As the terrifying scent of gunpowder disappears day by day in Karen State, the region is rebuilding after decades of civil war.
The challenge of development is complex, but for Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, director of the Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG), the focus should start at a local level, with efforts to educate and empower women in the southeastern state.
“Women play an important role in development,” she said. “If a woman is educated, she can improve her family’s well-being. We believe we can promote development by empowering women, who can then better help their families, which will improve the community, and then the city, the whole region and even the country.”
The ethnic Karen leader told The Irrawaddy that after decades of rights abuses and civil war against the national government, Karen people had been shut out from development.
“Karen people, especially in remote areas of Karen State, have fallen behind in every sector, including education, health and the economy, due to the civil wars here and longtime oppression,” she said. “That’s why we’ve decided to focus on educating women about health and training them for job opportunities, so they can actively participate in civil society.”
Susanna, from a Christian family, was inspired to become an humanitarian activist after years participating in her church’s youth programs and charity activities. She said her parents also encouraged her activism.
“When we were young, my parents would take in children from remote areas, like at a foster home, to give them an education,” she said.
“At the time, when I was younger, I didn’t understand why we needed to do this. But as the children grew up, some of them became teachers and some of them became immigration officers, and they were giving back to their region. That made me realize that education is such an important aspect of development, both at the regional and national level.”
After earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology at Yangon University in Rangoon, Susanna started working for World Vision Myanmar, an international Christian relief organization.
“Back then, working for a development organization or an NGO wasn’t very popular in our country,” she said. “There were only a few international NGOs, like World Vision, working in Burma.”
After starting with administrative work, she later became a project manager and the head of a department at the NGO. In doing so, she had opportunities to attend leadership workshops and earn a master’s degree in NGO leadership from Eastern University in the United States.
In 2003, still working at World Vision, she started volunteering for the newly founded KWAG, the women’s group, which was founded by Karen women activists to empower women in the war-torn state and delta region.
“When we started KWAG, we were just working with our bare hands, without any funding or assistance from other organizations, which was a challenge,” she said. “We used the money from our own pockets.”
After some tough years, the group’s financial challenges eased with help from interested partners in the local and international communities. They received assistance in training sessions to promote child protection and education, as well as microfinance programs for families and emergency relief for disaster-affected areas.
When Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta region in 2008, Susanna led an emergency relief team to resettle displaced families, helping to rebuild their homes and devastated schools.
During those efforts, she learned about the human trafficking of local girls to other cities and countries, including China and Thailand. With help from Burmese and Chinese authorities, she started following some of the human traffickers, eventually bringing three girls back to Burma who had been taken across the Chinese border. This experience inspired her to start an anti-human trafficking project with the government.
In 2010, she decided to dedicate herself full time to KWAG by becoming the group’s executive director.
“As our work grew and the needs [of the community] increased, I realized I needed to do more than volunteering,” she said. “The 12 years of experience I got at World Vision helped me in my work with the local people.”
She also got involved with the Women’s Organizations Network of Myanmar (WON), an umbrella group of 27 local women’s organizations, as well as the Women’s Protection Technical Working Group, a network of 50 organizations in Burma that collaborates with UN agencies and international NGOs on advocacy for women’s protection.
In 2012, Susanna became the first woman from Burma to win a humanitarian award from InterAction, a US-based international NGO that focuses on disaster relief and sustainable development.
“The humanitarian award from InterAction makes our organization, the Karen people and our country better known among the international community,” Susanna said. “I was so proud, on behalf of the Karen people and the country, to receive this award.”
But despite these successes, Susanna, like many NGO workers in Burma, has struggled to get the national government’s official recognition.
Registering her organization has proven to be a major challenge, she said. After Cyclone Nargis she tried to register as an emergency relief group, but years went by with no result. Now she is trying to register again as a local NGO for development projects, though recent changes in registration rules have complicated the process.
“We’re very confused because we have tried to register but we can’t get [national] approval yet, even though the township and district levels have already passed us,” she said. “For us, it’s about more than registration; we want approval and acknowledgement from the government.”
“We’re not alone; many other organizations face similar registration difficulties,” she added. “Still, the process has gotten somewhat smoother because laws for registering local NGOs have been enacted.”
Years ago, social work was even more challenging, she said.
“For example, we couldn’t get direct access to the cyclone victims right after the disaster,” she said. “And back then, locals were even afraid to speak with us. It was hard to build trust with them. We were also afraid to speak to the media and share our experiences.”
Susanna had an opportunity to discuss her views about social activism when she and other activists met US President Barack Obama during his visit to Burma in November.
As the country opens up to the world after decades of military rule, she said she hopes local social workers can better help the Karen people.
“Our work is going better than before,” she said. “The authorities now understand what we’re doing, and the locals understand we’re trying to help them, so they trust us. We can now communicate freely with the media to report our knowledge.
“I hope we can continue working to develop our society and our country more freely, and effectively, going forward.”