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THE PACIFIC ISLANDS

A Fire Cast Upon the Earth:
On the Waterfront in Ranong

by Casey Chalk
(Story reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.; www.newoxfordreview.org, July-August 2017. )

Ranong FIreOn August 12, 2016, a series of bombs exploded across southern Thailand, including at the popular tourist beach destinations of Hua Hin and Phuket.

The bombings ultimately claimed the lives of four people and injured 36 more, among them a number of Westerners.

I was traveling to southwestern Thailand that day, my destination Ranong, a coastal town of 20,000 people and a 40-minute boat ride from Burma. My journey, thankfully, was not affected by these terrorist attacks, allegedly committed by Muslim separatists, though their heinous work represented a fitting, worldly antithesis to the efforts of those whom I was visiting: a small group of Marist priests who minister to the local Burmese migrant community.

Like that of the terrorists,
the Marist mission is to set the world afire,
though not with bombs
but with an unrelenting gift of love.

As my plane descends into Ranong, I peer out the window and am taken aback by the rugged beauty of a region still largely free of the typical signs of globalized development in Asia. There are no large buildings in sight — only mist-covered, seemingly uninhabited mountains and wide swaths of jungle and swamp. Only later do I learn how busy and populated those swamps actually are.

Ranong Map

Exiting the small airport, I'm greeted by Fr. Frank, a Marist priest from New Zealand. Fr. Frank, who is to be my host during my visit, works for a small mission that serves the hidden, gross underbelly of this quiet provincial town. Ranong is one of the epicenters of the profitable Thai seafood trade. Thousands of Burmese migrants labor in Thailand's extensive fishing industry, manning the boats and processing the daily take of tons upon tons of fish and shrimp. If you have eaten shrimp in the past several years, there is a fair chance it came from a place like Ranong and was farmed by the kind of people I met over my brief stay in this unheralded backwater.

As Fr. Frank's truck bumps along the country roads to the Marist mission home, he divulges extensive details of his work as one of several Marist priests and nuns who offer educational opportunities and basic health services to Burmese migrant workers and their families. They come by the thousands (there are approximately two million Burmese throughout Thailand, according to some reports) to find work in Thai port cities such as Ranong, work that pays exponentially higher than what they could earn in Burma. They must acquire temporary work visas in Thailand and often take up residence in small, one-story dwellings that typically have only one or two rooms. As human-rights advocates have noted, the visas required to remain in-country are expensive, and local Thai officials find all manner of creative ways to elicit bribes from the hapless Burmese.

Fr. Frank and I pass a number of Thai government buildings, some particularly large and ornate, as we approach the Marist residence. We also drive by a number of Western-style grocers and restaurants, as well as a movie theater – all exclusively frequented by local Thais. Ranong is nicknamed the "second wife" of Thailand because the government pays little attention to it, which likely enables and perpetuates the corrupt practices employed by local civil servants against the Burmese migrant population.

Dinner at the Marist house is hosted by Fr. Frank; another Marist priest from the Philippines, Fr. Gil; and two visiting seminarians from Rome, one Cameroonian, another Fijian. With me as the lone American, it's a truly "catholic" mix. As I've arrived on a Friday, the Marists have bought food from a local Thai restaurant, one of their few guilty pleasures. Although my hosts graciously ask me many questions, I'm taken aback by how much everyone wants to talk shop regarding their work with the local population. Fr. Frank is concerned with whether he should bother to instruct their Burmese high-school students in the subject of defined and non-defined clauses, as this topic won't be on the upcoming English exam. Fr. Gil, who manages the Marist's health program, discusses a female AIDS sufferer he found living on the streets. Incidence rates for HIV are remarkably high in Ranong – some estimates put it at one in five migrants. Fr. Gil's work includes visiting AIDS patients in their homes and running a community-based HIV/AIDS patient health program, which includes translation services, access to hospital care, and emotional and spiritual support. In the case of this particular AIDS sufferer, Fr. Gil helped find her a house with running water and a rice cooker.

Evening prayer for today cites Jonah 2:7-8:

Down I went to the roots of the mountains;
The bars of the nether world
Were closing behind me forever,
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O Lord, my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
My prayer reached you in your holy temple.

In such meek and modest ways as those of Fr. Gil, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. The Marists' focused acts of charity, in turn, spark fires of faith and love in the hearts of those who, unbeknownst even to themselves, are prized by their Creator.


