“Through COVID, coup and so many other constraints, we are totally committed to serving the young people of Myanmar”, says YMCA Myanmar’s National General Secretary Maung Maung Win. We spoke to three inspiring young people at the heart of the YMCA Myanmar network, who are powering positive change in their communities. Read the context and the stories of Mindy, Moon and Kaung Khant.
The YMCA has operated in Myanmar (formerly Burma) since 1897, and reaches some 120,000 people every year. It runs 31 offices across the country, with 336 staff and 120 volunteers. The National Council of YMCAs in Myanmar was founded in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in 1951, and oversees nationwide initiatives spanning everything from homecare for older people to support for orphans and vulnerable children.
In March 2020, the country followed the world into COVID lockdown. Since then, there have been almost half a million cases, and over 17,000 deaths. And then in February 2021, came a military coup in Myanmar with the loss of over 1,100 civilian lives and nearly 8,300 arrested and some 6,600 still detained, according to AAPP (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
“All these hardships for our country only make us more determined to help our fellow citizens”, says Maung Maung Win. “The people of Myanmar need us more than ever, and in turn our own needs – as we seek to keep up our service – are greater than ever. It’s why we seek support from our friends across the global YMCA family.”
YMCA Myanmar’s youth work includes leadership and empowerment training, and environmental awareness training. YMCA Myanmar also runs projects to support sustainable livelihoods and community empowerment, including computer training, healthcare training, and courses on construction work, cooking, micro-finance, and even pig-rearing.
“We have really stepped up our service to vulnerable people in this time of COVID” says Maung Maung Win. “We’ve delivered supplies and medication to remote locations, and run education and information programmes about the virus.”
“A key feature of our work to support young people and drive youth empowerment is giving them the space to create and run their own programmes”, says Maung Maung.
“Within the National Council we have a Youth Desk and a Youth Department which coordinates youth work across the 21 offices. It helps to encourage young people to be part of all aspects of our work and to let them take the initiative and drive positive change”.
This pioneering approach has seen the emergence of youth-led projects across the country, with young people inspired to become involved with the YMCA as a special place in which their voice is heard, and they are given the freedom and support to establish projects that they are passionate about and that are integrated into communities.
We spoke to three of those remarkable young people: Mindy, Moon and Kaung Khant.
“The best thing about YMCA Myanmar is its youth projects”, says Mindy, aged 25, from Yangon. “I always encourage my friends and fellow volunteers to join YMCA. I love being part of it. These are difficult times, and YMCA shows us the way ahead.”
Mindy first became involved with YMCA Myanmar in 2017 as a volunteer within the Foundation for Change youth project, a programme which empowers youth to become community leaders. She then became a YMCA employee as an administrative coordinator in 2018.
“When I joined YMCA as a volunteer, I joined an e-learning training course on climate change: many young people from Myanmar take part.”
Mindy is currently volunteering again with local projects, and says her involvement has helped her gain valuable work experience, since she hopes to follow her passion for the environment and study for a Masters Degree and become an environmental consultant.
In 2020, Mindy put forward a proposal for a youth-led climate action project: it was accepted by YMCA Myanmar and then by the worldwide YMCA Youth-Led Solutions Initiative. She is currently implementing the project. She says the power of YMCA Myanmar is that “it builds up our capacity through training, and provides a resource to help young people”. Her ‘Raising Climate Literacy’ project conducts online training on climate change to YMCA young people across Myanmar.
Other projects in which Mindy has been involved include a water and sanitation training project among primary school children in her local area. She was part of a group of volunteers which visited primary schools and taught children how to wash their hands.
Mindy’s story of building relevant work experience and learning opportunities reflects the stories of many young people who are involved in YMCA Myanmar.
“We are committed to providing opportunities for young people that will help support their development and future job opportunities,” says Maung Maung Win.
YMCA Myanmar has partnerships with several international YMCA networks and other organisations. For instance, it has partnered with YMCA Denmark for six years on a project encouraging volunteers to form project groups to create and run their own programmes which contribute to the local community. YMCA Myanmar provides training, and volunteers who have delivered exceptional work are given the chance to travel to Denmark to share their experiences with other youth volunteers and leaders, and learn from each other.
