'This is an Honor for All of Us'

By Nyein Nyein 26 July 2013

An ethnic Kachin woman who co-founded Burma’s largest civil society organization was awarded with this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize, along with four other Asian leaders. Lahpai Seng Raw, a stay-at-home mother turned social worker who helped launch the Rangoon-based Metta Development Foundation, which provides support to displaced people in Burma’s conflict-torn areas, says she was inspired by other Kachin leaders in her 40s. In an interview with The Irrawaddy this week, she said the prestigious award was an achievement that she shared with her colleagues, and added that the honor was a reminder that much work remains to help the people of Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country transitions from military rule.

Question: First of all, can you share your thoughts and feelings about receiving such a prestigious award, which is the Asian equivalent to the Nobel Prize?

Answer: I was amazed when I first heard about it on July 12, while I was traveling to Lashio [in Shan State]. I am deeply honored by this award, but also humbled in the knowledge that I owe it all to the host of wonderful friends, colleagues and partners at home and abroad who have sustained me in my work with their wise counsel, help and encouragement. So I accept this award not as a personal honor, but as a celebration of our collective achievement.

I handed over the Foundation’s leadership role to a new generation two years ago. This honor is a force for our foundation, to the new generation, to keep up the work we are doing. There are many displaced people all over our country, including in my state, Kachin State. As you know, tens of thousands of Kachin refugees are among those who have been displaced in Burma due to unstable ceasefires. As the president [Thein Sein] said, only after negotiations are made and sustainable peace is built can the refugee issue be solved. I reckon the honor comes at just the right time, while our country is on the path of reform. It also highlights that much still needs to be done.

Q: What is your role in the Foundation, after leaving your leadership position in 2011?

A: I have been working in social development for more than 20 years, since 1987. I will keep supporting those individuals or groups who I have been helping. For our country’s reforms, our civil society group must be effective. We still have to keep up a lot. I will serve again on the Foundation’s board of trustees this coming September.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Foundation and its present work?

A: I began providing assistance for community development in 1987. After a decade assisting people in the communities, the Metta Development Foundation was formed in November 1997, several years after ceasefires were made with ethnic armed groups in Burma. It [the Foundation] provides support for community development for the ethnic [communities] in these areas.

Q: What are the specific activities of the Foundation?

A: We support the community’s needs, which involves agricultural awareness, education, health care, and relief and social rehabilitation works. For example, rehabilitation in the post-Nargis [cyclone] period was not only a matter of building shelters, but also raising awareness among teachers and parents about hygiene as well as environmental issues. … We focus on the community’s proposal to implement a project, based on their decision, which is the most beneficial for them.

Q: When you started the Foundation under the previous military regime, what challenges did you face?

A: We were able to travel to areas where international organizations could not go. The locals also cooperated with us. We did not face huge challenges implementing our projects, except for the lack of international aid. If we had secured more foreign aid or technical assistance under the previous government, we would have done more.

Q: When you traveled, were you be able to work in ethnic areas affected by civil wars?

A: Of course, we were able to work in areas where ceasefire agreements were signed. We have also expanded our reach to help people displaced by natural disasters, not only man-made disasters, since 2004. We provided support to the tsunami victims in 2004, to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis victims in the Irrawaddy Delta, and in 2010 to the Cyclone Giri victims in Arakan State. Our support was not limited to a region. When local residents informed us about their need for help, we would reach them.

Q: Were there any other co-founders?

A: Yes, I am one of four founders of the Foundation. Actually, the four of us, we are all women who share the same commitment—two Karen ladies, another Kachin lady and I started it with US$20,000 in funding. We supported the development of agriculture, health care, education and hygiene development. Now the Foundation has expanded through multi-ethnic collaboration, with ethnic Mon and Shan representatives. My current successor is a Shan man, Dr. Sai Sam Kham. He took the leadership role in September 2011.

Q: Do you have any plans for how you’ll use your cash prize?

A:  In keeping with my commitment to work for sustainable peace and a development process that spreads evenly across the country, I pledge to use the prize money for projects that will protect and preserve the Myitsone area in northern Myanmar and that will provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for communities there. We provided agricultural and breeding support as well as forestry preservation assistance before the residents were relocated to new villages. Today the area is under threat from a dam project [currently postponed], which poses grave dangers to its delicate ecosystem, its cultural and religious heritage sites and its communities, displaced and deprived of land and livelihood.

Q: What was the driving force behind your decision to get involved in social development?

A: I was a stay-at-home mom in Myitkyina [the state capital of Kachin State] before getting involved in the field. Many people impressed me—those who were dedicated to our country and weren’t taking advantage of it for their own sakes. I was working with them, including ethnic leaders, and they inspired me. My first role model was the late Maran Brang Seng, who was chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). He encouraged me to become involved in work to improve the situation of destitute Kachin communities along the borderlands of northern Myanmar. Today, I thank him and the KIO leadership for directing me on this path. I would also like to offer my sincere thanks to the government of Myanmar, for opening the door for me to openly and freely initiate programs that would assist conflict-affected communities after the 1994 ceasefire agreements. The active young people in the communities are also a force that keeps me working in the field.

Q: There are many young philanthropists in Burma. What advice would you give to those who are working with civil society groups?

A: I want to encourage other women as well as the youth to try hard on their tasks, whether they perform philanthropic work individually or with a group. The power of civil society groups is significant in moving toward change in our country. The recognition of the RMAF [the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation]to a Myanmar citizen shows that civil society groups in Burma are capable of change. This is an honor for all of us.