Aug 292013


On her first day at university in the late 1960s, Lahpai Seng Raw was put in the boys’ dormitory by mistake because school administrators thought her native Kachin name meant she was a boy.

The only daughter in a house full of boys, Seng Raw didn’t make a fuss and proceeded to drop her bags and boxes in her assigned room in the dormitory. “So all the boys left and right looked at me and told me, ‘Hey, you cannot stay here,’” she said, laughing.

“And I said, ‘Why not? That’s my name there,’” said the woman who would later on become a leading light of Burma’s civil society and a recipient of the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Eventually, administrators at Rangoon University resolved the mix-up and placed the psychology major in the girls’ dormitory.

The incident illustrates how Seng Raw, a widowed mother of one, has never considered her gender to be an impediment to her endeavors, especially in spurring development in the marginalized borderlands of her country, which is still reeling from decades of military dictatorship.

“I always forget that I’m a woman, anyway,” Seng Raw, 63, said in an interview with the Inquirer ahead of the presentation ceremony tomorrow of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, one of Asia’s highest honors and sometimes described as its version of the Nobel Prize.

If anything, she said her being a woman was actually something of an advantage in her work for Metta Development Foundation, a nongovernment organization (NGO) she formed in 1997 that sought to provide emergency relief to people displaced from conflict zones, including the Kachin ethnic minority to which she belonged.

“Being a woman is also a privilege,” she said. “I think women are more, how shall I put it, intuitive, and, also, much more perceptive of other people’s needs,” she said.

Biggest in Burma

Under her leadership, Metta has established more than 600 farmer field schools and trained more than 50,000 farmers in effective farm and forest management, according to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

The NGO has established schools and training centers in early childhood education, and introduced community-managed water, health and sanitation systems, and other health-care projects, the foundation said.

Metta has also provided funding and technical support for a wide range of livelihood projects, it added.

In 2008 when Tropical Cyclone “Nargis” devastated Burma, the worst natural disaster in its recorded history, Seng Raw’s group led a massive rehabilitation, reconstruction and development effort that benefited hundreds of thousands of victims, the foundation said.

The group has since become the largest NGO in Burma (also known as Myanmar), with a staff of 600, branches outside Rangoon, and three research and training centers, implementing programs that have reached more than 600,000 people in 2,352 communities.

“Working in a war-torn and socially fractured country, Seng Raw has shown both amazing courage and a unique ability to work with both government and rebels,” the foundation said in its profile of the laureate.


Gender’s advantage

Seng Raw said she found, much to her surprise, that the military government, the ethnic leaders and the armed rebels were more accepting of her work than if she were a man.

“The response of the people toward you is different than if you are a man, and especially since I don’t bear arms. That helps,” said Seng Raw, the only daughter of a state-level public official and a teacher.

“So everyone really genuinely wants to see the area developed, especially, ethnic regions in the borderlands, which are far behind the development in central Myanmar,” Seng Raw said.

She said her group was now focusing on these underrepresented sectors in the ethnic borderlands, which had limited access to education and economic opportunities, and where “everything was left behind.”

But Seng Raw was no stranger to the abuses of the military junta.

As a student, she was detained on the suspicion that she had communications with her brother who was with the Kachin insurgency.

Different cultures

Reflecting on Burma’s recent past, Seng Raw said: “I think in our country we need to learn … we have different cultures, different ethnic groups. We need to also learn from each other’s experiences and culture, everything.”

Burma, Seng Raw said, was a country in transition, taking its baby steps toward democracy with the general elections in 2010 after 50 years of a repressive military dictatorship that cut off the country from the rest of the world.

As a child, growing up with seven brothers, she said doing development work was not something she ever considered.

“No, no, I never imagined I would be doing this … I think my dream at the time was a girl’s dream. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be this and that. But then, of course, when we grew up, we all went different ways,” she said.

In 1987, she began to involve herself in relief work for internally displaced peoples in the Burma-China border. In 1990, she moved to Bangkok to work as development in charge at Roka, the Kachin Independence Organization’s humanitarian wing, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation said.

Bold step

Her experience in development work pushed her in 1997 to take the bold step of establishing Metta with the help of faith-based groups and other NGOs, it added.

“From the very beginning I got involved, I really believed our problem is a political one, and it has to be solved politically, therefore I have to support any leader—community leaders, church-based faith leaders and government—I support anyone who boldly takes initiative to resolve the problems,” she said.

After serving as Metta’s executive director for 13 years, she stepped down to “empower a new generation of leaders,” the foundation said.

These days, Seng Raw said her focus was on strengthening the civil society sector of Burma  and growing its “social mobilizers.”

“I noticed that after 1988 there were many social mobilizers in the country but once the country opened up, many social activists became legal politicians. Then somehow the social mobilizers stopped their work.  ‘This is it. We are there,’” she said.

Far to go

But from her perspective as a member of the ethnic minority, she said, “We still have far to go to really resolve the underlying political issues. So for that, it may take another 10 years, 20 years.”

Seng Raw said the biggest sacrifice she ever had to make was not having time for her grown son, Wolfgang Brang Lai Hainze, who works for an international NGO.

“I must say I had to leave my son on his own too often. He’s now 35. When I first left him he was 10 years old. Since then I could never be at his parties. So in the beginning it was hard for him. But now when I look at him, he’s all grown up. As a parent, I thought, OK, we didn’t do that bad,” she said.

What she finds extremely gratifying in her work is to see the young people whom she helped go to school now returning to the country and working in the communities.

“That gave me energy … What I can do is very small, but the need is great, and seeing these young people have such opportunities, there’s improvement. I can see the fruits of my labor,” Seng Raw said.

Inspiring leadership

In electing Seng Raw to receive the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “her quietly inspiring and inclusive leadership—in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict—to regenerate and empower damaged communities and to strengthen local NGOs in promoting a nonviolent culture of participation and dialogue as the foundation for Burma’s peaceful future.”

Seng Raw said being a Ramon Magsaysay laureate would give her “more legitimacy to speak.”

“My voice would be heard not just in Myanmar, hopefully across Asia, and hopefully, across the world,” she said.

“Yesterday before I left for [Manila] I got a phone call from a TV station for an interview, so I said to myself, gee, I’m being heard. So I have more responsibility, so I must make sure that I say the right things. So I’m a little scared now that I might say the wrong things,” she said.

She said it was high time her country woke from its legacy of conflict and displacement.

“We should not wait for another generation to suffer this,” she said.

Related Story:

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Tags: 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award , Burma , Lahpai Seng Raw , Metta , military dictatorship , Ramon Magsaysay Awards , Seng Raw

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