Michael Sider-Rose, Director of Programs at Coro Pittsburgh, traveled to Myanmar (Burma) the last two weeks of May to lead civic engagement workshops among democracy advocates. The trip was sponsored by the US State Department and the Community Solutions exchange program in which Coro participated this past fall. See this earlier post for background on the trip. To learn about the trip itself, read on.
Myanmar is about as far as you can go from Pittsburgh without leaving planet earth. It felt that way to travel there. I left for the airport at 4am in the morning on May 14; flew to San Francisco and then Seoul, South Korea; and finally arrived in Yangon, Myanmar at 10:30pm on May 15. My host, Khin Sandar Nyunt, met me and for that I was grateful. I couldn’t navigate the simplest of tasks. To change money, I gave four crisp one-hundred dollar bills and got a stack of currency in return (382,800 Kyats to be precise). The man behind the counter ran the bills through some sort of counting machine to assure accuracy. Both machine and bills could have been from a toy store for all I knew. Sandar stepped in, counted by hand, and confirmed all was well. Then we stepped outside and got bombarded by muggy heat and fifty cab drivers. Sandar again took over, fielding and rejecting offers until she got a reasonable price. The long journey to Yangon and how out of place I felt upon arrival made me think of Sandar’s reverse trip, nine months earlier. She was 25 at the time and had hardly traveled abroad. She moved to Pittsburgh, without knowing anyone, for a four-month exchange program to learn how Coro promoted civic engagement. I wondered where she found the courage to do it. What I learned is that Sandar has crystal clarity about her purpose.
At Coro, we believe that purpose is the foundation of leadership. Purpose is what matters most to you. It’s what drives you. It’s your bedrock of meaning. Moreover, purpose is something larger than yourself–more than you looking good or getting ahead. It always involves a cause or conviction—climate change, street violence, raising children. Getting clear about purpose helps you know what to do, and remaining connected to purpose helps you keep at it when things get tough.
Sandar’s purpose is to build democracy in Myanmar. She discovered that purpose sooner than most of us do. By the time she graduated from college, she was convinced of it and badgering her parents to let her move from her small town to Yangon, a teeming city of 6 million. They finally relented on the condition that she avoid politics. It was 2009. For nearly 50 years, a
military dictatorship had ruled the country with a global reputation for repression. The military rigged elections when they bothered to hold them, restricted most contact with the outside world, and controlled all media within the country. When protests occurred, the military gunned down participants or jailed them. A culture of fear developed, cultivated by the infamous Military Intelligence Service (MIS), which harassed and tortured countless citizens. Sandar, who hadn’t followed her parents’ advice, was among them. In fact, she was on the front lines of a reform movement, organizing protest & peace rallies; attending & leading political engagement workshops; and building an impressive network of activists, including Nobel-prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
From conversations last fall, I knew that Sandar had been hauled into court over a hundred times for her democracy work. While in Myanmar, I learned more. The MIS had been on her tail for years. Officials followed her around town and frequently stopped her for questioning. They learned her name, her address, and the address of her parents. They got her kicked out of her apartment by pressuring her landlord. After she found a new place, they repeated the tactic. At times, she literally ran the streets of Yangon to get away from the MIS. Sandar estimates that in 2009 and 2010 nearly half her time was spent dealing with harassment from the government. She lived a short car ride from Insein Prison, the country’s most notorious, and getting sent there was a very real possibility.
Being mostly chicken myself, I asked her how she summoned the courage to keep on. Her answer was extraordinary and exemplified the power of purpose. Fear, she explained, comes from within. No one outside yourself has the ability to make you afraid. “I knew that I could be imprisoned because I had chosen to get involved in politics. And I knew that torture was possible. But I also knew that I was doing the right thing. I was working for peace and democracy in my country.” The risk became not only bearable but an opportunity. “If I got put into prison,” she explained, “then I could reform the prison.” Sandar knows her purpose with uncommon clarity. By staying connected to that purpose, she has stayed the course even when her life was in the balance. In the process, she helped dismantle a dictatorship. Not bad for a 26-year old.
