2009 PFIG Recipient Spencer Sloan
College of Arts & Sciences
PPL and Economics Major
2010 Graduation Year
Internship: Human Rights Institute of Burma
Notes on the first week
This past week, starting May 24, I began my internship with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (‘HREIB’) in Chiang Mai , Thailand . HREIB is a non-profit, non-governmental organization which dedicates itself to combating the desperate political situation in Burma . The people of Burma are currently suffering under the rule of the State Peace and Development Council, a misleading euphemism for the heavily oppressive military dictatorship controlling the country. Pro-democracy advocates regularly receive lengthy prison sentences for distributing pamphlets or demonstrating peacefully. Political prisoners are routinely tortured, malnourished, and denied any sense of due process. Children as young as 11 years old are kidnapped from markets and bus stations and forced to join the military, where they may be beaten and forced into grueling daily routines. Military leaders rape, pillage, and plunder with complete impunity. In fact, such descriptions are merely the tip of the iceberg for the human rights violations occurring in Burma today. As part of its focus, HREIB conducts research and documentation of these violations, and compiles reports in order to increase the international community’s awareness of such issues. For example, the organization recently completed a report regarding children involved in armed conflict; my supervisor is currently preparing for a trip to New York , where he will be presenting the report’s findings to a U.N. commission. However, as its name suggests, the organization’s main focus is on grassroots human rights education for Burmese people, in order to empower individuals and communities with the knowledge and tools needed for social change. The idea for the organization originated when its founder, working on a project related to human rights in Burma , was approached by another Burmese man and asked, "What are human rights?" The question, striking in its subtlety, made it clear that calls for social change would be futile if local people do not even know what their rights are. Through workshops and training modules, HREIB "trains the trainers" so that local leaders may return to their communities and spread awareness of human rights. Again, however, the oppressive military regime makes this a deceivingly difficult task.
My first week with HREIB was largely spent getting acclimated with the organization and with the situation in Burma (just as I was getting acclimated with life in Chiang Mai). I have the privilege of working alongside two other summer volunteers, both American law students, and a great supervisor who also happens to be American. While I am thankful for these English-speaking coworkers, I am extremely excited to get to know the rest of the office staff, all of whom are Burmese immigrants. These brave people risk their freedom to work for HREIB; it is extremely dangerous for them to return to Burma , even to see their families, as anyone found to be associated with the organization in Burma faces immediate imprisonment. With each story I hear from them, the situation in Burma is made more real to me, and seems more desperate for international action. Additionally, the office will be hosting an extended training program for a group of Burmese interns, with whom I am also excited to work and interact.
I have also been fortunate enough to be assigned two interesting and exciting projects to begin my internship. First, I will be researching and working on a plan proposal to evaluate the feasibility of HREIB setting up an exchange or fellowship program with various universities across the world. The vision is to establish a program through which scholars or professors travel to Chiang Mai to further their own research and share their expertise with the organization, and through which university students travel to Chiang Mai for a semester to complete a structured educational program alongside Burmese students. Similarly, the hypothetical program may involve sending Burmese students and activists to American or European universities to complete a fellowship and enhance their human rights education. Secondly, I will be conducting research on case studies and reports related to trafficked children and their reintegration back into their home communities. The goal of this research, ultimately, is to compile an informational pamphlet to be used in HREIB’s educational efforts to improve the reintegration of trafficked children.
As I dive further into these projects, I am excited to report back in a few weeks with my progress and further learning experiences. I am extremely grateful to the UVa Parents Committee for allowing me this unique and inspiring opportunity; without the grant, my placement here in Chiang Mai would not have been possible. I look forward to continuing my work with this amazing organization, and to sharing my experiences with the Parents Committee, University Career Services, and UVa community.
As I’m now looking back at my previous Parent’s Committee journal entry, it is hard to believe that I am already half-way through my internship placement here in Chiang Mai! My work with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma continues to be intellectually exciting and politically inspiring. Since I last wrote, I have continued to work primarily on my two main assignments: a plan/proposal to establish a student and scholar exchange program with international universities or human rights institutes, and research related to "best practice" techniques for the successful reintegration of trafficked children into their home communities.
For the exchange program project, I have been compiling information on various universities and human rights centers and programs, and assessing their relevance to HREIB’s goals and projects with the ultimate goal of offering a recommendation on the feasibility of establishing an exchange relationship with the institute. Recently, this has included an attempt to add a list of professors and experts with research interests in Burma to the giant database I have created for this project, in the hopes of making some contacts and generating initial interest. If any professors from UVa happen to be reading this and would be interested in coming to Chiang Mai to work alongside HREIB, please feel free to contact me! Additionally, I have been researching other instances of NGOs setting up a similar type of exchange program, and will ultimately compare these case studies with HREIB’s situation in a final proposal to establish the program.
