Myanmar: shaping a shifting society

The importance of social action in an emerging society

Cherry Naing, 29, is speaking on satellite phone from Myanmar, and although the reception is patchy, the passion in her voice is clear. After attending an Active Citizens’ International Study Visit (ISV) in the UK in January, Cherry and fellow Active Citizen Tin Nilar Aye started a social action project to teach workers’ rights to the women who work in South Yangon’s garment factories.

‘We were inspired by the women’s organisations we visited in the UK. We used the Active Citizens tools in our own programme, to empower more women back home.’

In the international hunt for cheap labour, Myanmar has suddenly become a very attractive prospect. Garment factory workers are currently paid one quarter of the monthly wage of a worker in China. ‘90% of young people in our area work in factories and the majority of factory workers are women’, says Cherry. But not many of these women know their rights. ‘They work so many hours that they don’t have time to find out about anything else!’, says Cherry.

Seeing a real need for women’s empowerment training, Cherry and Tin Nilar created, and are now delivering, a weekly programme educating factory workers about their legal rights. Everything is covered, from how to advocate for basic holiday pay and benefits, to understanding women’s rights, and all created and delivered using the skills and networks picked up from their Active Citizens training.

Their project focuses on other issues specific to the women, like how to handle sexual harassment and practise self-defence; necessary because trafficking commonly takes place outside the factories. Tailoring the training to the women’s needs is critical. ‘We ask them what they want to know and listen to their concerns,’ says Cherry.

The two enthusiastic Active Citizens are keen to continue their empowerment work and have identified another need to provide conflict resolution between factory owners and their employees. The local British Council office continues to provide support through a small grant to fund the project and planning resources.

Resolving ethnic conflict 

Another example of a burgeoning social action project coming out of Active Citizens is the work being done by Kyaw San Hlaing in the rural villages around Rakhine state. Kyaw is also a Facilitator, who has carried out previous training. He decided to conduct a needs assessment of his local area, where discrimination and violence has been occurring due to religious and ethnic tension.

I was teaching in the classroom and thought ‘what is the purpose of doing only the workshops?’ I needed to get out into the community and bring my Active Citizens training to the people.’

With the help of a British Council grant, Kyaw submitted a detailed assessment based on the extensive interviews he had conducted with local Myo Christians, Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, using Active Citizens training tools in workshop settings. The aim of his research was to see if he could build bridges between the religious elements within the community.

His findings pointed towards a strong degree of prejudice against engagement between mixed ethnicity groups, as well as resistance from the local authorities. His solution was to bring the community together through a sports tournament and arts project, which facilitate engagement in an informal setting.

Eventually Kyaw hopes to spread the Active Citizens ethos of community cohesion amongst residents.

Under the radar

The British Council has been operating in Myanmar since 1948 (with the exception of a short break after the coup in 1962). In 2010 the ground was ripe for a programme which helped empower community activists to make positive changes in their communities.

Active Citizens began life in the country under the name ‘Connecting Communities’, the combination of the words ‘active’ and ‘citizen’ being deemed too politically sensitive to be used at the time.

The original group of Active Citizens were trained by British Council Project Manager Tristan Ace, and many have gone on to become ‘Master Facilitators’ – individuals who train other facilitators to deliver the Active Citizens methodology in their communities. It’s a diverse group; a mix of former political prisoners, activists and NGO workers, a number of whom are still delivering Active Citizens under the guidance of Tristan and his colleagues.

We were inspired by the women’s organisations we visited in the UK and used the Active Citizens tools to empower women back home”

One of these modifications included delivering the programme in the Burmese language, when it was branched out into more rural areas in 2011. Today, facilitators prioritise local languages for delivery to give the programme a greater chance of resonating with the audience.

‘Active Citizens provided us with a really robust methodology for us to back up our society work, but one that also allowed us to modify it to suit the very unique context here.’, said Tristan.

The British Council office in Rangoon provides support and resources to the social action projects set up by local Active Citizens and will continue doing so until they are self-sustaining.