The morning after I arrived in Myanmar, Sandar and I got on the road to Mandalay, the country’s second largest city. It has two million residents and what looked like one million motor bikes. People rode with helmets and bare-headed, straddled and side-saddle, individually or as whole families, and carried nearly anything on board—backpacks, suitcases, bamboo poles, piles of hay. Bikes squeezed through every inch of street at top speeds, but my hosts assured me that accidents were few, and there did seem to be a congenial driving culture. All the same (being mostly chicken), I was glad to be in a car as we navigated the city. I was scheduled to give a workshop at the Knowledge Propagation Society founded by Myo Htet, a young medical doctor who left his practice to found
Office of the Knowledge Propagation Society
a grass-roots organization to help build civil society. It began as a book club a couple years back and now provides workshops on civic engagement. Numerous similar groups are forming across the country. In 2010, Myanmar’s military leaders shocked the world by announcing they were going to open up the country. The following year, they allowed relatively free elections, the first in two generations. Restrictions on the press, assembly, travel, communication, and trade were eased as well. But 50 years of repression has left a legacy of fear, mistrust, and dependency on authorities. In response, groups are emerging to help citizens learn what citizens can do—vote, monitor elected officials, run for office, organize political groups, serve as journalists, and study the parliamentary system. All of this has created a palpable sense of opportunity mixed with bewilderment at the pace of change, as if everyone is stepping into a bright morning after a long night. My contribution was to help provide a model of civic leadership for staff & participants of the new civil society organizations. Over twelve days in the country, I spent six days leading workshops at five organizations in three cities; another four days traveling between cities; and two days sight seeing.
Part of Coro’s model for leadership involves asking participants to articulate a personal vision statement. If clarifying purpose reveals what you care about now, vision informs where you will go in the future. Vision serves two goals in leader development. First, it gives people an opportunity to convey a winsome message intended to resonate with others. By stirring positive emotion, we can help to mobilize others, a key move of leadership. Secondly, vision statements are designed to spark personal growth. At Coro, we ask participants to think five years ahead and imagine their ideal selves. What will you be doing? More importantly, who will you be? We ask people to describe the character, temperament, and mindset they most want to embody. In short, how do you need to grow within to be the most effective leader without, for your community?
I didn’t know how the exercise would play in Mandalay, working across cultures and through translation. But I decided to try. I described the exercise and saw some smiles. A good sign. Then I gave participants time to work independently on their statements. They jumped in. Another good
sign. The next step requires more, asking volunteers to stand up and share their statements with the whole group. Uncertain whether they would feel comfortable and running short on time, I asked for just two or three volunteers and then opened the floor. Immediately, someone stood up, and then another, and after six rapid-fire presentations, I had to cut it off.
One of the gifts of leading Coro workshops is listening to vision statements. Again and again, people open up their lives. Mandalay was no exception. One man shared a desire to return to his field of marketing from which he had been excluded during military rule. Another spoke of plans to develop a non-profit for citizen journalists. People also were reflecting on the kind of person they wanted to be. One man felt oppressed at his job and at home, but envisioned himself five years out as someone who spoke his mind and stood up for his beliefs. Another man imagined the opposite: He spoke too freely now, but saw himself in five years as more reserved and better at listening.
The person who truly captured my attention, however, was Nang Tin Tin Mya. A petite, soft-spoken, middle-aged women with a lined face and sharp eyes, she walked to the front. “In order to speak about the future,” she began, “I need to take us back twenty-five years.” As a college student, she got involved in the democracy movement. These efforts peaked in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Yangon in what became known as the People Power Uprising. In response, the military slaughtered thousands of people and jailed countless others. Nang Tin Tin Mya was among those imprisoned. She didn’t say how long nor what happened, but enough others have told their stories that it’s not difficult to imagine. One man I spoke with described his “6 months and 5 days” in prison. The first week was brutal, with near constant beatings on his head. He has soft spots on skull to this day. After that, he was placed in solitary confinement. Others were deprived of sleep, food, water, and light to disorient and break down defenses. Some were buried to the neck and then kicked with big boots or drizzled with honey and left for ants swarm their head. According to one published account, tens of thousands faced tortured during the dictatorship.
Nang Tin Tin Mya mentioned her imprisonment not for grisly details but to explain her trajectory. She was studying geology and planned to go into the petroleum industry. Myanmar is rich in natural resources but has lacked the expertise and will to use them for the benefit of ordinary citizens. Nang may have changed that, but the ‘88 protests ended her studies. After getting out of prison, she married, had children, and raised them. Now that they are grown, it’s too late to return to geology. No matter, she explained, without any bitterness. “I have traded geology for geo-politics.” Her future, she explained, is to build civil society in a way for which she is uniquely qualified. Her business card reads: Counselor, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), Burma. A non-profit, the AAPP is staffed entirely by former political prisoners, providing assistance to those still in prison as well as monitoring & documenting human rights abuses related to them.
