“The activists we have produced from the SDC have been not only important for the ethnic community, but I strongly believe that they will become leaders of change for future democratic country of Burma”
The first thing you notice about Aung Sun Myint is not the man himself but the respect he gleans from those around him. Quickly after speaking with him, you can soon see why, as he exudes a broad and wide ranging knowledge, shrewd leadership skills and an unshakable commitment to the well-being of his people. He has an air of quiet gravity that gives way to infectious laughter as he tells colorful stories; artfully weaving together the struggles for survival faced by his people and the intricate details of the politics of the region. It has been a lengthy and challenging journey for Aung Sun Myint from his youth in Burma to his current standing as a well-known and respected leader in the Karenni community both inside Burma and along the border.
Ideals such as human rights and rule of law were just abstract concepts to Aung Sun Myint when he first joined the democracy movement in Burma, but even at a young age he recognized that the poverty and brutal oppression he witnessed under the military rule was immoral, and was willing to dedicate his life to stop it. In 1988, the year the military crackdown on student protests led to an estimated 3,000 deaths, Aung Sun Myint was serving as a regional leader for the democracy movement in Karenni State. As a result of his status, at the mere age of 23, he was forced to take what belongings he could carry on his back, leave his family and flee the counrty.
After navigating his way through the mountainous region that is Karenni State, he crossed the border into Thailand. Upon his arrival, Aung Sun Myint tried desperately to mobilize the local and international community to pressure his government to stop the persecution of their ethnic people, but found that his pleas fell on deaf ears. However, he had a determination and resolve that no amount of rejection and hardship could quash. He instead shifted his efforts to pursue further self-development in the hopes that this would give him the knowledge and skills he needed to better serve those victimized by his government.
In 1999, he attended the EarthRights School Burma, which opened his eyes to the obscure and complicated meanings behind terms used all too often; such as human rights and environmental protection, gave him the tools to discuss these issues in a practical and informed manner and linked him with invaluable connections. Immediately following his study, he returned to his work at the Karrenni News Agency for Human Rights where used his newfound knowledge and skills to better analyze and communicate the situation in the region, but he couldn’t forget about the hundreds of thousands of fellow refugees struggling for survival in camps along the Thai-Burma border.
Aung Sun Myint is one of many Karenni refugees who has called the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp a temporary residence after fleeing the turmoil of decades of civil war in Burma. Being only one kilometer away from the Karenni border, the camp has not always been very safe and was subject to several attacks by the Burmese army in the late 90s. The residents find themselves fairly isolated with limited opportunities for education or self development. However, Aung Sun Myint now uses the skills he learned at ERSB to improve their situation.
In 2002, despite the limited resources of a refugee camp and the lack of support from Thai authorities, Aung led a group of 3 ERSB alumni to start the Social Development Center (SDC), which has provided education and trainings for students both in the camp and villagers inside Burma. Each year, during the year-long trainings inside the camp, the 30 or more students are taught a range of subjects including human rights, democracy, non-violent social activism, legal and constitutional systems and environmental issues as well as practical skills like English and computer applications. This has provided opportunities to an otherwise ignored and marginalized community. The school has become such a vital part of the camp that every year local people volunteer their time to contribute manual labor to ensure its ongoing existence.
The impact of the SDC has been exponential, having produced 179 human rights and environmental activists since it’s commencement in 2002. Those activists have gone on to make a variety of accomplishments; some have taken on the dangerous task of traveling inside Burma to document the human rights abuses continuing in Karenni State, while others have become “mobile trainers” who spread the knowledge they learned at SDC to people along the border and inside Burma.
Today, the Social Development Center has evolved to include shorter courses on human rights and environmental issues for refugees and Karenni communities alike in addition to a 6 month Advanced Management Training for graduates to pursue further study. As Aung Sun Myint has said himself, “Based on the success of our graduates and the continued popular support for our program, we think its safe to say that the program has become a vital part of the struggle for the advancement of the Karenni people.”