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ျမန္မာစာမ်က္ႏွာ | Myanmar Peace Monitor
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Staying at the YMCA Fostering Community in a Conflict Zone

Tourists visiting Myitkyina are often directed to the 58-year-old YM CA by dated Lonely Planet guides that list the “Y” as the only budget accommodation in the Kachin state capital.

Guests at the “Y”, who pay an affordable 6,000 kyat a night, may not realize they are supporting YM CA activities, including courses aimed at helping young people develop political awareness.

Tourists normally head to Myitkyina to take the legendary boat trip down the Ayeyarwady River to Katha, about a day’s journey downstream from Bhamo, or if they have the time, to Mandalay. The collapse in June 2011 of the 17-year-old ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw has resulted in a series of clashes, with fighting recently near Bhamo.

The conflict has displaced more than 100,000 civilians, most of whom have sought shelter in camps established for them, including at Janmai, just outside Myitkyina.

A Focus on Sustainability

Despite the recent fighting, Howng Lum, a Myitkyina native who has worked for the YM CA for 11 years, anticipates the same number of foreign tourists as in previous years: a scant 20 to 30 a month. Howng Lum, who works seven days a week as the YM CA program secretary, night manager and English teacher, is quick to repeat the organization’s mandate, “profit goes directly to the community.”

The YM CA has a long history in Myanmar. Its presence in the country began in 1897 during the British colonial regime when the first branch was established in Yangon. It mainly served the British community but after Myanmar regained its independence, the Myanmar National Council of YM CAs was formed in 1951 and the organization’s leadership and focus shifted from European to Myanmar.

The Myitkyna YM CA is operated by and for the community with little direction from either the National Council or the international YM CA headquarters in Geneva. The Myitkyina YM CA choose to stop receiving funding from the National Council in 2010 and is the only financially independent branch in Myanmar.

Howng Lum says navigating the National Council’s bureaucracy was challenging. “There is limited internet [in Myitkyina] and in order to receive funding we had to submit applications by mail. It would take three of four weeks to receive funding for a small project,” he said.

Instead, the Myitkyina YM CA team of 12 employees focussed on business development to generate funding from the guest house, as well as its community hall and restaurant, which are available for rent.

“Starting a small business is hard, but by putting basic foundations in place we can receive a regular income and our activities can be sustainable,” said Howng Lum. The activities include computer, karate, English and Japanese courses as well as a weekly community discussion group. There are English courses every day and participants may use the YM CA’s library.

Course participants are expected to pay a solidarity membership fee of 5,000 kyat for each three month session, though Howng Lum is prepared to waive the fee for those who cannot afford it. However, the weekly discussion group is free and open to anyone, though participants tend to be aged between 18 and 30. Notwithstanding the Christian roots of the YM CA, Howng Lum describes his organization’s attitude as: “If you’re from Myitkyina, you are Myitkyina.”

Empowerment Opportunities

Myitkyina is a religiously diverse city with Gorkhali, Sikh, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist and Buddhist communities. Howng Lum says of the grassroots solidarity in Myitkyina: “The [Myanmar] government doesn’t help us so we try to help each other; religious violence is not a problem here.”

The English discussion group each Saturday attracts about 30 people, including NGO staff, lawyers, workers, company owners, students and public servants, who focus on “hot issues.” Recent topics of discussion have included the sectarian violence in Rakhine State, the conflict and internal displacement in Kachin State and the controversial Myitsone dam project, about 45 kilometres north of Myitkyina, on which President U Thein Sein suspended work in September 2011 to national acclaim but about which there are reports it will be revived by its Chinese backer.

Howng Lum says the weekly discussion group has inspired participants to become politically active. In 2011, after a discussion about the Myitsone dam, a group of discussion group participants held a protest at the Aung Mye Tha esettlement camp to condemn the project’s displacement of 2,600 people. Despite the suspension of the project, young activists in Myitkyina continue to monitor the dam site, where the project’s Chinese backer is reported to be maintaining a work camp.

Although the YM CA did not directly organize the protest or its employees take part, Howng Lum says the discussion group supported the organizers.

“At our discussion group, I ask participants ‘What are your resources?, What can you do to make change?’,”

Howng Lum said, explaining that he and other facilitators seek to empower participants to organize their own activities.

With reminders every- where of the conflict in Kachin State, there is much to worry about in Myitkyina and the discussion group can be an outlet for concern. “Young people need a place to talk about the conflicts,” said Howng Lum.

Last year participants organized a clothing drive for internally displaced persons at the Maina camp, about 30 minutes by car from Myitkyina. Discussion group participants have also been teaching basic English, showing films and holding discussions at the Maina camp.

“We held an interesting discussion about the shared experience of the Kachin people and the Aboriginals in Australia. We talked about the experience of being a minority,” said Howng Lum.

Howng Lum also incorporates political discussion in his daily English classes and often asks foreign YM CA guests to join. “We want to share our experiences on the ground and hear the perspective of foreigners,” he said.

The security situation means that Kachin State may not receive many tourists this high season. But those who do make the journey to the state’s diverse and fascinating capital can expect to meet a few eager, young English speakers ready to strike a conversation about their country’s political climate.

“Young people search for political awareness,” said Howng Lum, perhaps reflecting on his experience of growing up in far northern Myanmar, “and they need support to make change.”