Nang’s vision statement hit me at so many levels. The cruelty of torture was sobering and beguiling. Her poise in the face of it was inspiring. Her skill in telling a story captivated me & everyone else in the room, and it reminded me of the power of narrative. She built resonance through her understated but powerful presence. Finally, her clever play on language—geology to geo-politics—beautifully illustrated her own adaptability and tenacity. Her vision is to create a just and open society in Myanmar, and she knows there are multiple paths to that goal. One mark of an effective leader is the ability to experiment with different methods while keeping the big picture in mind. Nang has embodied that principle in her own life, and her country is better for it.
On the evening of May 17, Sandar and I left Mandalay for a three-hour drive to Bagan. Mandalay has no suburbs; the move from densely-populated city to open country was instantaneous. Only a few lights broke the night. Occasionally we would stop to pay a toll or pass through small towns where men gathered at cafes around flat-screen TV for drinks. Finally, we arrived at the Bagan Hotel River View, where Sandar told me a British Prince once stayed. Bagan is a destination for local and foreign tourists, but we came in the off season when the heat keeps away only the brave or, in my case, the ignorant. (For the record, it was 108 the day we visited.) The next morning, we had breakfast in an outdoor café overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy River. A national treasure, the Ayeyarwaddy is a wide river cutting through the heart of the country. The Burmese used to grow the finest rice in the world along its floodplains. Production waned thanks to the isolation and mismanagement of the military government, but the river is still a source of enormous pride. A few years back, China planned to build a massive dam at its headwaters, but a groundswell of popular opposition led the Myanmar government to reverse course and suspend the contract.
Bagan is now a small outpost along the Ayeyarwaddy, but in the 11th century it was home to King Anawrahta. He presided over a golden era of prosperity, security, and religious fervor. Devout Buddhists, Anawrahta and his people built hundreds of ornately-designed Pagodas, sacred tower-like structures. A millennium later, these architectural masterpieces remain. Sandar and I spend the day, visiting one after another. In each Pagoda, there are statues of the Buddla. Seated, standing, or lying, he is always depicted with a peaceful expression—eyes closed, a hint of a smile curling his lips.
Over lunch, Sandar began talking about the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, and I was struck by parallels to Coro’s focus on awareness. Modern life, Sandar explained, is filled with tension. But much of that tension is of our own design. She gave an example. A friend gives me an odd glance and I assume malicious intent—what Sandar called the first error. Then I stew, fuming at her disrespect and anxious about what she may do next—the second error. Having compounded errors, I’m left uneasy with myself and alienated from my friend. But with mindfulness, Sandar concluded, I can reflect back on the situation, reconsider my errors at each step, and return to my friend, asking what her glance may have meant.
At Coro, we emphasize self-awareness as a key move of leadership. I see the glance from my friend (or enemy), and I’m triggered to anger and ready for a fight. But if I can replay in slow motion what just happened, outside and in—what did I see, what did it mean to me, and could it mean something else—then I have more freedom to act. Not until I’ve reflected enough to recognize that the glance might not have meant malice can I even consider asking my friend for clarification. Even more freedom for action comes from a deeper question: Do I often—even always—respond to such glances in this way? If so, why? That level of awareness, over time, can help me not just recover from a conflict but avoid it in the first place.
Barefoot (it’s a required sign of respect) and often silent, Sandar I spent the day padding through ancient pagodas. It was just the right time and place to look inward. I’m neither a follower nor a student of Buddhism, but I learned from watching the Buddha smile in Bagan. In Pittsburgh, half a world away, we who seek to take on the civic challenges of our city would do well to practice our own mindful reflection.
A quick, evening flight took Sandar and me from the quiet of Bagan back to the fury of Yangon. Though cars, cell phones, and sky-scrapers were scarce just five years ago, the city’s street are now clogged with brand new Toyotas, wireless shops every other corner, and frenzied construction of high-rise buildings. Investment in this last untapped Asian market (save North Korea) is moving so fast that office space is now more expensive in Yangon than New York City. Over the next week, I did my best to keep pace with the city, leading workshops at Global Platform Myanmar, The Sun
Institute, and the Innovative—all newly formed civil society organizations. I also traveled to Mawlamyie, the country’s third largest city, for a day at the National Enlightenment Institute. Each time, I began by asking what issues were most pressing for the country. Ethnic conflict, education reform, rewriting the Constitution, and drug trafficking topped the list. I then introduced the concept of adaptive challenges, pioneered by Ron Heifetz. Solving any complex civic issue, says Heifetz, requires that people throughout the system change deep-seated patterns in their behavior, values, priorities, or loyalties. These adaptive challenges take time and demand new learning. They are distinguished from technical problems, which simply require the application of known expertise. Solving an adaptive challenge is especially difficult because it involves loss—in power, prestige, money, identity, or even life. Much of the work of leadership is naming adaptive challenges and helping people manage the losses they will suffer for the sake of a greater good.