Moon, aged 29 from Myitkyina, is another inspiring young person who has developed a wide range of skills and experience across the nine years in which she has been involved with local YMCAs in Myanmar.
One of the more innovative projects is a programme of drama productions in local communities to raise awareness of important societal issues.
“Communities can see problems vividly when those challenges are acted out in short stories”, she says. “The plays focus on important issues, including child education, gender equality and drugs.”
Moon is also dedicated to supporting environmental projects when and where she can, like the Clean, Green and be Greener waste management project. “If I have free time and the chance, I participate in other programmes including environmental programmes, where we pick-up trash and plastic thrown away near the riverside. We want to reduce water pollution and introduce waste management solutions.”
In 2020, Moon was awarded an internship with the Area Alliance of Asia Pacific YMCAs in Hong Kong. The COVID pandemic meant she was unable to travel to take up this training, with her internship taking place remotely and extended for a further six months in the hope that she will soon be able to travel.
This setback has not deterred Moon in doing all she can to support local projects across Northern Myanmar. She has continued her environmental work and working with communities across a range of activities, including as a volunteer coordinating young people’s online English conversation clubs. She has also worked on YMCA Myanmar drug rehabilitation programmes, and says the experiences she has built-up with YMCA, both nationally and internationally, means she is taking the responsibility of being a leader.
See here a video piece on the work of Myitkyina YMCA and the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation on issues of social justice. Moon supports this project.
Kaung Khant, 25, from Mandalay, has been involved with YMCA Myanmar since he was 10. His passion is film-making, and he wants young people to pursue their dreams once COVID is over.
His YMCA experience includes taking part in English language courses, trainings and scholarship programmes, and many youth activities, including environmental awareness activities. He has also gained valuable internship experience at local YMCAs.
“My dream is to help to contribute to society”, says Kaung Khant. “That’s why I’m actively involved in social work, and I do my best to help.”
Over the past year he has felt committed to doing all he can to supporting YMCA Myanmar through the pandemic, when many trainings and projects were moved online.
One of the training programmes that Kaung Khant has supported is an online exhibition to promote peace against hate speech and fake news on social media, run by YMCA Mandalay.
He says, “Being involved in YMCA Myanmar’s activities has helped me to communicate with others, and to live harmoniously in a diverse society. Our Myanmar society is home to many different ethnicities and religions, and this is really important for me.”
Like Mindy and Moon, Kaung Khant’s boundless energy and commitment to supporting causes he is passionate about is testament to the power of young people to make positive change in their local communities, as well as to the dedicated work of YMCA Myanmar staff across the country to support youth empowerment.
Maung Maung reflects on the testimony of Mindy, Moon and Kaung Khant, and looks back over the last 18 traumatic months for his country.
“First came COVID. As with all YMCAs across the world, YMCA Myanmar faced unprecedented challenges when the pandemic hit, forcing its offices to shut across the country. We were determined to keep our projects going and support people working. Our offices closed for just two to three months, and we reopened with strict protocols in place, including keeping our distance from each other and using hand sanitisers.”
“We needed to keep our programmes and importantly our construction projects going, such as building water tanks. These construction projects provide jobs and livelihoods for people, and I couldn’t just stop them. We tried as best we could to manage every difficulty we faced. We have managed to maintain the momentum of our projects, moving training programmes online and finding ways to help people practically”.
“Then came the coup. Day by day, hour by hour, we have managed to survive, and to keep going, and keep supporting young people.
“We’re supporting people like Mindy, Moon and Kaung Khant, but actually they’re supporting us, they’re supporting their fellow young people, they’re supporting their communities. We’re proud to help, but above all we’re proud of them. I love the way that YMCA Myanmar creates space for them, and for everyone in our community.”
Nam Boo Won, Secretary General of the Area Alliance of Asia-Pacific YMCAs, comments from Hong Kong: “Our hearts go out to the people of Myanmar, in all their struggles and in all their qualities. They never give up. And we in the global YMCA family must never give up in our support for vulnerable people anywhere in our Movement.”
“We will never give up” – the exact same words, all spoken independently, of Mindy, Moon and Kaung Khant, Maung Maung and Nam.
To support the work of YMCA Myanmar, please donate here.