In early December 2007 we were in the town of Ranong in southern Thailand where my brother, John Larsen SM, and his merry band of men have set up a mission to the many Burmese people in the area. The mission is an outreach from the Marist mission in the Philippines.
While there we, (my husband Ian and I), were given a tour to some of the areas where they work.We visited two or three education centres where we saw bright happy little round faced Burmese children being taught Thai, English and their own native Burmese language. As many of the children have been born in Thailand they are stateless, as neither country acknowledges their existence. Volunteers assist the team and, as Father John says, extra volunteers turn up when most needed. While in Ranong we were impressed by a young couple from New Zealand who were teaching the children the rudiments of bargaining, a popular Thai pastime, in English. These lovely young people were spending half of their holiday helping Father John’s team and the other half touring Asia. After that it will be back to their university studies.
T he education centres were in hot, open sheds, very noisy with the smell of the fish factories wafting through and would certainly not meet Australian (or Thai) standards. Unfortunately, at this stage, the children are only being educated up to the age of 12 when they can then be employed in the fish factories. A 100 baht a day (about $AUD3.50) payment is their expectation for their labour. Father John would love to set up a secondary education facility but he is competing against the need of families to put rice on the table – if they have a table.
The Marists also minister to HIV/Aids infected adults. This disease is often not recognised as a problem by the officials and, accordingly, patients are cared for by their families who are living in hovels with no sanitation. The flushing of the latrines is twice a day, by tidal action in the estuaries. Anti-viral dugs are not readily available to these forgotten people although Caritas Italy does provide some funds and assistance.
We also visited the drop in centre, again with the all pervasive stench of fish. Here the Burmese people can attend English and computer classes. There is a small chapel and a few offices. As the majority of the Burmese are Buddhists, the chapel is mainly used by the missionaries and itinerant helpers.
The Marist group have rented a house for their accommodation. Because of the comings and goings of both Priests and lay people it is difficult to ascertain how many live in the house at any one time. The hospitality and friendship was outstanding and we were made to feel very welcome. A highlight for us was the celebration of Mass by three priests (two from New Zealand and one from the Philippines) on our 40th wedding anniversary. It was a memorable and moving occasion.
The Burmese people, coming into contact with Father John’s team of dedicated men and women are treated with a respect and dignity they would not otherwise receive in Thailand. The impact is both positive and obvious. As in all countries education and health are of paramount importance. In Ranong the Burmese are receiving, from Father John’s team, a level of support not available from the Thai or Burmese Governments. We trust that they will respond to the love of Christ flowing from this remarkable outreach team.