Change Can be a Reflective Choice: reflections on an internship with SWAN

25 September 2014

Sana Ahmad reflects on her internship with the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and her journey into the field of human rights.  

Writing about one of the most interesting experiences in one’s life is quite an exciting task, yet daunting at the same time. To be able to go back and revist the engagement with emotions, ideas, understandings and learnings that one has lived through during this experience needs a tactfulness that can only be mastered over a considerable period of time, I believe. And as a young learner and researcher, my journey has just begun.

As I reflect over my visit in Thailand, strings of thoughts possess my mind, keeping a line of continuity without abstract interruptions, of which the writer Virginia Woolf has been so indicative of. The dominant thoughts that I am engaged in, consist mostly of my sustaining interest in the neighboring country Burma and the situations the citizens are entailed in due to the state’s long ongoing civil war with its own people. Being a human rights student and coming from a background of working with the voluntary sector, the opportunity to be able to go to Burma and learn about the people in their own words was something that I had been looking out for quite sometime.

It was at the Oxford Forum for International Development (2014), where I finally realized that it was time that I acted upon my beliefs and utilized my ability to make a change. Listening to Ms. Caroline’s Cox inspiring words about exploring the terrain of possibilities that all of us need to indulge in so as to be able to make a much needed impact, I, like many others in the auditorium was inspired by the potential that we are all endowed with. What also rang a bell with me is the fact that this potential has to be used collaboratively with and for people who actually need this change.

It was thus inevitable for me to get in touch with HART and learn more about the advocacy work that they have been pursuing in different corners of the world. Interestingly, one of the focus countries happened to be Burma, and I jumped at the opportunity to take up an internship with an organized association of Shan women from Burma in Chiang Mai, a city in the North of Thailand. Why this possibility seemed even more inviting and significant was the due to my persistent interest in learning about the local people of Burma through their own voice, which has unfortunately remained ambushed in the face of the international aid work.

Charles R. Hale, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin has an interesting insight into the scope and challenges of activist research in his reflections on the revolutionary politics in Latin America and that which is seemingly plausible to my research interest in Burma. His ideas vacillate between the cultural critique as well as an objective social science so as to “embrace a more expansive and transformative political vision.” A critical scrutiny like this becomes even more pertinent when the positionality of actors in the peace making and development process as well as its sustainability is being questioned.

Engaging with the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the local ethnic communities around the border towns of Thailand and Burma, what I learned was that the local people need to be heard. The process of change needs to be a process of reflection which should be in accordance with the needs and perspective of those who want the change. Sustainable development which earmarks the 21st century evolution conundrum, cannot be patronized with the situated frameworks of knowledge. We, as researchers, activists and even activist-researchers have to indulge in the act of exploring, living the other’s lives, and have a sense of ‘chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star’ (Nietzsche, 1883).

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