A Time for Change in Myanmar

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Money drives our development model that’s corroding human rights and environmental health in favor of elitist and corporate benefits. That is undeniable. But, money also plays an essential role in funding the strategic campaign work of the courageous activists who are challenging this deeply flawed system.

Accessing adequate and stable funding isn’t easy. Especially for a loosely structured grassroots group with weak organizational infrastructure and limited capacity to write proposals and satisfy donors’ demanding reporting requirements. As established and highly visible International Non Governmental Organizations and aid organizations continue to flood into Myanmar, community-based groups risk being sidelined and their priorities distorted if we neglect building their capacity to secure their own sustainability.

As the political space expands and more emboldened activists join the swelling ranks of civil society groups in Myanmar, the EarthRights School is assessing what we can do to continue fostering the growth of an enabling environment for active civic participation.

Since 1999, the EarthRights School Myanmar has been providing intensive training for community activists to have the tools they need to claim their rights to access information and to participate in protecting their environment, livelihoods and culture from degradation and loss. Alongside the student-centered classroom sessions, our field trips connect the students with resilient communities in the region to learn how these legal advocacy and campaign tools work in practice. The independent research component of the training is intended to strengthen the students’ interviewing, fact-finding and documentation skills, and to support them in turning solid research into advocacy reports and outreach materials. After eight months, the students return home prepared to apply these lessons learned to their own contexts; whether that’s opposing coal-fired power plants, documenting the real cost of dams, or fighting in court for remedies from polluting extractive industries.

But what about the money, honey?

If these newly empowered young leaders are to effectively and successfully lead campaigns against the powerful Goliaths they’re up against, they need stamina and resources.

Therefore, in order to support the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of our local partners and alumni organizations, the Myanmar School’s 2016 training program shifted focus to organizational strengthening. For three months, ten participants from our network joined a rigorous training on development and fundraising, vision and mission conception, results-based planning, organizational policies and boards, monitoring and evaluation, and human resource management.

With a bolstered capacity for self-management, we’re hopeful our local partners will maintain their agency in identifying the needs of the people and defining how their communities and their country develop.

 

These are a few stories about the inspiring organizations of some of our 2016 training participants, in their own words:

Law Home Law Firm: Four years ago, seven law graduate students and junior lawyers co-founded “Law Home Law Firm” which works towards justice and rule of law for communities in Myanmar. Some people doubted that this vision could become a reality because of the long history of corruption in the judicial and administration systems throughout the country’s 60 years under military dictatorship. It was precisely because of this history of civil war and corruption that made us determined to pursue our dream. Every day people are denied access to justice because they cannot afford the fee to go to court and because of the lack of legal knowledge necessary to protect their rights. Law Home stands with individuals and communities who need legal representation to protect their rights, whether they are indigenous peoples affected by land grabbing, women and children suffering from violence and rights abuses, or communities impacted by environmental issues. We promote legal knowledge and legal strategies in communities so that ordinary citizens can protect their rights and access justice. Law Home also collaborates with other organizations and legal experts for legal and judicial reform. Our vision is for Myanmar to be a country in which justice and rule of law is strong and where everyone can protect their rights by legal means.

Youth Circle: Ten years ago, a group of youth had the idea of helping other youth struggling to access education. They noticed that there were young people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because of their family situation and their inability to meet their basic needs. The group pooled together their pocket money, bought school supplies and materials, and began to make visits and donations. By sharing their knowledge with other young people, they believed they could contribute something back to their community. The youth also began collaborating with church groups during bible study camps to share with youth in the Christian community topics like climate change, computer skills, health knowledge, and self-motivation. In 2008, they agreed to name the group “Youth Circle”. Since then they’ve continued inviting youth who are willing to contribute their knowledge and time in support of youth empowerment. Today Youth Circle serves and promotes political transition, democratization, human and environmental rights, and social initiatives in Myanmar. The heart of the organization is the aim to bring better change through youth action in Myanmar.

Karen Lawyers Network (KLN): Karen Lawyers Network (KLN) uses the knowledge and power of law to help the community. Despite the weak legal system in Myanmar, KLN believes that the laws that do exist in Myanmar can be used as a tool to help those suffering from abuses. We take on court cases supporting women, farmers and children in Karen communities who have been oppressed and have experienced violations of their rights. We believe that regardless of whether a law is good or bad, if it’s being used it becomes alive and can eventually lead to more just results for the people. We also believe that by harnessing the knowledge, experience, and expertise of lawyers in the courts, educating lawyers-to-be, and empowering ordinary people about their rights, we can make milestones towards a nation with stronger rule of law.

Dawei Development Association (DDA): In 2008, the Military Government announced its plans for the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ) in partnership with Italian-Thai Development. The government said that this mega-project would boost development in Dawei communities. However a young man from Dawei named Thant Zin was studying about development and had learned about the negative impacts of the Map Tha Phut Industrial Zone in Thailand. He worried for his native home as he knew the DSEZ would include similar environmentally destructive industries as Map Tha Phut such as petrochemical factories, cement and steel production, and a coal-fired power plant. Thant Zin therefore started meeting with community leaders who were committed to protecting their environment and together they formed a network called “Dawei Development Association”. Today DDA continues to mobilize and empower communities in the Dawei region to campaign against human rights violations through non-violent social action.

This post was written by Andrew Smith, former staff.

Some of our students choose to keep their identities private for security purposes. 

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