As MAF’s mountainous airstrip in Myanmar nears its completion, Dr Sasa – visionary and founding CEO of charity, ‘Health and Hope’ – considers how this feat of aviation civil engineering will change the fate of his people forever. MAF’s Claire Gilderson investigates…
Ten years ago, Lailenpi Airstrip in Chin State was just a pipe dream.
The remote town of Lailenpi is perched on a mountain top near the Indian border, 1,370m above sea level. But despite its beautiful backdrop, the town’s inadequate infrastructure has left its people isolated and cut off from the rest of Myanmar, particularly during the rainy season which lasts five months of the year. According to the World Bank, Chin State is the most impoverished state in the country.
Lailenpi was Dr Sasa’s childhood home where poverty, suffering and death were commonplace. Education was a luxury. As a child, Dr Sasa saw friends succumb to preventable diseases and his best friend’s mother die during childbirth. If they had had faster access to basic healthcare instead of facing a three-day arduous road journey to the nearest hospital in Mandalay, they could still be alive today.
Most roads in Chin State are narrow and muddy with steep drops to the valley below. During rainy season they are too dangerous to use or impassable. In the dry season, vehicles can expect to travel between eight and 13 miles per hour.
From March 2021, that ‘pipe dream’ will become a reality. Thanks to the joint vision of Dr Sasa and MAF, it will only take patients 55 minutes to reach Mandalay by air.
For Dr Sasa, no dream is too small
Dr Sasa has always dreamed big – not just about building life-saving airstrips on top of mountains, but his dreams about becoming a teacher, qualifying as a doctor, establishing a charity to improve people’s lives, befriending the Prince of Wales and entering politics have all come true too.
Against the odds, but with God by his side, Dr Sasa has overcome some incredible obstacles. Living in Lailenpi meant he had to embark upon a two-week journey by foot to reach his nearest secondary school in the city of Yangon if he wanted an adequate education. Here he felt out of place and experienced intense loneliness and bullying, but that did not deter his dream.
He became a teacher in a bid to improve education in his hometown, but still diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia and childbirth complications were claiming too many lives, which Dr Sasa refers to as ‘a slow genocide.’
‘This isn’t just an airstrip - it’s the airstrip of health, the airstrip of education, the airstrip of social economics’
Dr Sasa, Founding CEO of Health and Hope Myanmar
Moved by the plight of his people, he was determined to become a doctor, but how does a young man born into poverty and governed by a military regime who shut down universities, afford an international medical degree? His community sold their livestock and rice to Indian villages, which raised enough money to send him to university in Armenia – the cheapest way to qualify as a doctor:
‘My people gave me chickens, cows and pigs, even rice bags – rice was their life. They basically gave their life for me to come to Armenia.’
Studying medicine abroad in another language was far from easy and having no money didn’t help either. Fortunately, Dr Sasa was able to continue his studies when he successfully applied for a UK scholarship.
Baroness Cox heard about Dr Sasa’s quest to help his people and was eager to meet him in Armenia. She arranged for Dr Sasa to do a medical placement at a UK hospital and the two became firm friends.
In 2007, the final year of his medical degree, Dr Sasa received some bad news. A famine in Lailenpi caused by an infestation of rats meant that his people faced starvation, unless they moved to India for survival. Faced with the prospect of losing his beloved Lailenpi, Dr Sasa returned home and witnessed the grim reality of his people:
‘I saw suffering, hunger and disease. My people were malnourished and had painfully thin bodies. I had never experienced that kind of starvation before.’
Sasa becomes the first doctor in Chin State
Dr Sasa qualified as a doctor in 2008, but the famine would last for five years.
He began to treat thousands of people, but as Chin State’s first and only doctor, it was clear, he could not do it alone. He called upon his friend, Baroness Cox, who helped him secure £1.5 million in food aid and ‘Health and Hope’ was born. Through her influential connections, he went on to meet the Prince of Wales who introduced him to ‘International Health Partners’ – an organisation which supplied him with much needed medicine for his people:
‘I was surrounded by 500 people a day – patients flooded in and suddenly they increased to 5,000. I thought that I would die in this jungle. I couldn’t do it anymore - I was tired and exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically.’
Dr Sasa continues:
‘I was just one doctor for one million patients. They had no healthcare service. How could I possibly do everything? I had to multiply myself, so I called upon the village leaders for help. They responded and I began to build a medical training centre where I trained a man and a woman from every village to become community health workers.’
*Today, Health and Hope has trained nearly 1,000 health workers from over 400 villages comprising of 150,000 people. This community-led response initiative, which includes Community Health Workers, Traditional Birth Attendants, Trainers and Area Coordinators, has saved hundreds of lives.
For Dr Sasa, no dream is too small - the sky’s the limit! Miracles are his mantra:
‘I could never imagine that Health and Hope would grow this fast and this big and that our patron would be Prince Charles. My life is full of miracles. My international friends say: “Dr Sasa, you rely on miracles too much.” Yes, it’s true! Health and Hope is a miracle! The impossible became possible.’
Rev Haidau is one of Lailenpi Town’s elders and Treasurer at Hope and Health Myanmar. He too believes in miracles and has been praying for the completion of Lailenpi Airstrip. He explains how this ‘miracle’ will benefit his people in so many ways:
Shared values for a perfect partnership
Sharing the same values with a partner who shares your dream is also vitally important:
‘I first heard about MAF ten years ago and I started to pray to God that one day there would be some kind of service that would save my people’s lives. We needed air ambulances in Chin State and that’s how all this began.
As your logo says, I really feel that MAF is “flying for life”. If MAF is “flying for life”, children who are dying shouldn’t die anymore, mums who are dying in childbirth won’t die anymore. MAF is on the same page as me and my people, so I started to identity myself with MAF.
Lailenpi Airstrip is so very personal to me and it makes me very emotional because if MAF was here 20 years ago, I would not have seen my mum’s best friend die in childbirth. So many unnecessary deaths could be easily prevented if there’s an airstrip.’
Lailenpi Airstrip is just the beginning
For Dr Sasa, building Lailenpi Airstrip with MAF is just the start:
‘This is just the beginning of our partnership. We need MAF and their aviation service in Myanmar, particularly in my state. I have asked so many regional leaders: “How can we multiply Lailenpi Airstrip in Chin State?”
This isn’t just an airstrip - it’s the airstrip of health, the airstrip of education, the airstrip of social economics, the airstrip that will bring my president to this remote place. Maybe one day we can invite Prince Charles to this airstrip.
I’m also praying that MAF will train up local Chin State pilots. I believe in multiplication. I’m a doctor who’s multiplied nearly *1,000 health workers in the last ten years. I hope to multiply Lailenpi Airstrip in Chin State – maybe another ten airstrips in the next five years!
I’m going to talk to our state and national leaders and the president. I want to see the same thing happen in Kachin State, Shan State, Karenni State and Rakhine State – I’m on a political journey.
Life is full of hope. Lailenpi Airstrip was the hope for my village, then it became the hope for my state and now it’s becoming the hope for my nation. This is an airstrip that can multiply. We will not stop – there is no full stop! There is a bigger plan.’
Watch Dr Sasa’s full interview with Chad Tilley - Country Director for MAF Myanmar: