Sunday, 17 March 2013

News from the Best Friend Library

Gentle Reader, 

Have you ever known that you needed to do something, support something, was anxious to get started but just wasn't sure exactly what to do.  One bit of sage wisdom: when you get to a fork in the road, take it.  I have.  For several months I have known that I’m supposed to do something to support the displaced children along the Thai / Burma Border.  For now, I’ve decided to put all my effort into two  projects.

The Mae Tao Clinic.  I encourage you to help them with your donations. In the meantime I have good friends who are collecting medicines, supplies and clothing which I am more than delighted to carry to them on my semi-regular trips to Mae Sot. 

The Best Friend Library, especially the Chiang Mai branch.  What I hope to do is increase awareness of the many good works they do and help them raise badly needed funds to sustain their operations. The Best Friend Library is much more than a typical library, just take a look at the projects page on their website! In my opinion they're most important function is to tell the truth.  A lawyer once told me there is the opposing side’s truth, your truth and the truth.  The government of Myanmar tightly controls the press there.  Shall we call that the opposing side’s truth?  The Best Friend Library serves an extremely valuable service with their efforts to tell the truth according to the oppressed people of Burma.  Their website provides current content relative to the situation in Burma and along the Burma / Thai border. One of the important services provided by The Best Friend Library is their newsletter, which is published quarterly. Stop by the library to pick up a free copy, or download a PDF version. An article from the current issue is reprinted below:

The Best Friend Library’s new project combines environmental awareness, language training for youth in Shan State

Thum Ai, staff member of The Best Friend Library in Chiang Mai, has been awarded an EarthRights grant to launch a project in Shan State that focuses on fostering critical thinking, English skills, and respect for the natural environment among local youth.
Thum Ai

The quiet town of Hsipaw in northern Shan State may not appear to be the most sensible place for two once-outlawed Burma organizations to be launching a new project. Secluded in a maze of gorges and often overlooked by travelers on their way to the bustling cities of Lashio to the north and Mandalay to the south, Hsipaw has so far managed to avoid the rush of environmentally-destructive development visible throughout other parts of Burma.

However, The Best Friend and EarthRights International (ERI) believe Hsipaw is exactly the right place for such a project for two reasons: its unspoiled natural environment that can still be protected, and the unique qualifications of Thum Ai, a native of Hsipaw who has returned there after several years in Thailand to head this new ‘Green Training Program’ (GTP), a joint project of the two organizations.

The project not only emphasises the importance of environmental protection to local youth, but also offers basic English classes and establishes a new branch of The Best Friend Library — the second new branch since it recently became possible for the organization to again work openly inside the country, and the first in an ethnic state. Classes will include instruction on making natural fertilizers, methods for growing rice naturally with higher yields, and other subjects. Thum Ai has hired a local English teacher, and a fellow graduate from ERI will help teach organic farming techniques.

Education is the key! 
Thum Ai explains, “The local people have a basic respect for our environment. However, they don’t know that some of their activities are harmful, such as dependence on chemical fertilizers, excessive logging, and slash-and-burn methods. They should learn alternatives for taking care of their farms so that the environment will be able to sustain us in the future.”

The project has generated overwhelming interest and support from the local community. Not only has the village head provided a previously unused building for the location of the library, but Thum Ai has already been forced to expand the program due to the number of students who have registered for courses.
The first building
Thum Ai has extensive experience in library management and teaching English, having worked for The Best Friend Library in Chiang Mai for over a year prior to studying at ERI. According to him, “Shan people value English language education, and so creatively integrating environmental subjects with English lessons in a library will hit three birds with one stone, so to speak. Students will learn English and environmental science, and will be surrounded by books that can offer them even more knowledge.”

Thum Ai’s former teachers and colleagues from the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth, ERI, and The Best Friend are all very proud of the organizational skills and dedication he has demonstrated, according to Garrett Kostin, manager of the Chiang Mai branch of The Best Friend.

“Thum Ai is now able to utilize what he has learned from his experiences with Burma organizations in Thailand to educate and assist people in his native community, which is the ultimate goal for much of our work.”

Currently, the project has only secured sufficient funding to run an initial three-month course cycle, but Thum Ai has big dreams for the future.

“Right now, we only have a few books at the library, and it does not have much furniture or any electricity. We are temporarily holding the evening classes at the home of the village head. However, I plan to apply for additional grants to have the budget for electricity and to continue our project here.”

In addition, Thum Ai envisions that the project could expand to include income-generating activities related to eco-tourism. He explains, “Hsipaw is attracting tourists because of its natural beauty. The townspeople should promote green tourism. There is a restaurant up on the hill that is popular because it has a nice view of rice fields and serves organic fruits and vegetables. We should have more restaurants like this. We should also develop organic products, like organic soap.”

He would also like to add an advocacy component, encouraging and empowering villagers to campaign for the protection of their natural surroundings.

“The roads leading to Hsipaw are busy with mining machinery. You see big trucks trailing the steep cliff roads everyday, non-stop. There are big mining corporations stripping the mountains bare. Who owns these corporations? Are the local people consulted regarding the exploitation of natural resources in Shan State? The local people should know—and fight for—their rights. It’s their land that is being exploited, after all.”

If he is able to maintain the enthusiasm of the community, and to find donors to support the goals of the project, Thum Ai is hopeful that the project will grow according to his dreams, and that more youth will appreciate the importance of environmental protection.
“For me, education was the key to building my capabilities. I now need to give back education to the young people so that they will work for the development of our country without harming the environment.”

For more information about the Green Training Program in Hsipaw, or to make a donation, contact Thum Ai at or
Article and photo's by Nikos Dacanay

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