Circles of white paste, or thanaka, cover the cheeks of small children. Their hands press against the glass in the Arrivals Lounge, while mothers with long hair watch protectively. Darkly-patterned skirts cover the legs of fathers. Grandmothers, squatting along the walls, patiently smoke scented cheroot cigars. The smell of spices mingles with heavy humidity in the air. Choose to volunteer in the complex country of Myanmar and after only one step off the plane there can be no doubt that you’ve arrived in an exotic, unfamiliar land sure to fill your international volunteerism with mystery and intrigue.
Geography & Demographics
While Myanmar, formerly called Burma, has opened its borders to international visitors and economic development, it is still mostly undisturbed by big business, tourism, and other paths to Westernization. Only slightly smaller than the state of Texas, the country has seven recognized ethnic states and 135 distinct ethnic groups living within its boundaries. To the chagrin of international watch groups and adventurous travelers, many of its ethnic regions remain inaccessible to visitors.
Full of such remote and unexplored locations, Myanmar is possibly one of the most unique countries in which to volunteer – but also, one of the hardest to enter. The information below will help you determine the best program and volunteering placement in Myanmar.
Volunteering in Myanmar
Before even considering a volunteer program in Myanmar, do a bit of background research. Familiarization with politicians and activists that are well known in the area can be extremely useful. Do a little reading on figures such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Thein Sein, or George Orwell. The region is a rich mix of differing cultures, peoples, politics, and histories that can take some time to discern and understand.
The visa process is elaborate, long, and technical. Many Westerns are still denied entry on the basis of questionable careers (such as Journalist or Aid Worker). A placement organization should coordinate closely with you in order to successfully apply for, and gain, a visa. Know that this can take weeks or months, and should be organized well in advance.
Be aware that the government still has a firm control of most aspects of the country, including media – so outside news sources, like The Irrawaddy, are likely to offer the best, most unbiased, information. With human right issues still leaking beyond Myanmar’s borders, there are ethical questions connected to every volunteer placement: Who are you helping? Where is your money going? These are just a few things to consider before you begin.
The country has only recently formally opened itself to outside interest, so very few international non-profit and aid organizations have been able to establish themselves inside. Foreigners are treated with respect, but can be a rare site in many locations. Several ethnic states have been in conflict with the ruling government for decades, and only recently organized ceasefires. Others have just started to show signs of intended secession. Volunteers should feel safe traveling around those parts of Myanmar open to foreign visitors; as the locals joke, “It’s the safest country in the world” with a police force determined to promote an image of friendly non-violence. But volunteering with any organization that proposes a placement in a region that is not officially at peace may mean putting yourself in unnecessary danger.
Volunteer for Myanmar but in Thailand. Due to the changing status of ethnic groups and militias, many organizations choose to place volunteers in Thailand, with Burmese ethnic refugees living along the border. You may wish to explore these volunteer options instead.
However, once you’ve chosen Myanmar, there are multiple programs and placements available. Most operate out of the biggest cities – Yangon and Mandalay – because these have growing Western populations and are located inside government divisions, not ethnic states.
Ideal Volunteer. The type of volunteer requested is typically a person with a more specialized skill set: often in the fields of development, education, English language teaching, and disaster relief. Previous experience or certifications in these fields can be a bonus when applying for placements. Due to the limited resources of many organizations, interest and willingness to volunteer is still the greatest skill you can bring to a placement.
Areas of Need:
- Because parts of the country were formerly considered an English colony, many people speak basic English. A desire to catch up with more progressive countries in Southeast Asia has led to an increased demand for advanced English skills, and also, English teachers.
- Cyclone Nargis devastated much of southern Myanmar in 2008 affecting as many as many as 2.4 million people. The government restricted international aid and support and greatly impeded regrowth of the region. Now, rebuilding damaged areas and preparing for future natural disasters is a growing focus of international groups working in the country.
- Unfortunately, conservation and environmental placements are currently lacking inside this resource-rich country. This is expected to change as more organizations become involved inside Myanmar.
Placements are typically for a long-term period, lasting several months to one year. Most placement organizations previously lacked the funds to support a corps of volunteers; instead, they focused on a small but highly-specialized team. However, as more and more organizations become involved in the country, this will change. There are currently several short-term placements for volunteers at orphanages and rural schools.
Myanmar’s situation is constantly changing. If at first you are unable to find a volunteer placement that fits or a program of interest, keep looking. The Burmese maintain a very realistic yet relaxed concept of time: everything can happen, as long as you are patient enough to let it.