For the child trafficking project, I have been researching and assessing sources for their relevance and thoroughness in discussing the reintegration of trafficked children. With the results of my research, I ultimately plan to compile a recommendation detailing the most important techniques and considerations to be included in reintegration strategies in Burmese communities. This information will be used in HREIB’s "training of trainers" modules to educate communities on how best to welcome their child victims back home. Though the content of the research is often disturbing, I am motivated by the feeling that this project will provide some tangible benefit to distressed Burmese communities.
Apart from my individual projects, it has really an amazing time to be at HREIB this summer, surrounded by all the Burmese staff and activists while several politically-significant events are currently taking place in Burma . The most prominent example in the international community is the upcoming trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the daughter of General Aung San, the revered leader of Burma after the British gave up their colonial rule. When Burma held elections in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming majority of the votes as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Ignoring the results, however, the military junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, and has since detained her for 13 of the past 19 years. After an American man swam across a lake to Suu Kyi's house this past May, the military government accused her of violating the terms of her house arrest. She now awaits her (likely corrupt) trial where she faces up to five years in Burma ’s infamous Insein prison. One reason Suu Kyi’s trial is so significant, and another reason why my summer here at HREIB has been so exciting, is that Burma is scheduled for another election in 2010. In the lead-up to the 2010 elections, there has been a palpable excitement among the Burmese staff in my office. Though the elections will likely be one-sided or corrupt, many are anticipating them to provide the necessary springboard for potential international action. This enthusiasm and hope for such significant political change has been truly infectious.
Just over two weeks ago, HREIB welcomed the arrival of 7 young Burmese interns, who are living in Chiang Mai for the summer, working with HREIB and training in issues of human rights advocacy and education, as well as general NGO administration. Upon their return to Burma , many of the interns hope to educate and mobilize their home communities using lessons learned through their experiences here at HREIB. Along with the two other American interns, I have participated in a "cultural exchange" program with these Burmese students, through which we learn about Burmese culture and politics, and teach them about American culture and politics. The Burmese students come from six different ethnic groups and regions of Burma , which allows for some fascinating and diverse cultural perspectives.
Reflecting on my time here as I enter the second half of my internship placement, I am thankful for the breadth and depth of information I have learned so far at HREIB, as well as for the opportunity to experience such diverse cultural perspectives. I look forward to seeing my projects through to completion and to reporting back at the end of my time here with my final thoughts on this amazing internship experience.
Looking back on my twelve weeks in Chiang Mai, it is surprisingly difficult to imagine the uncertainty and hesitation with which I first approached my internship placement in May. Upon leaving Thailand, I had become comfortable with a completely foreign city, a unique culture, and even (to a much lesser degree) a tonal language!
During my last few weeks with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, I continued work on my ongoing summer projects, completing both my program proposal for the implementation of an international academic exchange, as well as my research regarding the reintegration of trafficked children back into their home communities. Through my work on the academic exchange program, I benefited from my experience working with case study analysis, partnership structuring, and non-profit outreach and expansion. Practically, I gained skills in database compilation and organization, as well as experience in structuring a thorough and convincing feasibility study and program proposal. I was encouraged by my supervisor’s parting remarks ensuring me that my work on the project would be a primary source of information for future grant applications and program initiatives.
Through my work on the trafficked children project, I was moved by the powerful subject matter and the pressing need for a truly comprehensive reintegration strategy. Too often the unique sensitivities and human rights-related issues surrounding the child victims are overlooked in the bureaucratic chaos of macro-level strategies. Without attentive recognition of the need for child victim emotional support, community education, pre-established administrative strategies, and proper facilities and trained staff, child victims are at risk of suffering irreversible emotional damage, a stigmatizing or unreceptive home, or even the horrors of re-trafficking. Again, I was encouraged by my supervisor’s assurance that my work will be used in HREIB’s future manual and training sessions regarding this tragically imperative issue.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to work with so many inspiring people. From the American law students serving as fellow summer interns, to the Burmese staff and group seven future human-rights trainers, I was fortunate to learn and benefit from their extensive experiences and unique cultural backgrounds. During my last week at HREIB, I attended a training-of-the-trainers session, where I ended my internship with a small glimpse of the core of HREIB’s human-rights work. At this training session, I observed and interacted with approximately 30 Burmese community leaders and human rights trainers, who collectively constitute HREIB’s 'internal network.’ Though they were only visiting Chiang Mai just as I was leaving, I was lucky enough to hear many of their reports on Burma from their unique 'inside’ perspective.
I would like to thank the Parents Fund for offering me the funding that made this once-in-a-lifetime experience possible. I would also like to encourage any readers to follow the Burma cause throughout the coming months and years, especially as the country awaits its upcoming 2010 elections and as the twenty-year saga of Aung San Suu Kyi continues. This summer has afforded me with unforgettable memories and an unfading passion.