A touch of Brotherly Love found in Myanmar

Jim Connor of Penn Valley is surrounded by the children of Whispering Seed, a program he runs that provides housing, education, and job skills to Myanmar orphans.
Jim Connor of Penn Valley is surrounded by the children of Whispering Seed, a program he runs that provides housing, education, and job skills to Myanmar orphans. (Courtesy Jim Connor)
Posted: September 23, 2013

How do you get from Philadelphia to Myanmar?

It's easy, Jim Connor says: Turn left at Thailand.

The hard part comes once you're there, trying to work with and around a slowly, slowly opening government that's not used to outsiders and is particularly suspicious of social workers.

Connor, 40, spent the last decade on the contentious Thailand-Myanmar border, his Whispering Seed project providing housing, education, and job skills to orphans and to children from displaced families. This week he's home for his once-a-year visit, staying at his parents' house in Penn Valley and enjoying the luxury of hot showers and ready Internet connections.

"It's exciting right now," Connor said in an interview. "Burma is teetering on which way it will go as things start to open. It could go many different ways."

Child exploitation

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has burst into the news for all the wrong reasons. Members of the Buddhist majority have attacked Muslims in clashes that have claimed more than 200 lives during the last year. A religion based on peace has turned hatefully nationalistic, led by Monk U Wirathu, known as "the Burmese bin Laden" and recently featured on the cover of Time magazine.

The violence comes as the ruling military junta has begun to relax its 50-year grip, releasing democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and holding multiparty elections in 2010 and 2012.

Despite the progress, Burma remains an awful place to be a child.

Decades of civil war have internally displaced tens of thousands of families or driven them into Thailand and left children orphaned or scrounging on the streets. Poverty and family breakdown force boys and girls into child-labor and make them vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, according to UNICEF.

In Myanmar, there are far fewer government-run facilities for children than there are monastic and nongovernmental institutions, UNICEF says. The total number of children in private, unregistered facilities is unknown.

Connor and a Thai woman, Saowanee Sangkara, started Whispering Seed in 2004, settling a 12-acre farm in western Thailand, four miles from the border with Myanmar. The center provided emotional, medical, and learning support for up to 25 children, many of them the orphaned, abused, or neglected sons and daughters of sex workers.

Because the children were Burmese, not Thai, they had little chance for jobs, education, and health care.

Whispering Seed sought to teach the children skills that could later be used to earn a living, such as baking and charcoal-making. Its buildings were earthen, built from mud. Clothes and people got washed in a river.

Connor didn't intend to wind up in Myanmar, 8,400 miles from home.

He grew up in the Pennsylvania suburbs, graduated from Harriton High School in 1991 and three years later from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. He stayed at Evergreen to teach, began a master's program at a different university, then left for a series of jobs in alternative schools and to travel the world.

His Whispering Seed project depends on volunteers, supplemented by donations from family and friends. It works with a group called SEM, the Spirit in Education Movement, which offers spiritual and ecological education to children. SEM trains monks in monasteries - traditional centers of education in Asia - to provide teaching that goes beyond religious instruction.

Because monastic schools charge no fees and provide food, they enroll some of the poorest children.

"Monasteries will continue to be centers of community activity, and monastic schools will still be needed to educate the poorest children," Patricia DeBoer, regional director of the AFSC's Asia programs, said in a Friends bulletin.

This year, Connor moved Whispering Seed out of Thailand and into central Myanmar, so children could obtain legal identification papers in their own country. He placed all but five with extended family members around the Thai border - the remaining ones went with him to Myanmar.

After reaching Myanmar, Connor was ordained as a Buddhist monk, a common practice among young Burmese males, and a month later opted to "disrobe," also common, where the initiated lead more secular lives while continuing to follow Buddhist teachings.

In the move to Burma he traded the complications of life on the border for those of a dictatorship.

"The country hasn't fully opened, and to be doing this kind of what we might call 'social work' is very challenging," he said.

'We are ready'

The regime is suspicious of charitable agencies, and there are few laws governing their operation. Connor's plan is to obtain legal status and resume his agency's work.

Less than 1 percent of Myanmar's gross domestic product is spent on education, according to the United Nations. By comparison, the United States spends 5.6 percent, Germany 5.1, and China 3.9.

Although school is theoretically free, the money needed for food, uniforms, and supplies blocks poor families. Only half of children finish primary school, according to UNICEF. Whispering Seed intends to help as much as it can, planning to settle its program on land outside of town.

"We are ready to start building up our project from the ground up," Connor said. "We are looking to grow bigger, but the situation in Burma and how things open up will determine how quickly and in which direction we can move in."


Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-4906, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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