hope inside of me. I’m calling all angels …”
Sister Stefania is the first to speak, as if recounting an alien abduction in which she had been given the chance to pilot the UFO. Stefania is a stranger to this world – a world of violence and lust and envy and slander and covetousness. She is the real alien, the real E.T.
“When do I feel God’s power most strongly? When I am helping and not forgetting many thousands of the poor or orphans … when I return to the poor and to the orphans what I myself received as an orphan since I was 2 years old … that’s when I feel God close to me. The church is my house … it is my home … I am happy when I can help at a clinic … I am happy when I see the children at this colony are happy … that is my joy …”
Sister Assumpta, a bright-faced woman with loving eyes, then wishes to explain a first-hand, real-life miracle she herself witnessed. She speaks happily, positively, telling an unbelieving world what holiness and godliness and service to others can bring about.
“There was one man, a leper who sought a cure … would he get better? He nearly gave up. The parents of this patient came to us seeking to try a new drug … What they got was a small amount of penicillin … They paid 5000 Chet ($ 7.14) but it did not work … We tried and tried to help this particular leper. So I prayed to St. Anthony … I decided to use Holy Water … I put the Holy Water on my hand while administering the medicine … St. Anthony imparted the knowledge that we should not to use so much medicine … I can tell you that after one year the leper got better … Feeling God’s power in helping the lepers … that is the most satisfying part of my work.”
Sister Teresina is a Chinese nun from the Yunan Region. She once lived around the border of Burma on the Chinese side. For her, just the idea of becoming a nun in the first place was something of a miracle in its own right.
“I tended buffalos and cows and walked along the slope of the mountains in extreme southern China,” she said. “At the age of 16 I was engaged by my parents in some kind of an arranged marriage … There were Kumingtang rebels all around our area … I thought of my future, carrying a baby up and down those slopes … but on the day I was supposed to get married I ran away to Myanmar …”
“I was the ‘Runaway Bride …’ I met a monk and explained to him my situation … my parents wanted to take me back to the man I was supposed to marry … they had paid a dowry already … but I was able to get out of this arranged marriage. Instead I have found my calling here, in this place …”
Sister Bambina has been a nun for 25 years.
“In my family there are three nuns and one priest. If I were to marry I would have only two or three children, but here I can care for many, many children,” she says while taking me on yet another tour of St. Mary’s facilities for lepers, the blind and others whom they care for.
“Why did I become a nun and choose this life? Honestly and first of all I can tell you that I want my salvation. I want to go to heaven. Here at St. Mary’s we have 11 nuns caring for about 150 people. This is not easy of course. So the first thing in the morning we do is our meditation upon God, and that is when feel most strong in Lord.”
Union of repression
The term “Union of Myanmar” means that the country is attempting to unite all of her disparate tribes, including the Karen, who are broken into Buddhist and Christian factions. The new flag of the Burmese junta symbolizes unity and agriculture. “Burma,” again, is a perversion of the world “Bama” which is merely one of Burma’s many tribes. The truth is that the junta has fought the various hill tribes on occasion and now seeks to turn them into a unified border force that illegal aliens would not want to encounter on the roads to Arizona, California or Texas.
Children whose parents are afflicted with leprosy
Burma is a place of repression, brutality, haves and have-nots. The army has been known to run wild with systematic rape and clear land mine fields with civilians. Never mind civilian slave labor on the various infrastructure projects that will enrich the elites in Rangoon and the brand new capital of Naypyidaw. As previously mentioned, this should be one of the richest countries in the world. Instead it is a county whose special forces are trained by the North Korean Army. It is a country where Typhoon Nargis wound up as the largest natural disaster in the nation’s history, with enough dead bodies to fill the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day and then some. (138,000-plus) It is a country with an internal passport system for foreigners and locals alike. A country where only the well-connected can get a passport to travel overseas, perhaps for religious purposes to see the Dalai Lama or to carryout business on behalf of the armed forces.
According to my guide, Sai Leng, a pleasant, intelligent fellow with a nice face, the Burmese army commandeers 30 percent of everyone’s rice crop, and pays them a low price for it. Sai Leng should know as he is a farmer when not guiding the random tourist through these parts. Some of this rice is shipped across the border to a hungry China. The main border outpost with China in this province is called Mong La. This is the Mecca of the illegal animal trade, including elephant ivory, bears, animal body parts used in Oriental aphrodisiacs and more. Ask the Burmese army why the road between Kengtung and Mong La is closed and you will hear things like: “We’re not sure … there’s a lot of debate about that … there’s trouble up there.” The truth is that visitors are not allowed to see what’s going on with the exotic animal trade. This is an open secret.
As a writer, I have personally interviewed some of the last people to visit Mong La (Hillary Clinton’s “Women’s Global Initiative” protégé Lek Chailert’s husband Darrick Thomson and filmmaker Tim Gorski of “How I Became An Elephant” fame.)
Gorski said he and Thomson were the “first white people in years to visit Mong La … we stayed on Christmas some time ago and over 100 Burmese children, orphans, came to our hotel to sing us Christmas carols. When we went to the animal market and took photos of the rare bears in cages, the cell phones of the intelligence officials came out and we were whisked out of town.”
