The Burmese harp, or the saung (စောင်းကောက်) has 16 strings. It hasn’t always been that way: early versions in the sixth century had as few as five. Over generations, musicians from diverse cultures added strings, building and shaping the instrument into what it is today. Sometimes the process of building a movement—and a building to foster it—works the same way: diverse voices, time, and dedication.
Chit Suwichan Phatthanaphraiwan, a Karen environmental activist famous for his celebration of indigenous rights through music, closed the ribbon-cutting ceremony with a moving saung performance to mark the opening of the EarthRights Mitharsuu Center for Leadership and Justice. The energy in the building and among the crowd gathered for the momentous occasion was palpable. We all knew that we were there for a celebration of a significant occasion in ERI’s history, but more importantly, we were there to honor our shared commitment to human rights and a planet where precious resources are preserved and shared equitably by all.
On June 24, ERI supporters and friends came together from around the world on this magical evening to witness the unveiling of ERI’s “ecoplex” – a Platinum LEED-certified building to house ERI’s Mekong regional programs, including the EarthRights School, the Legal and Campaigns teams, as well as networks of earth rights lawyers and defenders working to strengthen environmental law and policy locally, regionally and globally. The center provides a safe space where teachers, community organizers, and lawyers can learn and strategize—where dreams become plans and where vision becomes reality.
The sixteen-thousand square-foot building sits on two acres of land, beautifully restored with native plantings. ERI staff, students, and supporters were joined by Mekong Legal Network members and ERI Board members for the special event. Various NGO leaders and government officials joined the celebration. Swedish Ambassador Staffan Herrström and his wife Karin Herrström offered inspiring words of welcome to the crowd, along with our co-founders Katie Redford and Ka Hsaw Wa, and ERI Board Member Kate Tillery, one of the original visionaries of our new building.
This LEED Platinum-certified building—the highest sustainability rating in the world–is now a reality because of the commitment of allies, old friends, and ERI staff from across the globe. Some worked to support us by making donations. Some helped us amplify the voices of earth rights defenders around the world. Others dedicated their sweat with two years of work on the construction. Whatever the contribution, everyone worked to make the Mitharsuu Center a reality because they believe in its vision of a world defined by human rights and environmental sustainability, and the work for that vision that the Center will shelter and house from now on.
Throughout the opening celebration, old friends and new walked up to the rooftop deck to take in the campus. Carbon neutral and chemical-free, the Mitharsuu Center is one of the only LEED Platinum-certified buildings in Thailand. A team from ERI, including Ka Hsaw Wa (Co-Founder and Executive Director), Chana Maung (Mekong-Myanmar Regional Managing Director), Billy Doerner (Training Director), Joy Adams (ERI Supporter) and Kate Tillery (ERI Board Member), worked with architect Ajan Pradit and contractor Chan Weichai. From the time ERI came to look at plots of land in 2015, we knew that the Mitharsuu Center had to be built sustainably. As many of the building materials as possible were sourced locally and much of the wood in the building was salvaged and then refinished without toxic chemicals. Over 75% of the building site was restored through native plantings and a rooftop garden will provide fresh produce for the school’s kitchen. An irrigation pond, including a small recirculating waterfall, harvests and stores storm water.
The Mitharsuu Center marks a key milestone in ERI’s history. We began as a team of three in a one-room office on the Thai-Burma border where we started our work in 1995 to bring the power of law to bear on the human rights crisis in Burma. Over twenty years later, the Mitharsuu Center stands as a permanent, physical example of ERI’s commitment to the communities in this region, and the bold steps we’re willing to take to advance our vision of a just and sustainable world. When Ka Hsaw Wa, Katie Redford and Tyler Giannini established ERI on a shoestring budget in 1995, they never dreamed that the organization would have the global reach it has today, driven by over 60 staff in four offices across the globe. In Southeast Asia, we’ve built networks of community organizers, public interest lawyers, and environmental advocates. Our EarthRights School continues to enhance the knowledge and skills of a broad and diverse pool of new earth rights leaders from the Mekong Region. The Mitharsuu Center provides a focal point and a base for these alumni to collaborate with our staff and the networks of lawyers and advocates that we support. As Katie stated from the Mitharsuu steps that night: “This building is the living example of our belief that you don’t have to trash the planet or destroy peoples’ lives to create something beautiful and strong where we can all live together.”
The word “Mitharsuu” means “family” in Burmese and evokes the idea of friendship in Thai. EarthRights School students and ERI staff will be able to build relationships with one another and learn from visiting experts and advocates from around the globe. The Mitharsuu Center represents not only a long-term dream of ERI’s to provide a safe and permanent headquarters for our work, but also a space to grow new ideas and directions we haven’t even thought of yet. The Mekong Legal Network and the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute will use the space to bring together public interest lawyers in the region. Teams of experts on environmental issues from land rights to climate change will come to teach in the EarthRights School. It takes all of these voices and communities to drive our co-powered movement for human rights and the environment.
We’d never built a building before. People told us that an organization like ERI, comprised of lawyers, teachers, and community organizers, shouldn’t get involved in things we don’t know about, like building construction. But that’s what people have always said to us when we proposed new ideas that have never been tested or tried. We knew that, as with everything, by working together with supportive friends, and staying focused on our goal, we could build the home that our partners, staff, and students deserve. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since the days of our Unocal litigation until now, it’s this: when we’re told by “experts” that what we want to do is impossible, we should probably do it anyway.
“They can come here and share their experiences, share their success and failures and they can learn from each other.” – ERI Co-founder and Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa