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Durango-based humanitarian group brings multilevel aid to war-torn country

Shanta Foundation has spent years assisting residents of Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar
The Shanta Foundation works with local Myanmar villagers to create a more sustainable infrastructure. (Courtesy of Shanta Foundation)

In 2006, American backpackers Mike and Tricia Karpfen built a school for the Pa’O people of the remote, mountainous villages of Myanmar (formally Burma), after having spent time in the country two years earlier. When the couple next returned to the area, they found that no one was using the beautiful school they had built.

“They started going around to the local villages, asking the parents why they weren’t sending their children to the school they had built,” said Wade Griffith, Shanta Foundation’s executive director. “It was a very American approach to the situation: ‘I did this thing for you. I know what’s best. It should have fixed everything.’ But Mike and Tricia learned to listen instead of just telling the villagers what they needed.”

The reasons for the children not attending the school were much more complicated than the Karpfens had expected: The biggest obstacle toward Myanmar’s youths getting their education was the need for them to work their families’ farms alongside their parents, so the family would not starve.

Oftentimes, they could not physically get to the school because the monsoon rains had made the rivers swell so much that they could not traverse them, especially with no existent bridges in their area. They were also suffering from the many illnesses caused by the commonly contaminated drinking water.

“Mike and Tricia realized that they couldn’t help the people of Myanmar by simply giving them a quick fix like a school or new pipes to pump their water,” Griffith said. “They needed to aid the villagers with a more holistic approach. Something more innovative and sustainable.”

Such is the guiding model of the Durango-based Shanta Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has aimed to help the impoverished people of Myanmar over the last 17 years to strengthen their infrastructure with the complete involvement of the Myanmar people. Those working with Shanta have found that success can only be maintained through community-led development.

“Local people must be involved with what Shanta’s doing with the village development,” said Seinne Lai, Shanta’s country manager in Myanmar. “They have to be able to keep things going on their own, long term.”

A Myanmar native, Lai has been working with Shanta Foundation since 2017, organizing and implementing a community effort with a staff of 25 Burmese citizens. She recently visited Durango as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser Shanta held at Riverbend Ranch.

Seinne Lai, Shanta Foundation’s country manager in Myanmar, highlights the daily struggles of the Burmese people during a talk Sept. 14 at Riverbend Ranch in the Animas Valley north of Durango. (Megan K. Olsen/Durango Herald)

“Farmers live in extreme poverty,” Lai said to those in attendance. “Even before COVID happened and the civil war.”

On Feb. 1, 2021, the civilian government, led by the National League of Democracy, was overthrown in a military coup d'état, which forced out Myanmar’s elected state counsellor, (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, and replaced her with the country’s army senior general, Min Aung Hlaing, who seized the head of state position.

Since then, the military has proceeded to bomb and set fire to many Myanmar villages in an attempt to retain control. In retaliation, civilians have formed a militia known as the People’s Defense Force, which is made up of people from all walks of life: housewives, farmers, doctors, engineers and a remarkable number of young adults who have been forced to arm themselves with homemade muskets, catapults and bombs against a heavily-weaponized military force with aerial firepower, according to the BBC.

“The (civil) war has made things so much worse,” Lai said in her speech. “People are starving. We have had to deal with that and a pandemic, but even lockdown has not stopped us. We have continued to work with Shanta Foundation to get clean water and other resources to the villages. The local people continue to work hard rebuilding and improving the quality of their villages and lives.”

Despite the devastating destruction of the civil war, Shanta Foundation has managed to help the Burmese people improve health care, education, water systems, roads and even implement community-based banks. With a more realized, solidified plan of action and more funding, Shanta Foundation now has the means to stretch out its concerted efforts to the similarly struggling East African country of Zambia.

“The changes I see are inspiring and humbling,” said Tricia Karpfen. “What we’ve done over there isn’t just a one-off. ... All the pieces are related, and they come together so the entire community’s quality of life and sense of opportunity has been elevated by the programs we’ve supported.”

Said Griffith: “I can’t be happy while others are suffering. We can always do something, you know?”


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