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Michael Forhan extends a hand to Burma

WHO 

Michael Forhan 

WHAT 

Forhan, who lives outside Worcester, returned from the Thai-Burma border, where he was visiting his nonprofit, Burma Border Projects. He started the organization in 1999, after living in Burma for three years. While living in Burma, he founded and ran the first western-managed tour operator in a country run by a military junta that for decades has been isolated from the outside world. 

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Q. Why did you start Burma Border Projects? I mean, you’re a boy from Worcester.

A. In 1998, I made a documentary about Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Burmese doctor who had started a tiny clinic along the Thai-Burma border after Burma exploded in 1988, when 3,000 people were shot dead by the army. There was a mass exodus of ethnic minority people, and Dr. Cynthia fled across the border to Thailand. Now, she sees 120,000 people a year. They have no money, they’re malnourished, they can’t go to a Thai hospital. She needed some help.

Q. Dr. Cynthia is said to be the second most famous Burmese woman, after Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who spent years under house arrest. Now that the new president has declared a more open society, Suu Kyi is being allowed to run for Parliament. Is there finally good news coming from Burma?

A. It’s too early to tell. There are some more enlightened souls among the generals who want to mend their ways, do the right thing and open up to the west. But an equally powerful faction doesn’t want to make any changes at all.

Q. Tell me about your recent trip.

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A. After visiting with the folks running our projects on the Thai border, I went across the river into Burma. There are people in areas of armed ethnic conflict who don’t see any changes at all, while there are people in the major metropolitan areas who now have the ability to go on the Internet and have an enhanced freedom from censorship. Two different sets of experiences.

Q. What does Burma Border Projects do?

A. We provide mental health training and support, and psychosocial services to medics serving the displaced Burmese community along the border. The army has burned to the ground over 3,000 villages, so there is a huge population of displaced people wandering in the jungles and who cross into Thailand who need medical care. We train backpack medics in Dr. Cynthia’s clinic who go into Burma. We built an orphanage in a refugee camp. We built a children’s recreation center for Dr. Cynthia’s clinic, and a boarding house for kids. We’ve built a counseling center and put a full-time staffer there. We’re running a Johns Hopkins-funded mental health research project on trauma therapy. We fund One Dream, One World, a school for street children in Mae Sot.

Q. How do you fund all of this?

A. It has been a miracle. The goddess of serendipity has managed this project since day one. Fabulous people come to me who want to get involved in this work. We have only three people who are paid, in Mae Sot. Their starting salary was $350 a month plus airfare and visa costs. I don’t take a salary.

Q. How do you support yourself?

A. I am director of corporate development for Passports Educational Travel out of Spencer. We bring high school students on international educational travel experiences.

Q. Do you recommend tourists go to Burma these days?

A. Yes. First of all, it’s the most wonderfully preserved example of Asian culture that exists in the world today. Bagan - there is nothing like it on earth. There are 2,500 temples built around the 11th century, these are huge monuments to the Buddhist faith and they are pieces of art.

Q. But should we be giving tourist dollars to this military government?

A. Some people want a tourist boycott because it gives money to help the government stay in power. On the other hand, you’re supporting jobs for tens of thousands of people who wouldn’t have work otherwise. And you are opening up Burma to the outside world.

Q. Do you have any projects in the US?

A. Two years ago, we started the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project. Two nights a week, we have ESL classes, homework classes for kids, a nursery for the youngest. We run a summer camp for kids. About 250 Burmese have settled in the Worcester area.

Q. If you had one wish. . .

A. I need to get the funding to hire somebody to replace me. What this organization needs is a full-time, professionally trained executive director, because I’ve got a tiger by the tail and I’m not qualified to run it.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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