“They control everything and people are afraid to speak,” adds a man named Joe Wynn, a retired teacher and lay Catholic volunteer who lives literally in the shadows of the church nearest to St. Mary’s Convent in Kengtung. Sai Leng introduces me to his former teacher. He is a pleasant man who makes a perfect cup of tea. The walls of his quaint, sturdy home are decorated with the Immaculate Heart of Jesus and pretty, but conservatively dressed Burmese women.
Sai Leng and Wynn hold court, mixing hot tea with tepid tones, knowing full well that our first guide, Sai Moon, whom we met at the Mai Sai border in Thailand, had his teeth knocked out by Burmese soldiers. I refer to him as “Simon from American Idol who is now ‘Idle’ and has been ‘voted off the Island of Misfit Toys.'” Neither Sai Moon or Sai Leng ever knew I was a journalist, or that I had been blacklisted from Burma by their embassy in Bangkok.
Next we discuss our “Myanmar Junta Spy.” All foreign tourists traveling to Burma will have a government “spy” come to their hotel to file a report on them each and every night. All along the roads where foreigners are permitted to travel, you must show up to 25 copies of your internal, temporary Myanmar passport and other documents at a never-ending series of military checkpoints. The soldiers are innocuous, kind and almost sweet. Some have their wives and babies dressed in Hello Kitty outfits standing nearby. That much is surreal. Even more surreal is the sight of Burmese children sporting masks, outfits and T-shirts from the Neve Campbell Hollywood film series “Scream.” As if real life wasn’t enough of a scream already.
“There are 5,000 soldiers from the junta garrisoned in this province,” says Sai Leng. “They are hated … the people do not like them so they are hidden away, like the lepers. The Burmese junta will only call them out if the people begin to rise up. The soldiers know this and we know this.”
People tend to vanish in Burma … into prison or worse places like the ground, where they put you in a box and don’t let you out – not even on the weekends. Take the husband of the woman who owned the guesthouse where we stayed in Kengtung. His name was Harry. Harry’s Trekking House and Adventure Tours is well known among the Lonely Planet guide book circuit.
“Harry was put in prison by the military for complaining that the junta did not do anything for the homeless people of this region,” says Sai Leng.
Shutting up is always seen as the best option. You can get in a lot of trouble in Burma, even for your hair style or musical tastes.
Sai Leng explains that the beautiful lake in the center of Kengtung once featured a long pier which led out, believe it or not, to a discotheque right on the water. “It was taken down though … too much noise. People were arrested as recently as 1998-1999 for things like … well, men with long hair and earrings. The junta is concerned for Burma’s youth and the MTV-style music with its impact on the culture.”
Arresting Burmese men for having long hair should come as no surprise, for as King Solomon wrote, in Burma, “A woman’s long hair is her glory.”
“Long hair on a woman shows her status and place in society,” says Sai Leng while Wynn nods in the affirmative. This is one of the problems the Burmese junta has with Aung San Suu Kyi of Nobel Prize and democracy fame.
“She does not, at least in their eyes, know her place as a Burmese woman should recognize it,” says Wynn. Of course this is all a not-so-clever ruse. For in Burma what we see are industrious women, including nuns, doing the tough jobs that men cannot or will not do.
Yet talk about the hair of women persists. I learn from Sai Leng and Wynn that long hair on a Burmese woman is considered, “lah-day” or “pretty.” “Long hair put into two braids” in Thai is “pom bia,” and “Sah bin cheetah” in Burmese. “San Tong” means, in Burmese, that a woman’s hair has already been tied up. But there is really only one woman people in Burma want to talk about – Aung San Suu Kyi.
Speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi at her Chiang Mai office for the Elephant Nature Foundation, Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year and Hero of Asia Lek Chailert of Save the Elephant fame, says, “I support her. I don’t even like to use the word ‘Myanmar.’ The people of Burma have been through so much. It is a country with so many problems as most people are aware.
“They also have no problem with illegally smuggling elephants across the border into Thailand. Everyone knows about the abuse of elephants in Burma … the penises of male elephants are cut off for example for use in China. Then there is the ivory. There is no ecological movement in Burma now but there are a few parks.”
The Burmese language lessons continue. “Tah kah knee” is the face cream Burmese women wear as sunscreen. It has a greenish tint. I drink even more tea. When it is offered I say “Chay zoo tim bah day” or “Thank You.” I eat “Bo sic ho,” which is chick peas and rice paste deep fried into something that might make the menu someday at KFC. I even learn to count … “1” is “Teet,” “2” is “Nit,” “3” is “Dawng,” “4” is “Lee,” “5” is “Nah” and “6” is “Chow.” We stop at six because there are only six people in the room.
The conversation drifts back to the nuns at the Leper Colony. Wynn says, “In the Burmese language we say ‘Ahnhoo’ for ‘skin’ and ‘Yorka’ for ‘disease.’ We speak of lepers in a polite way.” He’s been a part of this local Catholic community for 35 years but honestly does not know the name of the church just outside his door, nor the order of the nuns who run Nuang Kan. Sai Leng jokingly calls him “forgetful.” For the record, it is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Wynn pours me yet another cup of tea. We speak about the Karen, who have been split into Buddhist and Christian factions. The Karen National Union or KNU have made overtures to the junta about a peace deal after decades of fighting.