Once I introduced the concept, we applied it to the issues facing Myanmar. One session the topic was the Constitution, which currently guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament and veto power on structural changes to the government. We mapped out the adaptive and technical problems of the issues, the stakeholders involved, and the losses & gains that would result from adaptive change. Our goal was to get insight on how activists could pressure the military for reforms while still leaving space for the old guard to exit power with dignity and security. Another day we focused on education, exploring what it would take to redirect government money toward schools and revamp decades-old, rote-learning teaching methods to encourage more critical thinking. But the most fascinating conversation for me happened at the National Enlightenment Institute (NEI). Founded two years ago by then 27-year old Kyaw San Win, the NEI
provides workshops on social capacity building, trainings for elected officials, and public forums on civic affairs. The target population is 16-25 year olds. The day of my workshop, over 40 people showed up, and a majority of those were under 20. Our topic there was drug trafficking and what it would take to convince dealers to abandon their trade. The students immediately responded that an economic case would not work because the trade was too lucrative and that loss too great to bear. I asked them to try an impromptu simulation: Prepare a speech they would deliver to drug traffickers, acknowledging losses the dealers will face and the greater good they will gain from a new vocation. After fifteen minutes of preparation, three volunteers came forward. The first person highlighted the damage of drugs on the community. Remember, she pleaded to the dealers, the one buying these drugs could be your younger brother or sister. Another presenter made a broader more case, emphasizing that drugs were killing the next generation of leaders for the country. The last person appealed to the spiritual condition of the dealers: “Do you really feel
at peace in what you are doing, about this business you have chosen?” All three presenters then articulated what could be gained by making the difficult adaptive change. The drug traffickers had another option, one that could be more fulfilling emotionally, morally, and spiritually. Instead of selling drugs, they could be a role model for younger siblings and youth in general; they could help build a new generation of leaders, so desperately needed in Myanmar now; and they could reach inner peace about their life’s work.
It was inspiring to see young people delivering these speeches with poise and passion. It was also encouraging to see them so engaged—for the whole day—in the workshop. Temperatures were in the 90s, it was humid, and the electricity (as is the case every day in Myanmar) was intermittent. Even so, the participants were focused throughout, examining individual purpose, articulating personal vision statements, and analyzing system change. It’s hopelessly trite (or hopefully right) to say that these young people are the bridge to and the promise for a new Myanmar. One student, whose image is now chiseled in my mind, epitomized this for me. I noticed her during one of the small group breakouts—a wiry teen with bright eyes. But it was her T-shirt that caught my attention. On the front was the post-World War II independence leader, Aung San, the face of Myanmar’s past. One the back was Nobel-prize winner and Presidential candidate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of Myanmar’s present. The young woman wearing the shirt itself is Myanmar’s future. I believe that future is bright.
Maybe the most difficult challenge of leadership is working across boundaries. People seem adept at dividing into rival groups, identities, teams, and nations; we’re less skilled at working together, especially across difference. Yet civic leadership requires boundary crossing because system problems slice through all manner & level of human experience and the difference of those experiences is often at the heart of our struggles. Myanmar is no exception to this challenge. I expected as much. What struck me, though, were the exceptional people who sought to collaborate in spite of divisions, even with their enemies.
Sandar is one example. She told me that one of her top insights from Coro was the value of collaboration, especially across organizations. In Myanmar, under 50 years of military rule, a culture of fear developed where it was dangerous to talk to anyone about political or social activities. As a result, she explains, partnerships among organizations are weak. Upon her return to Myanmar, Sandar wanted to take a different approach. Her post-fellowship project involves writing and delivering a curriculum to train over 300 election monitors for the pivotal 2015 national election. Although Sandar knew she could write the curriculum on her own, she called together five different civil service organizations and invited them to help craft the material. Looking for points of mutual benefit, she told the organizations that she would be recruiting a small army of monitors and offered to share those volunteers. She plans to re-engage the organizations during the training itself as subject matter experts and co-facilitators. Finally, she plans to share the curriculum with them.
