Learning By Doing: An Interview With A British Photographer and Volunteer Benny Manser On Famine In Chin State
29 August, 2008 – London, UK [CG Note: Benny Manser, 24, a photojournalist, from Aylesbury, UK volunteers to work with and for the peoples of Burma. Currently based in Mizoram, India as a volunteer helping with media training skills such as photography and video-camera, he has been actively involved in working for the Chin people who are facing severe food crisis in Chin State, Burma. In this exclusive interview conducted by Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian, Benny talked about his recent advocacy acitivities with the Chin delegation in the UK, adventurous journey into the famine-hit areas of Chin State through some underground ways in the nights, food crisis in Chin State and more. Please visit Chin Relief Website to know more about his recent famine-related work.]
Chinland Guardian: Recently along with the Chin delegation visiting the UK, you made a famine-related advocacy, meeting with various government’s departments and international organisations. How did it go and were you received well?
Benny Manser: Having been brought up in the UK, I had never visited inside the Houses of Parliament and various other government departments. It was a very interesting experience and we were extremely well received by everyone. Especially due to the recent event of Nargis, everyone was very empathetic towards the ongoing plight inside Burma. The response by DFID, World Vision, Tear Fund, was positive and I really urge them to take positive concrete action through their projects and policies.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that this ongoing food crisis has not been much known to the British people. Was it true and how were their responses?
Benny Manser: Sadly the ongoing food crisis in Chin state and along the Indian-Burmese border is relatively under reported if we compare it to that of the Thai-Burmese border. Yet the needs of the Chin are growing as economic, and basic survival reach a critical point. The Chin delegation I was lucky enough to work with consisted of a doctor, a women’s rights activist and a political leader, this multi-faced approach really helped to advocate to the UK people on behalf of the Chin people.
I was extremely proud and honored to be part of their team advocating as a foreigner who had traveled and witnessed the situation. I thought to myself how amazing they are to speak in their non-native language to high level government and NGO’s, for one of the Chin doctors he was speaking in his 6th language!
Church groups in the UK have also been extremely generous in their donations and I would like to personally thank their contributions and prayers.
Chinland Guardian: You had just returned from a first-hand trip to the famine-hit areas in Chin State. Were you shocked when Burma’s military dictatorship denies the existence of famine and WFP (World Food Programme) reported saying there is not such a thing as famine in Chin State?
Benny Manser: This is a difficult question as to be honest I have not managed to go deep inside Chin state, so my first hand account is limited. But from what I saw and what the people told me there is a real crisis and desperation from the people. They need support during this time but are receiving in most cases no help. I met a 77 year old widow who lives alone as her children had to go to the Indian side of the border to work and survive. When we entered her house she hid what she was eating. She even told us that she had to sell her dog in order to get 1 more rice bucket.
How can it be in a country such as Burma being once the “rice bowl of Asia” has resorted to this? Something is seriously wrong and seeing this really breaks my heart.
To my knowledge at the time WFP had been working in co-ordination with the current authorities but only in Hakka (the capital.) Yet the vast majority of the famine affected areas are in southern Chin state which is far from Hakka. I had heard of reports that WFP would be sending teams to these areas, I really hope they do asap as the situation needs to be addressed without delay and vitally reach the most vulnerable people.
Chinland Guardian: Did you actually come across any situation where the Chin people have suffered from the military?
Benny Manser: Sadly in many cases the villagers relayed their stories of being forced to carry army rations and ammo which takes them away from their fields. Chin state is one of the poorest, if not the most, areas of Burma, having basic human rights violated is further undermining the basic survival of the people. Who can farm the fields if they are forced to porter?
Chinland Guardian: Tell us more about how you could manage to get inside the Chin State as this included crossing the border without any official permission.
Benny Manser: We traveled through certain underground ways inside, traveling deep into the beautiful Chin mountains. Travelling during the night we were even chased by a wild donkey which was barking away madly, which was a bit scary as I though it was getting closer and closer. But my good friends that I traveled with reasurred me that no harm would come to us!
In term of traveling inside with no official permission, it’s a difficult position for me in some ways as I would love to visit these areas the “official way” i.e. by getting a visa, yet due to the current authority this area is restricted, so therefore I have no option, and weighing up the balance of being a voice for the voiceless I felt that it was worth the risks as any good responsible government should listen and support its people.
Chinland Guardian: Were you not afraid of being caught and arrested by the Burmese military? What if they had done so, what could have happened to you?
Denny Manser: This did cross my mind on several occasions. The main thing I didn’t want my friends who I travel with or the villagers to be put in danger due to me being there.
Chinland Guardian: What do you plan to do next in the near future and why?
Benny Manser: At the moment I am volunteering with a number of organizations working along the Indian Burmese border and inside Burma. I am learning a lot from them and also help with some media training skills such as photography and video camera. We also have a really exciting water project, which my mum and dads church has kindly supported.
The best way that I have learned is “learning by doing” nothing can beat the hands on experience, for understanding Burma more I would love to live and work inside Burma for a couple of years to understand the people, the situation and for me one of the most important language and culture.
Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
You may wonder why do I want to do this? And to be honest its true many of my friends back home in the UK think I’m crazy paying to volunteer, but for me I have been given a rare amazing chance in life.
I was brought up in a loving family, a happy childhood full of cheerful times, this great privilege motivates me to want others to smile, to leave in freedom away from fear because they are different or do not match the mainstream ideology.
Chinland Guardian: A message you would like to send to the Chins across the globe.
Benny Manser: One thing that has really struck me that I would like to share with you all, is that of unity in diversity. We are all different this is true with different backgrounds, beliefs and values yet something can unify us, like wanting a brighter future for our children of not only Chin state but Burma.
I wish to set each of you a challenge today now, it won’t be easy, but there are no problems only solutions. Look inside your heart, imagine if it was your mother suffering having to sell her beloved dog just to get enough rice, or your sister as thin as a stick with worms inside her stomach.
I wish you to get off the chair and actively participate in helping others and working with them, be they Zomi, Matu, Khumi, Lushai, Lai Zotung, Mara, Asho, Chin, Burmese, Chrisitans, Buddists, white or black, women or men, poor or rich, different political groups, different languages or cultures.
Go to a group you don’t normally mix with, speak with them, learn from them, work with them, share with them, grow with them, life is too fragile to remain set in our own ways and elite groups.
Unless we begin to change our own selfish thoughts and practices (me included) and go blindly onwards in what “we think” then we are in danger of becoming disunified.
If we don’t begin to understand others, to empathize with others from their point of view, then sadly I feel we may become like the thing we have been struggling against for all too long.
Gandhi once said: “we have to be the change we want to see.”
Nelson Mandela said: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”