Time and time again the conversation turns back to North Korea’s relationship with Burma.
Wynn says North Korea is busy training Burmese troops at various secret locations around the country. He says North Korea has sent elite technicians to work with the Burmese government on issues involving uranium, missiles and nuclear research. We talk about how hard (not very) it would be for the junta to put together a series of atomic bombs with the help of the North Koreans. They certainly have the uranium in abundance.
North Koreans are smart and have detonated a small-yield EMP type weapon. They are the junta’s new best friend since China told the United States North Korea is “no longer a reliable partner.” This will allow Burma to play off China, India and the U.S. against one another.
Will China be allowed to construct a naval air station in the Burmese archipelago? Or will America sweeten relations with Burma to stop that from happening? Can Burma help rein in North Korea for America’s liking? What about the uranium mines? Will China use Burma as another stop on its “String of Pearls” base building adventure, recreating the naval empire of Zheng He, which spread from China to Sri Lanka and all the way to Somalia before Columbus and Magellan?
And what about Burma’s oil (estimated reserves of 3.2 billion barrels) and natural gas holdings, her pipelines and proximity to the billions of consumers in China and India? It appears the junta is still holding all the cards, in addition to jade, rice, teak wood, marble, opium, gems, rubies and the three keys of real estate – location, location, location.
Super duper karma
Back at Nuchanat Anusorn School, in Wiang Pa Pao, a tiny city just south of Chiang Rai, Thailand, Sister Elizabeth is busy reviewing the 1,600 students flowing past her in perfect formation on their way to class. They fold their hands in the traditional “wai” and bow, almost in awe of this godly woman. Once she stood by helplessly as Nazi troops marched through the streets of her hometown in Italy. Now she is the one being feted by the plethora of marchers. If you believe in karma, this is super duper karma. The kind of upside down karma that saw Aung San conjure up the Burmese army, only to see it imprison his own daughter Suu Kyi, the ex-con.
Burmese girl wears traditional sunscreen
On these school grounds, there are no signs touting a mythical, insane and non-existent “Global Elite,” no Baylor Bear cubs, no Texas A&M football stadium or nuclear reactor. There’s just a Golden Horde of 150 students who only moments before had been sitting silently in church at mass with communion wafers sticking to the roof of their mouths. Children in uniforms, girls with ribbons and ironed blouses. There is order. There is meaning. There is reason. Perhaps with good luck there will even be food.
“Some of our students will be sent to the Don Bosco School in Chiang Mai to study trades like computers or becoming an electrician. The Akha are very clever,” continues St. Elizabeth. “We want them to speak the language, to learn skills and to be a part of the culture,” she explains.
A pretty blonde woman, an art curator from San Francisco named Jennifer Lynne, is standing at the sister’s side. Elizabeth holds onto Jennifer for balance. I smile as I watch the both of them. I think back to a group of nuns I met long ago in Zululand in South Africa. Those nuns prayed even before drinking a glass of water.
“Feeding rice to the students who live here on a permanent basis costs 7,000 Euros per year (most recently the Euro was trading at $1.43.) So we are feeding 150 kids (only 150 of the 1600 live at the facility full-time) … the money came from my cousin back in Italy. Isn’t God amazing? We can feed the children and offer them moral instruction. On Sundays we can also teach groups of adults and children.”
Sister Elizabeth stops the procession of students and pulls out a pair of twin girls who are adorable and shy. They look to be about 8 years old.
“Their father is in jail for drug trafficking … can you imagine?” Then she pulls another girl out from the front of the line, equally as adorable. “Her mother just pulled up here one day and dropped her off … she didn’t want her anymore … so we took her in.”
And so, this is the reality show at the tactical and spiritual headquarters of the Sisters of Charity. Strings of Pearls, uranium mines, special forces, ethnic and tribal border militias, sanctions, natural gas pipelines, atomic bombs, juntas, jade and Japanese World War II invaders are all just background noise to a wooden cross chained around the necks of the nuns. The same cross which changed the world forever.
Sister Anita hands me an envelope. Inside is the SWIFT banking code for the Sisters of Charity. It is the bank code I have long been searching for, even before I crossed into Burma at the very beginning of this long journey.
Written on a paper that has also been stuffed inside the envelope is the following verse of Scripture:
“How long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto the day of violence, and thou wilt not save? Why dost thou show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? For spoiling and violence are before me: and there are those that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceeds. Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” – Habakkuk Chapter 1: 2-5
For those wishing to make a donation:
Sisters of Charity
Nuang Kan Leper Colony
The Siam Commercial Bank Public Company Limited
Wiang Pa Pao Branch
337 MU 6 TB. Wiang AP, Wiangpapao
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Account Number: 545-2-14480-8
Mission Catholic Wiang Pa Pao
SWIFT Code: SICO THBK