Ja Nan was born in Myitkyina, Kachin State, the daughter of a Baptist minister. She is Director of Shalom (Nyein) Foundation, which aims to establish a just and peaceful society for all people in Myanmar.
I grew up in Myitkyina back in the early 1960s, during wartime. We were safe because we were inside the city but couldn’t go outside the city limits. My father is a Baptist minister and has dedicated his life to achieving a peaceful community.
I would serve tea to guests at our home and all I would hear was “our house was burnt down” or “my son needs to go to school but he’s been recruited by the military” or “my daughter was raped by soldiers in front of us”. Even though I didn’t physically experience suffering I heard about it all the time.
Later I moved to Yangon to study law. I was shadowing a lawyer representing a poor lady from the delta whose land had been confiscated. She would travel to Yangon for the court hearing but the court just gave excuses. So I learnt that the law did not bring justice to the powerless.
Immediately after graduating from the law school in 1987 I joined the Insein Theological Institute. In my second year the 88 uprising took place, and we saw shooting from the library. The seminary shut down and I started to think about studying abroad.
In 1989 I moved to Philadelphia in the US to study music and the bible, supported by the family of a missionary friend of my father’s. I started hanging out with Americans who were about five years younger than me. At 22 I was learning to be a teenager.
My college vice principal would ask “So Ja Nan, how was your day?”. I would always answer “fine” until one day she said, “That’s it. I don’t want to hear any more ‘fine’.”
One thing I valued was the learning culture. I got to think critically for the first time. As a teenager I was timid and stayed at home doing crochet. But my time in the US changed me.
My college vice principal rented out rooms and at dinner she would always ask “So Ja Nan, how was your day?”. I would always answer “fine” until one day she said, “That’s it. I don’t want to hear any more ‘fine’.” From her I learnt to express myself.
I returned to Myitkyina to teach. My father started the Shalom foundation in 2000. In 2003 I became a full time employee, and in 2014 I became the head of the organisation. My dad had initiated a fellowship program supporting the negotiations between different ethnic groups. The religious and ethnic leaders were represented on a platform in which they could share their experiences and design strategies to support each other.
I went to the US for a second Master’s in Peace Studies. After I came back we started to become more strategic. We didn’t want just to respond to needs but to develop a more holistic approach to peace building. Justice and relationship building became the two central aspects of our work.
I would serve tea to guests and all I would hear was “our house was burnt down” or “my son has been recruited” or “my daughter was raped by soldiers”.
Shalom is a non-religious, non-ethnic organisation. In the beginning our organisation was seen as religious, as Kachin, but now our staff are drawn from all four main religions and are ethnically diverse.
Of our many projects a long term one is Interfaith. One clear characteristic of our society is division. We are divided over ethnicity, religion, gender and this is a consequence of military rule: the more divided a people the less powerful they are.
Even though we haven’t yet had a fully satisfactory result from the peace process I think we have managed to keep it going. We are playing a facilitation role between different armed groups, as well as between armed groups and government actors. International support is very important.
In 2008 I was awarded a Chevening Fellowship to do a three-month course in the UK called ‘What Makes Democracy Work?’. It helped me understand issues in the constitutional referendum happening at the time, and particularly looking at it through an ethnic lens. Many were opposed to the revised constitution and the 2010 election but we argued for the need to engage with it.
I am so sick of the war and of all the ways we have tried and failed to bring about change. People have taken up arms, there’s been non-violent struggle and this hasn’t got us anywhere. We need to engage and create change through the system. That’s the message we send to the exile groups and government bodies who support these campaign groups from outside.
We know there are no immediate results. We pragmatically tell ourselves it’s going to be a long process because the most established institution in this country is the military. Whether we like it or not we need to give them credit and a peaceful exit. The first success was the exit of Than Shwe in 2010. If we had put pressure on him we probably wouldn’t have had an election.
I am so sick of the war and of all the ways we have tried and failed to bring about change.
In this coming term of the new government we don’t expect there will be a complete change. This government will still struggle with the military because the military will still be sitting in government. I hope what comes out of the National Ceasefire Agreement is a political dialogue which will some day change the constitution. We need to continue to have patience, but I am optimistic.
We are very grateful to the British Council for creating a space for learning and engaging with each other and with ideas from abroad. Programmes such as Sone Sie and Amatae have helped us and other local organisations become more professional. They provide the resources, skills and knowledge that local communities or organisations do not have, and I think that is such a helpful thing.