Shining, Zomia’s first graduate
In 2014, Zomia lenders funded a $3,000 loan for Shining to complete a master’s degree in peace studies in the Philippines. After graduation, she returned to Shan State, Myanmar, where she co-founded two organizations working towards social justice, peacebuilding, and environmental activism. In February 2017, she finished repaying her $3,000 loan. We caught up with Shining in Taunggyi to learn more about her work and what life has been like since finishing school.
* Transcript edited for clarity and length.
Your master’s program in peace studies finished two years ago. Can you tell us what you’ve been doing since you finished?
I started an organization called Mong Pan Youth Association with my brother. We focus now on campaigning against the hydropower projects along the Salween River and empowering youth to stand up for their rights. If the community can unite and come together against any project that may harm their livelihoods—for example, standing up to say that “the government is not fair” and talking directly with officials—that’s the level of success we can measure.
I also co-founded Weaving Bonds Across Borders, which is more focused on regional work. It brings together youth from the six countries of the Mekong region for empowerment workshops, particularly in peacebuilding.
Both of the organizations you started focus on empowering young people. Why youth?
Our community is hierarchical. We cannot just approach older people because many won’t listen to us. Many think that because they are older, they know more. This is why our approach is to focus on the youth. Young people are open-minded. They can adapt and change depending on the situation.
Why did you help found these two entities instead of working in an established organization?
In fact, I had a lot of opportunities to work in Yangon. But no one was working on these issues in Mong Pan [Shining’s hometown] or the dam-affected communities. People in Mong Pan are mostly interested in trade and business—and not social issues. This is why I think we need to change that mindset. Even though I am only one person, I believe I can make an impact. I also feel a lot of passion to work on this.
Where do you think Weaving Bonds and Mong Pan Youth Association will be 10 years from now?
I want to transfer my responsibilities from generation to generation. After one year of working for two organizations, I’m so tired. At the same time, I want to create leaders. Right now I’ve started with a small Weaving Bonds project that the youth can manage on their own in Mong Pan. Even though it’s a very small project, they learn how to take responsibility. It’s my dream to have them take the lead on everything, and I can live a simple, peaceful life.
What has surprised you about starting Weaving Bonds and Mong Pan Youth Association?
At first, I thought the job would be easy because of our passion. I thought that people would join our cause and work with us. But actually, it’s not easy at all. The people have been living in the same environment for so long they don’t even understand the change we are trying to make. I posted on Facebook that before, my dream was to break the mountain, but now I just appreciate what the little ants are trying to do to break through the mountain. What I’m trying to do now is not to destroy the mountain but instead to support the ants to break it.
Do you ever worry that Weaving Bonds or Mong Pan Youth Association will stop operating?
Sometimes we worry because we don’t have financial sustainability, but we won’t stop. Just because we don’t have funds doesn’t mean we stop working. Even now we don’t have funds but are still doing a lot of things. Officially, we haven’t had funds for nine months now from one funder, but somehow we survive on other small projects and we’re still working a lot.
How do you define success for Weaving Bonds and Mong Pan Youth Association?
My definition of success is when the local people understand and can defend their own rights. But we have a long way to go, and I don’t think it will reach that point. I can say that in the two years since I began working on this, more people are starting to campaign for their rights and against the dam projects.
You’re in an unusual situation because you’re not only a co-founder of two organizations but also a mom. What is it like running these organizations while also raising a child? Can you share what a normal day is like for you?
I feel like I’m the same person, but sometimes I realize that I’m not. Every two to three hours my son asks for milk, so I have to feed him. Usually, I wake up at 4 or 5 a.m., feed him, and go back to sleep. Then I get up at 7 and clean the house. The night before I wash our clothes, and in the morning I put the clothes out to dry. I pump water for the house, do some cleaning, feed my son, and go back to bed. I’ll wake up around 10 a.m. and reply to the most urgent e-mails. I wait until evening to respond to the others. Then I’m out joining meetings. As a CSO [community service organization] network, we are always participating in meetings, so I’m usually out of the house until 5 or 6 p.m.
Do you have any advice for those who might be looking to start their own ventures?
Passion. I think you need to have passion. Ever since I was young, I wanted to do good things for my community. So the first thing you need is passion. The second thing is sacrifice. Right now we don’t have any funds so have to sacrifice from our savings. I’m lucky because I receive some salary from two organizations, so somehow I have savings—but it’s very difficult.
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