Collaborating with like-minded organizations can be difficult enough, but Sandar also has had the pluck to work with enemies. She understands the importance of this and has been practicing it for years. Back in 2009 and 2010 when the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) was harassing and hauling her into court, Sandar countered with transparency and invitation. When officials detained her for questioning, she complied: “It’s their job to ask questions, so I would tell them everything they wanted to know. I didn’t have anything to hide. I knew I was doing the right thing.” Even more, Sandar would invite them to her democracy workshops. “Here is the time of the workshop, the topics, and the schedule,” she explained, “please come.” And sometimes they did. The result was that the MIS joined the very civic dialogues they were trying to shut down—and they enriched the conversation. On one occasion, citizens identified the government’s failure to deliver electricity as a rallying point for civic engagement. The MIS officials responded by explaining the challenges the government faced in hilly areas where landslides and heavy rains easily wiped out power. In another training, Sandar divided participants into groups to identify issues of concern and brainstorm solutions. She made sure military officials and activists were together, a rare occasion where authorities and citizens could share perspectives.
Sandar is not alone in crossing boundaries. Thomas Zaw Ring, a Community Solutions exchange program alum, works in the far north of
Myanmar, Kachin State. The North, like much of the country, faces ethnic and religious tension. Myanmar has 135 distinct ethnic groups with the Bamar comprising the majority at 68%. Minority ethnic groups have battled for independence, off and on, since the reign of King Anawrahta. The divisions go deep. It reminded me of America’s struggle with race—only twice as long. Thomas, however, is determined to model a different way. He runs an after-school program that provides academic support, English language study, and courses in civic society. In his program, he insists on having representation from each ethnicity. He recruits rigorously for that by meeting with leaders from different groups and inviting them to send their youth. Once the program begins, these youth must work across their differences. He asks participants to go to the village of an opposing group and conduct a community study. At the end of their study, they present their findings to fellow participants and leaders from that community. Leaders often attend begrudgingly, but they know Thomas is doing quality work and they want their youth to benefit from it.
One final example of boundary crossing is the Innovative in Yangon. Founded by Myo Zaw Aung, the Innovative provides three-month intensive courses preparing citizens to run for and hold elected office. About twenty
were enrolled during my two-day workshop. Among them, I am sure, were future members of parliament. As a young activist, Myo Zaw Aung joined the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and traveled the country with Aung San Suu Kyi. For this, the military government imprisoned & tortured him. His is the skull still soft from those beatings. Yet when Myo Zaw designed his program, he insisted that the USDP (the military party) be represented along with the NLD and a host of smaller ethnic parties. He is relentless in seeking nominations from party leaders of all stripes. The result is a remarkably diverse group of people not only by party, but also ethnicity, religion, and region. Once in the program, participants need to work together—in class, over meals, and for some in a common residence. Myo Zaw encourages this through a few team-building exercises early on, but I suspect his own example has far more influence. Whatever the reason, participants seem to have imbibed the message. On the first day of training for the current cohort, members came dressed in the colors of the parties they represented. But during a participant-led discussion of group norms, they decided against that practice, and the colors have not appeared since. And on the day I visited they tackled the red hot issue of ethnic tension with such honesty, civility, and compassion as to be a model for boundary-crossing dialogue.
I was thinking of boundary crossing again the evening I left Myanmar. Over the next twenty-four hours, I would pass through Burmese customs, take a rest stop in Tokyo, and then re-enter the U.S. via Chicago before landing in Pittsburgh, exhausted. Passing these political borders, however, would pale in comparison to the cultural journey. One final taxi race through muggy, vibrant Yangon got me to the airport. I used my last Kyats on a pineapple shake and wondered when I would next eat fish paste or see a bowl of crickets for sale on the street. How will the Parkway feel having traveled the road to Mandalay? When might the dome of my church remind me of the pagodas in Bagan? And, most of all, how will the people I met remain with me and color my world: Nang Tin Tin Mya in Mandalay, Kyaw San Win in
Mawlamyine, Myo Zaw Aung in Yangon, Thomas Zaw Ring in Kachin State, and Kihn Sandar Nyunt traversing all of Mynamar. Their lives are worlds apart from mine, but we share a conviction that people, at all levels of society, have the right & responsibility to shape civil life and that we can do so while honoring the dignity of all. We will need to cross boundaries to do this, and we’ll be better off for it. Onward.
For more information about CSP, please visit http://www.exchanges.state.gov/non-us/program/community-solutions
For additional inquires please contact:
Michael Sider-Rose, Director of Programs, Coro Pittsburgh, 412-258-2672, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Mechem, Senior Program Officer, IREX: 202-628-8188. email@example.com
Anna Griffin, Public Affairs, Department of State: 202-632-6452, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits: All photos taken with Coro camera except the shots of motorbikes (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandalay) and of Thomas Zaw Ring (with permission from his LinkedIn page).