Selkirk College Student Helping Work Towards Peace in Burma
Htoo Paw grew up in an entirely different reality than her life today on Selkirk College’s Castlegar Campus and she’s determined to ensure young women in Burma are not subjected to a similar plight.
With the assistance from the Nelson Refugee Committee, Htoo Paw arrived to the Kootenays in June, 2012 from Burma—also known as Myanmar—where she was living in a refugee camp. The move to Canada came after 10 years of living in challenging conditions on the border of Burma and Thailand where she fled as a teenager to escape violence in her small village in eastern Burma.
“Growing up we just thought it was normal for the Burmese troops to come into the village, kill the people, torture people and force people to do work for them,” Htoo Paw says. “That was our whole world and we had no idea that anything was different in other places.”
Htoo Paw will be speaking about her life at a Mir Peace Café on October 30 called Transformative Justice: Toward a Sustainable Peace in Burma which begins at 7 p.m. at the Mir Centre for Peace on the Castlegar Campus.
Turning Challenges Into Opportunity
Burma is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by India, China, Laos and Thailand. After its independence from Britain in 1948, Burma faced decades of ethnic strife and violent civil wars. Though the military dictatorship in Burma ended in 2011, the country Htoo Paw grew up in as a Karen ethnic minority was often brutal.
At her mother’s urging, Htoo Paw fled to the overcrowded refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of Burmese minorities lived in challenging conditions. It was in the refugee camp that Htoo Paw got involved in the Karen Women’s Organization and began to work towards improving life for young people inside and outside of the camps.
“The young people need to become more aware of their rights so they gain more confidence to work for their freedom and human rights in the future,” Htoo Paw says of her motivation to get involved. “I realized that in order to work more effectively for the future I needed more academic skills. Women are not treated equally in Burma, so when you compare yourself to the male-dominated political movement you need lots of skills to get recognition.”
Though she was involved in important work, Htoo Paw realized if she was going to make a larger impact beyond the borders of the barbed wire enclosures where she spent a decade of her life, a change was needed. Applying for refugee status in Canada, it took three years before Htoo Paw was accepted.
“I decided that at some point in my life I want to live in a country where I won’t be in fear of being sexually abused or persecuted or killed,” she says.
Building On Skills at Selkirk College
As part of her refugee claim, Htoo Paw indicated a desire to further her education. She started by enrolling in Selkirk College’s English Language Program where she excelled. Last September she took the next step and enrolled in Selkirk’s Peace Studies Program.
This past summer, Htoo Paw returned to Burma to visit her homeland and further build on her Peace Studies Program education by putting theories into practice. Since 2010, Burma has embarked on a series of reforms to direct the country towards a liberal democracy. With international eyes and aid part of the equation, the world is watching the process with interest.
Working alongside internationally recognized Karen leader Zapporah Sein for two weeks, Htoo Paw had an opportunity to get a closer look at what has taken place in Burma since she left.
“It’s not getting better, even though in the eyes of the international community it might seem things are getting a little bit better because of the political dialogue and the peace process,” she says. “But on the ground nothing has changed much.”
In the workshops she led, Htoo Paw spoke about transformative justice. Using a systems approach, transformative justice is concerned with the root causes of crime and strife. Seeking solutions, transformative justice educates and seeks comprehensive outcomes. Transformative justice is ultimately about relationships, addressing injustices through leaning rather than through violence or punishment.
It was during these sessions that Htoo Paw found there was an opportunity to make a difference.
“We have lived under the criminal justice system for so long, we thought that was the only justice system,” she says. “I spent time speaking to the women about alternative forms of justice and also the injustice that women have faced under the Burmese government. When you talk to young women who have a lot of energy, it gives you hope. It really refuelled my energy coming back for my second year of studies at Selkirk College.”
Ultimately the chance for real change will rest with political leaders, but Htoo Paw says dialogue at the grassroots level is where it begins.
“When you talk to the people in the villages, they have a complete different view than the leaders,” she says. “If the political leaders don’t come to speak with the communities, then the peace can’t become real on the ground. The process must be inclusive and the people’s advice must be heard, but they fail to recognize this.”
Creating Dialogue in the Kootenays
At the Thursday evening Peace Café, Htoo Paw will be speaking about her time spent in Burma this summer and the continued struggle towards peace.
“It’s not hopeless, it will get better,” she says. “When the community-based organizations become a little bit stronger it will make a big difference.”
When Htoo Paw completes her two year Peace Studies Program diploma, she plans to work towards her BA at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg where she will enrol in the Peace & Conflict Transformation Studies Program.
“Working for human rights is now part of my life and will be for the long term,” says the 31-year-old.
When she reflects on her life now, Htoo Paw says she will be forever grateful to the people who have been instrumental in this latest chapter of her journey.
“The people of the Kootenays have been very supportive of us and I am very appreciative,” she says. “It has been a good beginning for a life in Canada.”
All are invited to the Thursday Peace Café at the Mir Centre for Peace. Learn more about Mir Peace Cafes: http://selkirk.ca/mir-centre-for-peace/events-workshops/peace-cafes