Mingalabar from Myanmar!

October 25, 2017 | Celeste, ECH, Myanmar, Forum des fédérations Myanmar- Intern

When people asked me why I chose Myanmar as my internship destination, I tended to give a slew of answers. “It will be very interesting to work in a country that is currently undergoing both a humanitarian crisis and a peace process,” I would say, or, “I’ve never been to Asia before and this experience will be completely new and challenging.” Sometimes I said it was the topic of federalism that attracted me, that I wanted to see first-hand how a country develops into a federal system. Whatever my hopes or expectations at the beginning of this journey, they’ve undoubtedly been fulfilled, and then some.

Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and although it’s not the capital, it might as well be. Individuals and families from all over the country move there to live and work, and it’s the country’s business hub, meaning it’s where you’ll find the biggest population of expats. The city is loud and noisy but also friendly and vibrant, with unexpected lake-side gardens that offer seclusion from the mayhem of each day. In downtown Yangon, on the fifth floor of a building in a neighborhood not far from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, you’ll find the Forum of Federations Myanmar Country Office.

Forum of Federations in a Canadian NGO that provides education on federalism and decentralization in multi-level democratic countries. The organization’s focus is on supporting the development of democratic governance in post-conflict states; the office in Myanmar was established in 2015 after the first free and democratic elections in nearly 25 years took place. During the many years of autocratic rule in the past, federalism was painted as tool that was used by secessionists to fulfill their goals of dividing the country, unfortunately a lie that has stuck with many to this day. Now that the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s ruling party, has voiced its commitment to creating a successful federal state the topic has risen in importance, so far as to be included in national dialogue and as an element of the ongoing peace process.

With this surge in popularity on the subject of federalism, our work caters perfectly to the interests of the people: how can Myanmar improve its federal principles? Rather than provide a map of the steps that must be taken, the organization instead offers education about the possible frameworks for a democratic system and then invites the people of Myanmar to discover how that framework will look for them. This has been one of the greatest learning experiences for me so far: the role of an NGO – in this context – is not to give capacity to the people but rather to teach them how they can maximize their own. Forum does this by holding workshops with relevant stakeholders on the topics of federalism and decentralization. Everything that is covered in these events relates to the current social and political dynamics in the country: ethnic diversity and conflict, the management of natural resources, gender equality, the powerful role of the military, the need to decentralize power from the national government… And the list goes on. The workshops are very two-sided and I learn from the participants each day, hearing their incredible stories and their devised strategies to overcome the many challenges that federalism faces right now. Part of my responsibilities here is to interview individuals who attend our workshops about their experiences and their thoughts on the future; it has been an incredible privilege to hear their stories and I continue to be blown away by their resilience and dedication to fighting for peace and progress in their country.

I would say that my time is divided equally between the office and field work, by which I mean attending workshops that are held outside Yangon. My years of note-taking and essay writing are paying-off as it’s my responsibility to keep record of the workshop proceedings and then write a summary report of each one. So far, I’ve been lucky to travel quite a bit and visit cities I most likely wouldn’t have on my own. During one of our trips through the Bago Region, we took a van from Taungoo to Pyay, over a mountain range that is known historically as where communist insurgents hid out several decades ago. How they managed to live there I don’t know, as it was the most twisty and most winding up-and-down 6 hours of my life. The view was exquisite, but I was unfortunately the only one who could enjoy it because everyone else was carsick! Needless to say, it was a memorable time.

What’s surprised me the most regarding the work we are doing here is the sheer scope it covers. Although our team is comprised of few people, the organization coordinates with local partners to extend its reach as far as possible. Workshops have been held in every state and region in the country with participants ranging from high level political officials to individual activists, and everyone in between. Just last week I sat for lunch with the Chief Minister and the Speaker of the Bago Regional Parliament, both of whom had attended our training sessions. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Members of Parliament, representatives of countless Civil Society Organizations, academics, activists, youth leaders, military officers, and many more. Not only do the workshops include an array of people and cover a number of locations, the themes will change as well depending on the intended audience. Special topic workshops have been held on federalism and the environment, education in a federal system, and gender and federalism, to name a few. The workshop that we did on the subject of gender was the first one I took part in and remains my favourite experience to date; it was amazing to see so many women, men, and non-binary folk come together to discuss empowerment and the need for greater gender diversity in politics.

For the past three years I have studied political and social conflict, but never have I lived in a country where over 50 years of its history is lost to the tyranny of more than one military regime. I have read books and written countless papers on human rights, but never have I been in a situation that is parallel to the historical atrocities that I learn about in school. This is what you can expect from taking part in an internship: a learning experience like no other.

I have always felt that I am moving forward with my studies but that I would have to wait until I graduated and had an established career to start ‘making a difference,’ as they say. But, as I think back over the past two months and the incredible strides I have seen taken, I know that, even in the smallest way, my presence and work here matters.

ကျေးဇူးတင်ပါတယ် (thank you) for reading, until next time!

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