The next morning, amid the daily deluge of morning rain, Fr. Frank picks me up from my lodgings and drives me through town for a brief tour of Ranong. Nervously scanning the streets behind his woeful windshield wipers, the incorrigibly uplifting Fr. Frank does his best impression of anger, cursing (yet while still smiling), "I hate this bloody rain! It never bloody stops!"

The city is divided between Burmese and Thai populations. For the Burmese, getting around town is its own unique challenge. In addition to the stacks of documentation required by local government officials to work in the city, each police district issues its own special permits for migrants who drive motorbikes. If a migrant finds himself outside his permitted district, additional bribes are necessary. The obstacles to an unharassed life are legion.

We visit the fish-processing factory on the wharf overlooking the shallow waters that lead out into the Andaman Sea. Hundreds of Burmese workers in a myriad of colored uniforms, representing their particular employer, are busy separating the day's catch into various buckets, or are processing the fish and shrimp with crude knives and other instruments. The dock is a flurry of activity, with mounds of seafood littering the pavement, and trucks tightly packed into the narrow street, hauling food or laborers.

The workers spend about ten hours a day on the job, seven days a week, with only four days off a month. If they miss a day, there is a significant cut in pay, so there is little leeway for illness or other life complications to absent a worker from his labor commitments. Besides the dock-workers, many other Burmese toil on boats or at ice factories (for the transportation of seafood), as well as in coal factories, one of the few other industries in the area. In the coal factories, every worker is responsible for filling a certain number of bags of coal — if anyone misses his quota, no one gets paid.

Drug addictions are a significant problem in the migrant community, which largely explains the high incidence rates of HIV/AIDS. Workers on the boats labor for long hours with little sleep. One of Fr. Frank's acquaintances told him that when he spent time on the boat, he was periodically injected with some unknown liquid that gave all the fishermen incredible amounts of energy. He came to crave the injections.

Most of the Burmese in Ranong are Buddhists, though there is a smattering of Catholics and Baptists, which generally mirrors the religious demographics of their home country, where Christians make up roughly six percent of the population. Many of the workers have Buddhist tattoos on their bodies, and their homes often have some sort of Buddha-related iconography. Despite these outward signs of piety — which presumably reflect the varying degrees of religiosity among individual Burmese — the migrants typically welcome the Marists and any support they offer. In a city rife with exploitation, the Marists are a valued asset and rare friends of the Burmese. God willing, such efforts on the part of the Society of Mary will in time reap a great harvest of conversions.


Fr. Frank and I make our way to the Marist-run school, where a number of Burmese students are waiting for their prep course in anticipation of the upcoming English exam. Fr. Frank asks if I will help him teach defined and non-defined clauses. I accept, though I concede, "What are they?"

I frantically study definitions as the students roll in. They are eager and attentive, shy, but ready to learn. They wear Western-style clothing and are familiar with American pop music. We do two one-hour sessions with a total of about 20 kids. Afterward, Fr. Frank and the visiting seminarians respond to the needs of individual pupils.

Following lunch, Fr. Frank plans to meet with the families of several of the Burmese students who qualify for further studies in preparation for a certificate from Australian Catholic University, an institution with ties to George Cardinal Pell. The certificate is equivalent to one year of college. One of the problems facing Burmese students who apply to the program is that it requires staying in Ranong for at least six more months. This is a difficult stipulation, given the nature of migrant life, in which families are constantly picking up and moving from one job to another, or returning to Burma.

The families we visit live in one-floor buildings with a number of "apartments," if one can call them that. Most units seem to have just one or two rooms, no air conditioning, and one bathroom. People sleep on the floor. One family we visit graciously brings out food and drink for their honored guests: a few cut-up apples and Sprite and Strawberry Fanta from already opened two-liter bottles. Given their living conditions, it's an incredible act of hospitality.

Fr. Frank carefully explains to each family that their children are excelling at school, that they are achieving well enough to apply for the additional certificate program, an opportunity that would allow them to pursue further studies either in Burma, Thailand, or abroad. He insists, however, that students develop very specific goals regarding their education: What, exactly, do they plan to achieve with this certificate? Students offer different answers: they want to study law or medicine or the Thai language so that they can help their fellow Burmese migrants. After some cajoling, every family agrees to Fr. Frank's conditions. They will stay in Ranong for as long as it takes for their children to complete the program. The parents are proud of their children, who are finding the kinds of opportunities unavailable in their native Burma.

Fr. Frank and I return to the Marist mission and retreat to the upstairs chapel, which overlooks the Ranong hill country, for evening Mass. As I'm the only attendee, I handle the role of lector. The Gospel reading includes Luke 12:49-50: "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!"

I am struck by my own lack of passion in comparison to these hearty yet humble Marists, commissioned by the Holy See in the 19th century to evangelize the far reaches of the Pacific.

One of their perduring mottoes has been
Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo,
"Unknown and partially hidden in this world."

Surely, in a backwater like Ranong, this rings true,
though the fire they have lit has been felt
by hundreds of families in this city.

Indeed, I have felt the anxious passion of the Marist ministerial efforts in every interaction I have witnessed since I arrived.

We finish Mass and return to the others for dinner. I am surprised, once more, by the content of their conversation. Their minds, and their hearts, are on the lost, the inhabitants of their mission field. I ask if they have had many converts to the Church since they arrived in Ranong. Yes, a few, they answer, though their mission is not one of purposeful, explicit evangelism but of humble service. Indeed, a Marist is only allowed to accept appointment to an episcopacy after declining the offer on three separate occasions. The order, in all its discreet solicitude, is not without outward effect: Some historians call the Marists the "Jesuits of Oceania," which explains the Fijian, Filipino, and New Zealander at the table. The Marists' blaze has spread, and it will not be easily put out.

The next morning marks the end of my time with the Marists. Fr. Frank and another priest pick me up from my lodgings and take me to the airport amid another rainy Ranong morning. As the rain descends and washes clean the streets, it reminds me of my own baptism and my need to commit to a renewed washing of my soul, cleansing me of the muck and grime that has accumulated in my drive for the same type of material and worldly success that motivates those who oppress these Burmese migrants.

Fr. Frank accompanies me on the flight back to Bangkok. He frantically works through numbers and figures pertaining to his schooling operation, in preparation for his week of accounting training in the capital. It is clear that at least one of us is focused on setting the world ablaze — and how great is his anguish until it is accomplished!

Many months later, Thai authorities are still not sure who perpetrated those August attacks. The blasts, like most such acts of terrorism, have largely faded from the country's collective memory, like a comet that burned out soon after it was perceived. The fire of the Marists, in contrast, doesn't burn as brightly or as spectacularly; in fact, it is perceptible only to those blessed few singed by its contagious conflagration. But its embers are strong and deep and its heat and warmth more enduring. No amount of Andaman rain can quench its force.

My mind is frequently drawn back to that rainy summer weekend in 2016 amid my workaday world and my various and sundry pet projects. How easily we are engrossed by endeavors to make the money to take purposeless trips to prodigal places, the places that cannot change us, the places we — out of some combination of laziness or fear — dare not change. My challenge — our challenge — presented by the actions of the Marist missionaries, is this: Will I, will we, jump headfirst into St. Catherine of Siena's ocean of spiritual fire or, afraid of the cost or discomfort, will we fester and die in comfortable waters, as lukewarm as those of Thailand's beaches?

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"Thou art the fire that burns ever and is never quenched, the fire that consumes in itself all the self-love of souls, that melts all ice and gives all light. This light is an ocean into which the soul plunges ever more deeply and there finds peace."

St. Catherine of Siena
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Issues Faced by The Pacific Islands

Climate change is already disproportionally affecting the islands of the Pacific. Although islanders have done little to contribute to the cause – less than 0.03% of current global greenhousegas emissions – they are among the first to be affected.

• People in the Pacific are uniquely vulnerable to economic and natural shocks due to the countries' unique geography and economic openness.

• There is widespread concern about the potential dangers of the toxic chemicals being imported into islands in increasing amounts.

• Industry causes air and water pollution in island countries.

• The Pacific Islands region is perhaps the part of the world to have suffered the most from the effects of nuclear activities of the great powers since the last war.

www.sprep.org
www.worldbank.org

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United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Issues at the Pacific Islands Forum in Marshall Islands
(RadioAustralia - Sept. 2013)

Hardship & Vulnerability are Pressing Issues for Pacific Island Countries: World Bank (March 11, 2014)

Advocate

Contact your U.S. Elected Officials

Asian Pacific Island Affairs Subcommittee (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

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"At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family."

US Catholic Bishops
Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good, 2001