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Artist Jane Birkin Tours Mae Sot

Originally appeared in The Irrawaddy

May 14, 2010

By Alex Ellgee

Jane Birkin, the internationally acclaimed actress and musician who has been a Burma activist for over a decade, recently concluded a three-day trip to the Thai-Burma border in and around Mae Sot, where she visited several organizations in an effort to spread awareness of Burma related issues.

“It is not our tradition in France [where the English Birkin resides] to care about Burma, but I want to change that,” Birkin told The Irrawaddy while touring the Mae Tao clinic, to which she previously donated all profits from two concerts in New York and one in Washington.

Jane Birkin meets Dr Cynthia Maung. (Photo: Alex Ellgee)

“Most people do not even know where Burma is. But we can’t blind ourselves to the suffering inside Burma, so I want to spread awareness,” she said.

Birkin visited the clinic’s delivery room, where she met with recently delivered triplets and spoke to the mothers of sick children, and the prosthetic department, where she met with landmine victims receiving new limbs that will enable them to walk.

One man told her he was looking for nuts when he lost his left leg, and she watched a boy of twenty-two make a plaster mold for the man’s new leg.

“What I find particularly kind about this unique hospital is the fact that people have still kept tenderness towards their patients,” said Birkin.

“I noticed how the boy was making the plaster for the landmine victim, it was with the most infinite care. This is clearly a very kindly place, and somewhere I would take my own sick child and know they would be treated with humanity and kindness,” she said.

Birkin also spoke with the founder of the Mae Tao clinic, Dr Cynthia Maung. They discussed the activities of the clinic and the severe cuts in funding that the clinic faced last year.

“When you come to the clinic and hear about the lost funding, you know that it means those boys can’t have their legs, which cost 100 euros,” said Birkin.

“It’s my mission to go back and get people to donate money so the victims can walk and this hospital can continue its activities,” she said.

In the afternoon, Birkin visited Ashin Sopaka’s relocation site for children from Mae Sot’s rubbish dump, where families from Burma come to collect rubbish to be sold, and later visited the dump itself.

Birkin spoke with many residents of the dump, including a five-year-old boy from Burma. After asking Ashin Sopaka, a monk, how the rubbish is collected, Birkin began collecting rubbish for the little boy.

“They were very surprised that she started collecting the rubbish,” said Ashin Sopoka.
“She was very kind to them and really wanted to know about their lives—one boy told her how they have more food on the dump then they ever did in Burma.”

In Mae Sot, Birkin visited the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and spoke with former political prisoners about their experiences in Burma.

“I am very happy Jane Birkin came to visit us,” Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of AAPP, told The Irrawaddy. “Now that she has learned about the political prisoner situation and how important the release of political prisoners is for the election, she can go back and tell her society and influence the French government.”

Birkin also met with the underground youth group Generation Wave in their safe house in Mae Sot. After meeting the youth, she said there was “nothing to be depressed about” because there are so many “courageous” people like Generation
Wave who are “littering the place with stickers and graffiti tags.”

She also visited Mae La refugee camp and spoke with migrant workers about the issues they face.

“I met with one lady who had fled Burma and left her child behind,” Birkin told reporters in a press conference in Mae Sot organized by Burma Partnership.

“Only by coming to Mae Sot and talking with local people and organizations can I truly understand why so many people are taking such dangers to travel to Thailand and more often than not are unable to return to Burma,” she said.

In 1999, Birkin was asked to stop in Rangoon on the way back from Japan and perform a concert. She accepted on the condition that she could meet Aung San Suu Kyi, and the meeting took place at the French Embassy after the concert.

Birkin told The Irrawaddy how Suu Kyi asked her to look after Win Tin, and to help to make sure sanctions affected the generals and not ordinary people in Burma.

Birkin has since dedicated her website to Suu Kyi and always mentions Suu Kyi in interviews and concerts.

Birkin has relentlessly campaigned against investments by the French oil company Total in Burma, and even met with French President Sarkozy to discuss the matter.

Birkin also joined protests in France outside the Burmese embassy in June 2003 and marched with monks during the Cannes film festival, where the film “Total Denial” was screened.

Ironically, just after Birkin’s concert in Rangoon, the directors of Total’s Burma operations requested a meeting with her.

“They say that if they weren’t there then China would be there. But in my mind, there is not much difference,” said Birkin.

Birkin boycotts Total herself, and said, “We should all do something to boycott Total and Chevron, which are giving the generals money to strengthen their armies and potentially buy nuclear weapons from North Korea. In the end, only the Burmese people suffer.”

Isabelle Dubuis, the coordinator for Info Birmanie who accompanied Birkin on her tour of the Thai-Burma border, said, “In a recent report, Earth Rights International showed that in total, US $5 billion had been given by Total to the generals in Singaporean bank accounts.”

“All economic interests in Burma are a major hindrance for political transition inside Burma and need to be stopped immediately,” Dubuis said.

Jane Birkin began her career as an actress in England, where her breakthrough film “Blow Up” won the Palm d’Or award at the Cannes film festival in 1967. She later moved to France, where she became a successful musician and actor, ignited by her relationship with well known musician Serge Gainsborough.

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