The Criticality and Potential of Local Human Rights Educators in Rakhine State, by Benjamin Steiner

Written September 2018 by Benjamin Steiner, AC4 Graduate Student Fellow, upon returning from fieldwork in Myanmar. 

Photo: Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar

To many in Rakhine State, Myanmar, “Rohingya” is a pseudonym — a social construction — applied to Bengali illegal immigrants living in a state that rightfully belongs to its namesake Rakhine ethnicity. As evidence, they cite the imposing ruins of the Arakan (Rakhine) empire, first conquered by the Burmese in the 18th century. Rakhine nationalism is further buoyed by shoddy anti-Rohingya propaganda, a vocal radical monkhood, and a notoriously evasive central government. Within this contentious and volatile context there operates a single local NGO which attempts to foster social cohesion between self-identifying Rohingya and Rakhine individuals, the Peace and Development Initiative (PDI). As a Human Rights education consultant with the support of AC4, I was offered the opportunity to work directly with the teacher corps at PDI’s flagship institution, the Akyab Institute of Social Studies (AISS), to prepare its teachers to teach Human Rights at PDI’s various institutions. My experience there reinforced the criticality of placing local perspectives at the center of any education development project, and the immense potential of local Human Rights educators, particularly in states with high ethnic nationalism.

It wouldn’t require any Myanmar expertise to predict some underlying animosity towards foreigners meddling in a conflict, which many self-identifying Rakhine view as existential in nature. More striking was the animosity toward other ethnic Myanmar ethnic minorities. Ko Hlaing (whose real name I did not use) was originally from Kachin State, Myanmar. From my perspective, his experiences were similar to many Rakhine; he had been forced into child soldiering in his early teenage years, his state had suffered under protracted violence at the hands of the government, and he spoke some Rakhine. He had been hired at AISS to teach Peace and Conflict studies. When he tried to challenge his predominantly Rakhine students’ perspectives on the Rohingya crisis, he was met with an intense backlash. In class, his students questioned his understanding of the conflict and accused him of being an interloper. On his students’ Facebook pages, he was the subject of vitriol and threats. Although he eventually made progress, it was at the cost of his own mental health, and after a 9-month struggle he left the program and AISS lost one of its most experienced educators.

In contrast, Kyaw Hsan, the organization’s director, is Rakhine. Kyaw Hsan’s local credibility allowed him to have candid conversations about the Rohingya crisis. Over Myanmar brand beers and seafood, he liked to tell the story of a student telling him that — borrowing from terminology he used at AISS — “Rohingya is a social construction.” Kyaw Hsan shot back that if Rohingya was socially constructed, then so was Rakhine. He explained that no ethnicity is “real” in a literal sense, and only exists as long as people identify with it. The student was perceptive, and Kyaw Hsan proudly explained that he heard the student parroting the explanation to other AISS students. Other ethnic Rakhine teachers at AISS had similar experiences and the staff at PDI agreed that having a Rakhine teacher corps was essential to the organization’s success in the state. So much so, that PDI opted to hire its new teacher cohort directly from its mostly-Rakhine AISS graduates.

Photo: Piloting modules with AISS teachers

I had the privilege to provide the pedagogical and Human Rights education training to the incoming batch of Rakhine teachers for PDI. Through their year spent at AISS, many of them identified as Human Rights defenders and held views that fell well outside the range of what was typical in the region. I accompanied them to pilot Human Rights education modules in a series of sweltering monastic schools in the region and was impressed with the courage they demonstrated in presenting such critical and controversial material in their communities. Although it is possible that Kachin teachers, Burmese teachers, or even foreign teachers, could have ultimately had similar results, Rakhine teachers had a window into the perceptions of their peers that outsiders — even other Myanmar outsiders — did not possess. Although Rakhine State offers an extreme case of ethnic-nationalism, the lessons therein have implications for education development projects in conflict and post-conflict contexts; particularly, the centrality of local perspectives in education development and the enormous potential of local Human Rights educators.


Read “Centralizing Universality in Human Rights Education for Rakhine State, Myanmar” by Benjamin Steiner: here.

Author: Benjamin Steiner is in a Masters program on International Education Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. With the AC4 Fellowship, he travelled to Myanmar, implementing teacher trainings for Human Rights instructors in the Rahkine State in cooperation with the Peace and Development Initiative (PDI).

Photos provided by author.

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