Written By Min Tun
With its siren wailing, an ambulance speeds along a thoroughfare in the Arakan State capital Sittwe, pulling up in front of the 500-bed Sittwe Hospital.
Four young men in orange shirts and black trousers transferred a bleeding patient from the ambulance to a gurney, which they pushed into the emergency room.
The four are members of the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation, a charity based in Sittwe. Besides its free ambulance services, the foundation also actively engages in social works in the region.
The main objective of the foundation is to provide help for free, on request, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of creed or color, said U Min Htel Wah, the founder and chairman of the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation.
“We will transport [patients] to any township in any region if requested. We operate without borders as well as ’round the clock,” he said.
The Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation, together with other social organisations, played an important role in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in Arakan State. Day and night, they drove ambulances to send Covid-19 patients to healthcare facilities and dead bodies to cemeteries, as well as helping find medical oxygen for patients.
The foundation was formed on June 30, 2019, by 10 like-minded people. At the time, the charity ran with one vehicle that they had asked for from Mrauk-U Sayadaw, an influential Buddhist monk from Mrauk-U.
Today, the charity has more than 50 members and a fleet of 15 vehicles that it uses as ambulances or hearses, and for other social works in the region.
The foundation runs on monthly contributions from foundation members, donations from well-wishers, and those who use the services of the foundation, he said.
“We operate with public donations. Some make donations on their birthdays. We don’t receive any financial assistance from foreign organisations,” he said.
The foundation became a pillar of local civil society within the relatively short period of four years, thanks to the efforts of members and donors, said U Min Htel Wah.
The Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation does not just operate for residents in Sittwe, where it is based. It also provides free ambulance services on request from other townships when patients require hospitalisation in Sittwe or Yangon.
The foundation accepts voluntary cash donations from those who seek help, said U Min Htel Wah.
“We are a charity, and we don’t ask people how much they must pay. We received a tiny donation. It is OK if they don’t make donations,” he said. But there have been increased challenges for the foundation, particularly as it now costs more to run ambulances amid soaring fuel prices.
In some cases, fuel costs have doubled from K400,000 to K800,000 for a round-trip drive to send patients to Yangon from Sittwe. Monthly, the foundation receives four patients on average to send to Yangon.
The biggest challenge for the foundation today involves sending patients from Sittwe to Yangon, said U Min Htel War.
“We can’t afford fuel costs to send patients to Yangon. But family members of patients have asked me how they can help. So, I told them to cover fuel costs. This is the way we are operating now,” he said.
Myanmar’s military overthrew the civilian government and seized power on February 1, 2021. After the coup, the appreciation of the US dollar against the kyat, and rising commodity prices along with skyrocketing fuel prices, have significantly affected charities in Arakan State, including the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation.
The foundation previously had no difficulty delivering health- and funeral-related services by ambulance for free, but now, there are difficulties in providing free transportation over long distances due to increases in the price of fuel, said U Japan Gyi, chairman of Laywati Kula Rakhita Philanthropic Association in Kyaukphyu Township.
“We have provided free transportation for health matters in the past, but now we are facing financial difficulties in providing free transportation due to skyrocketing fuel prices. We are still offering free transportation in downtown areas. A patient who lives more than 10 miles away has to share the cost of fuel for an ambulance for a health matter,” he elaborated.
The cost of fuel for transporting emergency patients from Kyaukphyu to Yangon by an ambulance used to be just over K300,000, but now the cost has increased to more than K400,000, causing difficulties for charities in Arakan State, according to the Laywati Kula Rakhita Philanthropic Association.
Charities say rising fuel prices, along with skyrocketing commodity costs, have made it difficult to purchase equipment related to ambulances, making it difficult to help emergency patients as quickly as in the past.
Philanthropists say the main challenge of rising fuel prices is the long-distance use of ambulances. Many charities in Arakan State are supported by the monthly contributions of their members.
U Aung Htoo, chairman of the Anauk Dagar (West Gate) social organisation, a local philanthropic association in Buthidaung Township, said the charity’s operating funds are needed more than ever due to the increase in fuel prices.
“Now commodity prices have risen alarmingly. If a patient was transported to Angumaw [in the past], the travel cost was K30,000, but now the travel cost has soared to about K70,000. We faced a lot of inconvenience because the charity’s funds need to be twice as much as before,” he told DMG.
Because of these difficulties, charities are worried that they will not be able to assist people when they ask for help. In addition, charities are worried that if the skyrocketing fuel prices continue to rise, it will be difficult to continue to help those in need.
The military regime-controlled Central Bank of Myanmar changed the reference exchange rate from K1,850 to K2,100 per US dollar on August 5, which has led to a further increase in the prices of imported goods and further appreciation of the US dollar on the open market.
Due to the volatility of the exchange rate between the kyat and the US dollar, the price of imported goods, including fuel imported into Myanmar, may rise even more, according to businesspeople.
“US dollar prices are in turmoil and the CBM is in a position where it cannot control the exchange rate. Fuel is not enough in the country, so we have to buy in dollars, so we need to stabilise the US dollar price,” said U Khin Maung Gyi, a veteran Arakanese businessman.
Even if the price of fuel continues to rise, several charities in Arakan State have decided that they will help with health issues in various ways, as their assistance is sought and beyond.
No matter what the fuel price situation is, they will do their best to help patients in need, said U Min Htel Wah.
“Patients cannot be transported by other passenger vehicles. Ambulances need to have an oxygen tank to keep patients comfortable and safe,” he explained. “No matter how much the price of fuel goes up, no matter what difficulties we have, we will definitely help patients who need help as much as we can.”