Editor’s note: Mai Thin Yu Mon is the Country Program Coordinator for the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) in Burma. A young and prolific human rights activist, she is an inspiring emerging Chin woman leader at the national and international stage. In the following exclusive interview with the Chinland Guardian, Mai Thin Yu Mon talks about her experiences and hopes for the future of human rights and peace in Burma.
Chinland Guardian: You have recently visited the United States. Can you tell us the purpose of your trip?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: I travelled to the US for a couple of reasons: to participate at the 15th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York and to attend my graduation ceremony from the Bush Institute. I was a participant of the 2015 Liberty & Leadership Forum at the Bush Institute (George W. Bush Presidential Centre) which is a one-year long program. I spent the tail end of my visiting traveling to Dallas, Texas for my capstone week and graduation at the George W.Bush Presidential Centre.
Chinland Guardian: Before we talk about your time at the George W. Bush Center, can you tell us about your experience at the United Nations in New York? What were you able to accomplish, and what do you feel was the most rewarding part for you as an ethnic Chin woman?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: I attended the UNPFII 15 session which took place at the UN headquarters from 9 to 21 May. Representatives from indigenous communities across the world, permanent mission representatives from different member states, and UN agencies attended the forum. At the forum, I made two interventions: one on behalf of Global Indigenous Youth Caucus on Education and another on behalf of Myanmar indigenous peoples on the situation on the lack of protection for indigenous communities, and armed attacks taking place in areas inhabited by indigenous communities across the country.
Also, I participated as a panelist at two side events at the forum in my capacity as a CHRO representative. The first one was organized by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and I shared “Militarization in indigenous communities in Chin State, Burma”. The second one was organized by Asia Indigenous Women’s Network and the topic I shared was “Women’s Initiative to Peace & Conflict resolution.”
I was elected as a Southeast Asian focal person for Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. (Click the link to view a video clip: Mai Thin Yu Mon making a statement on behalf of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus during the 15th session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in 2016)
This was my first time at the Forum and I take that as a learning process. It was really great to learn the situation of different indigenous communities from around the world. The network that I got there would also be really helpful in the future for my involvement with the larger indigenous peoples’ movement going forward.
The most rewarding part was that I feel very priviledged to have had a chance to share with the world about a story from an unheard corner of Chin State where very brave local Chin women risked their own well-being fighting against sexual voilence committed against their fellow Chin women by soldiers of the Burma Army. Zotung and Matupi women courageously took to the streets to denounce the rape of a Chin woman and demanded justice on her behalf by risking arrest and criminal conviction for peaceful protest. From the floor of the United Nations, I remember their faces, their resilience and strength. This gives me a sense of great satisfaction and renewed engergy in my work with the Chin Human Rights Organization.
Chinland Guardian: You were also part of the official lobby delegation to Washington DC. Whom did you meet and what are your impressions of the level of understanding and symphathy with regards to Burma in general and the Chin context in particular?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: We had quite a lot of meetings with important and influencial people on Burma issues. We met with Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rgiths and Labor at the US State Department, US Institute of Peace, Amnesty International USA, Office of Senator Ben Cardin, National Security Advisor from Senator Cory Gardner office, President Libby Liu from Radio Free Asia, Burma Working Group from DC hosted by NED, OSF and Project 2049 Institute.
All the people we met congratulated Burma on the election results and the startup of democratic transition. For a few, they are too optimistic about the change. However, a lot of the people we met with have a good understanding of the existing challenges, especially ethnic problems and the peace process, ongoing lack of respect and protection of human rights and the role that the Burma Army still plays in the current transition.
Chinland Guardian: You gave media interviews to the Washington Post and Radio Free Asia Burmese segment. What was your main message?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: My main message with the media was that we truly welcome the newly formed democratic government. However, there are still many challenges in the country to have a successful democratic transition. Lack of protection against ethnic and religious minorities, and little progress on the human rights front, especially for ethnic and religious minorities. The core message was the fact that no real democratic transition can be accomplished without resolving the deep-rooted problems facing the ethnic people. The root causes must be addressed as an integral part of the peace or political processes. (Click the link to view a video clip: Mai Thin Yu Mon talks about religious freedom and prospects for peace in Burma/Myanmar on Radio Free Asia Burmese Program in Washington DC)
Chinland Guardian: Now to the main part of your trip. Former First Lady Laura Bush mentioned you by name and expressed her admiration for the work that you are doing to promote religious freedom and indigenous rights during her speech at your graduation ceremony in Dallas. What was it like for you? (Click the link to view a video clip: Former First Lady Laura Bush applauds CHRO Country Program Coordinator Mai Thin Yu Mon for her work on pluralism and diversity in Burma)
Mai Thin Yu Mon: To be honest, it was a really big surprise. It was a big acknowledgement and I felt truly honored and encouraged. It made me realize on a different level about how many people from half way around the world truly care about or are willing to support us to give more meanings to what we are working for and what we are doing to better our people and our country.
Chinland Guardian: In what ways do you think your expereince at the Bush Institute and your experience at the United Nations will help your future work on human rights?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: They would all be invaluable assets on many levels. The knowledge and experiences have definitely better equipped me to be more effective and instilled in me greater confidence and determination to meet any challenges we face in our line of work as human rights defenders.
Chinland Guardian: Tell us about your experience of engament in human rights work and how you became inspired and become involved. Where else have you travelled and for what purposes? And what are the main things that you are doing now?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: The CHRO provided me the opportunity to closely engage in the human rights field and to hone my knowledge and skills in human rights. The more I become deeply involved, the more I realize that respect for human rights underlies everything and is the key to solving all the problems that we face in the world today – from the issue of poverty to armed conflict to climate change.
My job with the CHRO takes me to different countries and to different regional and international forums and arenas. I have been to different countries in Europe, Canada, the US and several countries in the Asian region.
Currently, I oversee in-country programs that the Chin Human Rights Organizaiton is operating in the country as the Country Program Coordinator. We have core thematic areas of work centering on Human Rights and Religious Freedom, Environment and Indigenous Rights, Peace and Good Governance, Labor and Migration and Refugee Protection.
Chinland Guardian: Any message to our audience? Especially for young people who are looking for a better future?
Mai Thin Yu Mon: For young people, I would like to say: “Never underestimate yourself”. Whatever you do has an impact on you yourself, your family, your community and your society and at last the world. Do what you truly love to do and things you believe in, yet do it with conviction whatever you do. Always be alert of the opportunities that are around you. And, also remember that you will not always be young; therefore, make a good use of your youthfulness.#