A journey into hope

My travel column for this month recalls a trip taken about six years ago into the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia.
That infamous area, noted as a major source of opium, encompasses parts of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, China, Laos, and Cambodia. War lords and opium lords, drawn by the profits of the illegal drug trade, have divided the area. They use small armies to keep governments at bay.
Travelling with four people of Chinese descent, I flew from Singapore to Mandalay by Yangon (formerly Rangoon). From Mandalay, we travelled to Lashio, driving eight hours in two taxis over winding mountain highways originally built as a feeder route to the famous Burma Road. We crossed rivers with names that spoke of frontiers and adventure. We paused at a toll gate managed by the local opium lord who built and maintains the road. 
The government and the opium lord practice an uneasy peace. He taxes as he sees fit, but with a light hand. He needs the people to cultivate his poppy fields high in the hills. They need him to buy their crops, provide work, maintain roads, stimulate the local economy, and work in his expanding legitimate businesses.
I had applied for entry into Myanmar as a retired person, not mentioning my part-time career as an author and journalist, because the government bars foreign journalists. Although warned by a local pastor that the police had me under surveillance, I never saw them.
The people themselves have a colourful background. Over 50 years ago, Chinese and tribal people fled from China’s communist forces, pouring across frontiers into the relatively safe but remote hills of the Golden Triangle. The Chinese tended to settle in towns while the tribal people established villages in the hills.
In recent years, many of the tribal people have tired of the opium trade and moved down to establish crude villages. They build houses of woven bamboo with dirt floors and tin  roofs. A fire on the floor surrounded by a few cooking pots occupies one corner. Some manage to build raised platforms for sleeping. They often have no windows, although they don’t need them, for all walls breathe. In some houses, the stench drives western visitors back outside.
The children receive no education; the fathers can’t find work; and the mothers bear more children. Many become ill and die due to contaminated drinking water. Not all villages look as bad as the one I have described. We in Canada tend to believe that people get exactly what they deserve. If they live in poverty, they do so because they made bad decisions. If they lack education, they should have stayed in school. But these people didn’t ask the communist armies to drive them from their homes. They didn’t intend to become victimized by opium lords. After over 50 years, they still live as refugees in a foreign land. Most have no rights or citizenship.
They can overcome their plight with help. I also visited villages with healthy, working, happy people, better homes, and schools. Outreach workers, from recently-established Chinese churches are entering villages and installing safe water systems. With overseas help, they have funded small enterprises, helped pay school fees, and provided student centres where children can receive good food and an education. Many of the people can now make it alone.
The government seemed far more oppressive than the local opium lord. I also saw people with a growing sense of hope. I’d love to go back for a return visit, but I doubt I’d ever get another visa after writing this. 

Ray Wiseman