- She began to involve herself in relief work for internally displaced peoples in the Myanmar-China border in 1987. Moving to Bangkok in 1990, she then worked as development officer-in-charge in ROKA, the Kachin Independence Organization’s humanitarian wing.
- She established, in military-ruled Burma, the NGO called Metta Development Foundation. The organization addressed the problems of population displacement and emergency relief in the country’s conflict zones.
- Under her leadership since 1997, Metta has established over 600 farmer field schools, trained more than 50,000 farmers in effective farm and forest management, built schools and training centres in early childhood education, introduced community water and sanitation systems, and funded technical support for livelihood projects.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her quietly inspiring and inclusive leadership—in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict—to regenerate and empower damaged communities and to strengthen local NGOs in promoting a non-violent culture of participation and dialogue as the foundation for Myanmar’s peaceful future.”
Myanmar is a country caught between its past and the future. The past is one of decades of ethnic strife in the world’s longest- running civil war, exacerbated by fifty years of a brutal military dictatorship that plunged the country into isolation, turning it into one of the least developed in the world. With the general elections in 2010, Myanmar has taken its first uncertain steps towards a more open and democratic future, by ending its isolation and instituting a civilian government. The past, however, is not quite past, and in creating its future Myanmar is faced with complex and difficult challenges.
A sixty-four-year-old widow and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, Lahpai Seng Raw is at the forefront in facing these challenges. The daughter of a state-level public official and a teacher, she studied psychology at Yangon University. As a student, she personally experienced the military’s abusive rule when she was detained on the suspicion that she had communications with her brother who was in the Kachin insurgency. In 1987 she began to involve herself in relief work for internally displaced peoples in the Myanmar-China border. Moving to Bangkok in 1990, she then worked as development officer-in-charge in ROKA, the Kachin Independence Organization’s humanitarian wing. In 1997, with the help of faith-based groups and non-government organizations (NGOs), Seng Raw took the bold step of establishing, in military-ruled Burma, the NGO called Metta Development Foundation. Metta addressed the problems of population displacement and emergency relief in the country’s conflict zones, starting in northern Myanmar, where fighting between Kachin rebels and government forces had already displaced over seventy thousand people.
Seng Raw’s primary concern has always been that Metta build trust among all stakeholders through joint efforts in comprehensive, participative, long-term interventions. In agriculture, it has established more than six hundred farmer field schools (FFS), capacitating over fifty thousand farmers in improved farm and forest management. Metta also established schools and training centers in early childhood education. It introduced community-managed water, health and sanitation systems, and other health care projects. Metta provided funding and technical support for a wide range of livelihood projects. In 2008 when tropical cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar—the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history—Metta‘s leadership, reach, and effectiveness was confirmed as it took the lead in a massive rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development effort that covered large sections of the country and benefited hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims. Under Seng Raw’s leadership, Metta has grown to be the largest NGO in Myanmar, with a staff of six hundred branches outside Yangon, and three research and training centers. Its various programs have reached over six hundred thousand people in 2,352 communities.
Working in a war-torn and socially fractured country, Seng Raw has shown both amazing courage and a unique ability to work with both government and rebels. She fully appreciates that in addressing conflict and instability, it is essential to build a foundation of stable, self-reliant communities. With this conviction, she has advocated an inclusive peace and reconciliation process in Myanmar. She has herself been an example of inclusiveness, and an embodiment of what metta means, “loving kindness.” A Kachin Christian—hence, twice a member of the minority—she has demonstrated tact and openness as a leader, working harmoniously with various groups across ethnic, religious, and political divides. After serving as Metta’s executive director for thirteen years, she has deliberately relinquished the position to empower a new generation of leaders. But she remains active in Myanmar’s NGO community, and in peace and development efforts.
In electing Lahpai Seng Raw to receive the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her quietly inspiring and inclusive leadership—in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict—to regenerate and empower damaged communities and to strengthen local NGOs in promoting a non-violent culture of participation and dialogue as the foundation for Myanmar’s peaceful future.
First of all, I wish to offer my heartfelt thanks to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and the Board of Trustees for acknowledging my work and including me in this year’s illustrious list of awardees. In a way, my work has come full circle with this award. Soon after founding the Metta Development Foundation, in 1999 I came to the Philippines to study the Farmer Field School programme, and it became a major cornerstone for our community-based programmes. So I think it is very fitting that I am being honoured for work that had its beginnings in the Philippines over a decade ago.
I am deeply honoured by this award, but also humbled in the knowledge that I owe it all to the host of wonderful friends, family, 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 honour, but as a celebration of our collective achievement.
I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the government of Myanmar, all ethnic leaders and communities for opening the door for me to initiate, openly and freely, programmes that would assist conflict- or natural disaster-affected communities across the country. I first embarked on the ‘development’ journey quite inadvertently, when in 1987 the late Maran Brang Seng, Chairman of the Kachin Independence Organisation, persuaded me to become involved in improving the situation of destitute people. Today, I thank him and the KIO leadership for directing me on this path.
Sadly, as is well known, the ceasefire with Kachin was not sustained. After seventeen years, fighting resumed in June 2011 with the result that villagers fleeing the conflict now make up a population of nearly one hundred thousand displaced persons. There are now over half a million refugees and internally displaced people around Myanmar and, as with all displaced and vulnerable people, the health and humanitarian needs are great.
Without lasting peace, there can be no real development. But the political will and the current dialogue among ethnic, national and government leaders provide hope for peaceful co-existence and harmony among peoples of different backgrounds. Thus I will continue to be involved, wherever possible, in coordinating efforts to ensure that the voices of the common people are heard in the ongoing peaceful transformation process.
My Magsaysay award, coming at this crucial period in our nation’s history, will—I trust—help draw national and international attention to the efforts to find lasting solutions for genuine peace that will include all peoples and faiths. The cause of democratic transition is greatly encouraged by your compassionate concern.
Cheju kaba sai.