By: Tiffany Henry and Katherine Stoner
As we reflect on the past month and all of our experiences in Thailand, two inspirational men stuck out to us. Mechai and Michael taught us the importance of thinking outside of the box and taking action.
The center we visited in Mae Sot is a non-profit organization that trains backpack medics. The goal of the backpack medic is to administer healthcare services to villages in Burma who have no access to medical care. The medics must travel long distances across strenuous terrain and courageously sneak into high risk conflict areas to help serve the people in these remote villages. They bring crucial medical supplies and educate the people on sustainable health care.
We thought it was interesting that the backpack medics don’t carry weapons in hopes that if they are discovered or captured their lives will be spared because they pose no threat of violence. It is extremely important for them to blend in with the villagers to avoid creating more conflict so the medics are all native Burmese people who have volunteered themselves to go back into Burma to serve and help their suffering country. We think that it is amazing that these medics practice medical neutrality, meaning they will treat anyone regardless of political affiliation, including the rebel forces.
Michael, who has been volunteering in the organization for the past 13 months, is currently the only western volunteer. He was a very passionate speaker with innovative ideas about the problems facing Burma. He believes the only way to solve a problem is to be proactive and be part of the solution. He talked to us about the importance of thinking critically and constantly questioning what we are told and think we know.
At the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, we had the incredible opportunity to meet one of the most influential revolutionaries in Thailand’s history, Mechai Viravaidya. Mechai’s plan for his country was to reduce births and deaths, eradicate poverty, and reduce greed, avarice and ignorance. He successfully achieved all of these things using 3 self proclaimed principles: Think outside of the box, always take no as a question, and remember that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Through a system of hierarchy from doctors to nurses to midwives to trained village residents, the program made the birth control pill accessible to all Thai women. He also educated teachers and school children about condoms and safe sex as well as encouraged men to get vasectomies by offering incentives and having vasectomy festivals. Over a 26 year time period, the average number of children per household in Thailand decreased from 7 in 1974 to only 1.5 in 2000 and the average population growth during this time period dropped from 3.3% to 0.5%.
We think one of the most important things that Mechai did was use humor to make people more comfortable with uncomfortable topics. A great example of this is the condom blowing up competitions. He also distributed condoms everywhere from taxi’s to brothels to cars on the streets. He actually started a program which involved traffic police handing condoms out in traffic, which he called “cops and rubbers.”
Through education and community empowerment, he has managed to decrease the extreme levels of poverty in Thailand and promote his philanthropic ideals. It was such an amazing honor to actually meet somebody who has made such a monumental impact on his country and the public health community. Neither of these men or the things that they taught us will soon be forgotten.