Grassroots Leadership Training for Peoples from Burma
06 / 1999
Burma is in a unique position in development. The country has been closed for many years and is now awakening and opening her eyes in amazement to the rapidly changing world. Structural violence at the grassroots level is severe. Agricultural produce and natural resources flow out from the indigenous villages through a variety of exploitative means leaving the villagers with not enough for basic needs and constantly caught up in a cycle of debt. It is crucial that the peoples of Burma develop a critical understanding of the present world situation in S.E. Asia and further afield as well as tools to analyze their local situaltion. Thailand and the Philippines are nearby examples of how the natural, cultural and physical environment is damaged by mainstream development and a consumer culture. In an attempt to prepare some of the peoples of Burma for the inevitable challenges that come in the wake of thirty years of ethnic conflict and with the onslaught of development, Spirit in Education Movement (SEM)embarked on an annual three month training programme based at Wongsanit Ashram, Thailand that aspires to facilitate a vision and the knowledge for alumni to return to their societies and build up grassroots community development activities. Participants all have a commitment for social change work and many are community leaders running small projects often associated with the church. The pilot course in 1996 was for Kachin participants of the Baptist faith. Later courses, again mainly Baptist, included participants from ethnic groups of Mon, Lisu, Wah, Kachin, Karen, Lahu and Shan. In the long term SEM aspires to include Burman’s and Buddhists and to run regular inter-ethnic, inter-religious courses for other oppressed groups in the region.
The training content is carefully designed in keeping with the SEM holistic education philosophy. Firstly, to give a clear idea on the negative and positive aspects of the current development models and to help participants develop their vision for a society they would like to build in the future in their communities.(Think globally). Secondly, to provide skills and inspiration to run grassroots community organisations and thirdly to encourage and integrate the participants’ strong spiritual and cultural wisdom as a base of their activities. (Act locally). The courses include intensive field studies in Thailand and the Philippines visiting NGOs and engaged spirituality projects operating in urban and rural sectors at grass roots level; intellectual debate with leading figures from the NGO world; deep ecology; community building; conflict resolution; participatory community study; project proposal writing; a retreat and internships in areas of special interest. There is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes, successes and challenges of neighbouring countries and to compare the Buddhist, Christian and secular contexts. In the final days of the 1996 training the Kachin participants came up with the following vision:
Vision for the future of Kachin Society
’The vision is a government elected by the people with a core mission to serve the people. To ensure the government truly serves the needs of the general population there will be people participation in decision making at all levels. The whole society will run democratically rather than just a token democratic government.
We foresee a kind of development that will not weaken our traditional and religious values. Our vision is a holistic form of development that will not be driven by greed but have a spiritual base so that material gain will not be the only motivation. We aspire to live in a society that balances religious, social and cultural wisdom with economic and technological gain without harming the environment.
A united people who are aware of their own situation and determined to build up a just, sustainable and democratic society.’
In keeping with SEM philosophy the training does not finish at the end of the course - participants continue learning and follow-up programmes are tailormade to help facilitate moves towards sustainable visions such as the Kachin describe above. Six months after the training resource people visit participant’s communities and help faciltiate community development projects and assist with project proposal writing. Follow-up sessions have revealed how alumni use their experiences as the basis of church teachings and group sessions. Some travel to remote villages where as many as 700 people gather to listen and debate topics such as environmental and cultural degradation. SEM was greatly encouraged to hear stories of how alumni saved a forest area by explaining the long term problems of logging and inspired many other local activities. The majority of alumni are incorporating the teachings into community development projects some of which are receiving outside funding. All projects come out of a participatory process and to avoid dependency aim for self reliance after the first few years. Project areas include: sustainable agriculture, natural resource management, leadership and vocational training, community income generation and micro-credit. SEM facilitates additional programmes to support projects, help with project management, training for trainers, curriculum development and specific technical skills as required. SEM’s commitment to these groups is long term and extensive follow-up activities and exchanges will be ongoing over the next decade.
The situation in Burma is unique. SEM aspires to help the ethnic people deal with some of the challenges they face after 40 years of civil unrest and those that will come to their societies with the inevitable greed and delusion that are the by-products of the present dominating, consumer- oriented world view.
File written after the religion and peace’s workshop held in may 99 in Amsterdam and The Hague, in Holland.
Wongsanit Ashram - PO Box 1, Ongharak Nakonnayok 26120, Thailand - Tel : (66)2 546 15 18 - - Thailand - ashram (@) semsikkha.org