Turning Points in the Life of a Young Social Worker and Researcher Along the Thanlwin River

By Nang Shining, MK31 Fellow

In this blog, Nang Shining presents the perspective of a youth researcher who is working with her in her participatory action research-designed fellowship project on women’s engagement and their role in water governance particularly at the proposed Mong Ton hydropower project in Shan State, Myanmar. Nang Shining highlights both some of the initial findings of the field work, and also the lessons learned by the researcher herself.

Growing up, my dream had always been to become a teacher in Myanmar. Passing tenth grade would be my gateway to attend an Education College which would enable me to study for a government service teacher position. I believed this job would ensure lifetime employment and stable living conditions for myself, while also allowing me to improve future generations’ prospects by sharing with them the knowledge and skills that I acquired. However, my aspiration to become a government service teacher faded away as I passed tenth grade in early 2015.

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Instead, in July 2015, I started working as an intern with the civil society group Weaving Bonds Across Borders, and as a member of the Mong Pan Youth Association based in Mong Pan township, Southern Shan State, Myanmar. Given my lifelong aspiration to become a teacher, I felt extremely happy and blessed to become a Shan teacher and accountant in this role for three months.

During the first week of November 2015, my supervisor approached me and offered me a job as a local researcher because she “saw something in me”. She promised me that I would learn to organize field trips, conduct interviews, take notes, analyze data, and reveal my findings. I accepted the job offer, and started to collect data about water management in Wan Sa La village on the Salween River and about women’s role and input in the proposed 7000 megawatt Mong Ton dam project.

Not only did being trusted with the responsibility of leading the entire fact-finding process represent a priceless learning opportunity, it also turned out to be a major revelation for me. The experience of getting to know and working with the villagers from Wan Sa La was extremely enriching given their extreme generosity and hospitality. Although I was a complete stranger, they welcomed me to stay in their home for more than ten days, treated me like their own child, and happily answered the questions that I had to ask. They willingly integrated me into their ways of life, bringing me to the creeks and into the forest to highlight the level of integration that they achieved with their natural environment.

Even though my stay with the villagers was very short, I could feel the extremely strong bonds that tie people, water, and forest together. I will always remember what my host family told me, and which is completely in line with this feeling:

“During our entire life we have made a living from fishing and hunting around our home. The eight main creeks, the mountains, and the forest constitute our life stock. The Nam Khone River and its banks represent a crucial source of income. Never would we have thought that there would be shortages, since we never experienced one since we were born.”

Given their pride to be a part of such a resourceful and rich environment, I was hesitant to ask them what they would do if all those resources disappeared for some reason, or if they had to relocate.

The gap between men and women’s rights in the village is not very big when viewed from a local perspective. Men work laborious jobs such as building and running the mini-hydropower station for household use, as well as hunting, fishing, or farming.  Women usually take care of river-bank agricultural jobs, and manage household matters, including finance. Hence it is very difficult for me to conclude who actually has more power in terms of decision-making, since I only stayed for a short period so far in Wan Sa La village.

From my discussions, I understood that the villagers from Wan Sa La were very concerned about the proposed Mong Ton dam that would be located only 19 miles upstream of their village. One villager said:

“I don't know much about the impacts of dams. I have never seen people who came to share information about the project and to ask for our opinions. I have seen some leaflets distributed by some groups of people, but I can't understand them as I can’t read and write.”

My experiences with Weaving Bonds Across Borders and Mong Pan Youth Association taught me a lot. Not only did I gain new knowledge on human rights and environmental issues, I also acquired precious technical skills related to data collection, financial management, teaching, social engagement, and effective communication.

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I will never regret the choice that I made: to give up my dream of teaching in favor of doing on-the-field research. Doing research allows me to reach my fullest potential, and enables me to share my knowledge and skills with local communities, to present evidence supporting my findings related to policy change, and to make local people’s voices heard. Most importantly, I can teach beyond the traditional and mainstream educational system, which is invaluable. I am proud to be called a social worker.

Edited by Siri Luther

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