The Land of Golden Pagodas

February 26, 2016

I remember picking up Freedom From Fear in 2009 off a dusty bookshelf in Chiang Mai and reading the powerful essays of Myanmar’s (Burma’s) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It was in those pages my interest in Myanmar began. With a voracious appetite I devoured several other books by Aung San Suu Kyi  as well as two biographies. Even though I was living and working in Thailand, there was something dynamic and compelling about the plight of Myanmar and the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Teaching English and culture at Karen Baptist Theological Seminary

Teaching English and culture at Karen Baptist Theological Seminary

At Payap University I listened to my Burmese friend share the story of her involvement in a relief effort after the catastrophic 2008 Cyclone Nargis. This friend encouraged me to visit Myanmar at the Karen Baptist Theological Seminary in Yangon where she taught English. In 2011, I took a short trip to the Land of Golden Pagodas, and it was life-changing. The people of Myanmar have been imprinted in my thoughts even since.

I was grateful in 2013 when the International Rescue Committee (IRC) approached Payap University (where I worked) to develop a certificate course in Organizational Development and offer the course to community-based enterprise (CBE) workers along the Thai-Myanmar border. We developed the courses, trained Burmese trainers how to teach the courses, and then followed up with site visits and mentoring. The following year, we were able to offer the courses at three locations inside Myanmar. I was fortunate enough to go on the exploration trip where we met with community leaders in Mon and Karen States and thought about how best to offer the certificate course.

Payap University faculty members with IRC partners and trainers in Mae Sot.

Payap University faculty members with IRC partners and trainers in Mae Sot.

Since moving to Washington, D.C. in 2014 to begin my doctoral work at George Washington University (GW), I have been thinking about how I can use my interest in Myanmar to serve its people in the future. Through a friend at Payap, I got connected with Christina Fink, a professor at the Elliot School for International Affairs at GW, and she has helped me stay involved by hosting informal lunches with people interested in Myanmar. I have also attended several lectures on Myanmar–specifically around the recent elections–at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Christian Fink and others discuss Myanmar post 2015 elections

Christian Fink and others discuss Myanmar post 2015 elections

Last fall, I was also able to attend an amazing event at GW sponsored by the GW Southeast Asian Association where they showcased This Kind of Love, an important documentary by human rights activist and filmmaker Aung Myo Min. Here is a video of Aung Myo Min speaking at Harvard Law School in October.

Aung Myo Min’s accomplishments in human rights in Myanmar cannot be overstated. Aung Myo Min was a member of what is called the 88 generation who participated in the protests which led to the violent government crackdown in 1988, and spent 24 years in exile in Thailand. He has been a tireless advocate for human rights issues, specifically around the LGBT community. If you have a chance to see the documentary, I strongly recommend it. It brilliantly embodies the paradox in activism of strongly standing for a vital cause while also gently and compassionately walking alongside the persecuted and the persecutors.

Selfie with Aung Myo Min

Selfie with Aung Myo Min

As I consider my life as an aspiring academic, my hope is to use my interests, passions, and developing skills as a researcher to support and serve communities, like those in Myanmar, in bringing about peace and sustainability in the world. I am eager and excited about the opportunity of returning to Myanmar in the future.

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