Kroc Institute awards 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award
Tom Naatz | Tuesday, April 10, 2018
The Kroc Institute awarded its 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award to 2003 M.A. graduate Mai Ni Ni Aung for her work regarding cultural preservation and peacebuilding in Myanmar. Aung is the founder of the Sone-Tu Cultural Preservation Project and director of the related organization Sone-Tu Backstrap Weavings. The two groups seek to preserve the cultural practices of the Sone-Tu Chin community in Myanmar’s Rakhine State — in particular, traditional weaving.
At the start of her remarks, Ni Aung reflected on her time at Notre Dame and how it relates to her work in Myanmar.
“I have many fond memories of my time at Notre Dame, and specifically as a student at The Kroc Institute,” Ni Aung said. “The opportunity to learn from Kroc’s distinguished professors … is something that I always cherish. Likewise, my classmates were a constant inspiration for me.”
Before describing her work in detail, Ni Aung explained the historical background of some issues facing Myanmar. She said that the country, which is home to myriad minority ethnic groups, has always suffered from the tensions between different communities. These uneasy situations sometimes resulted in armed insurrection. In recent years, as Myanmar has transitioned towards democracy and away from military dictatorship, there has been additional tension between the democratic and military elements of the central government. Rakhine State, where Ni Aung’s work is focused, is on the forefront of the latest violent crisis.
“The current situation in Rakhine State is the most recent crisis facing Myanmar,” she said.
Ni Aung is from the ethnic Sone-Tu Chin community, which lives in Rakhine State. She referenced a recent report issued by a group spearhead by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, though she noted that the situation has not improved significantly.
“Since that report was issued, the situation in Rakhine has not improved,” she said. “Given this, you might ask ‘why would anyone want to have a business there?’ For me, the answer was easy: I didn’t have choice.”
Although Myanmar has historical struggles with violence, Ni Aung said the country has a rich cultural heritage, albeit one that is endangered.
“Rakhine and Myanmar are not all about human rights violations … civil war, poverty and natural disasters,” she said. “Throughout the country, there are creations and ancient wisdom that we need to celebrate.”
Ni Aung explained that her culture, the Sone-Tu Chin, is in particular danger of losing its cultural traditions because its people use an oral language, meaning nothing is written down. Traditionally, elders, or shamen, were responsible for passing down wisdom.
“As the years passed, the shamen grew older and the language, stories and the history of my people was in danger of being lost forever,” she said. “I felt I had to do something. That was the beginning of the Sone-Tu Culture Preservation Project.”
However, while the project is dedicated to preserving the culture of the Sone-Tu Chin, Ni Aung acknowledged there are certain negative cultural practices that should be documented but allowed to die out. She cited as an example the traditional Chin practice of tattooing women’s faces.
“Cruel and dangerous practices, as well as those that endanger the environment, have no place in today’s world,” Ni Aung said. “They shall come to an end. But they should not be erased from the history.”
In addition to the Sone-Tu Chin language, other practices that have been preserved include games and rituals. However, Ni Aung has put a particular emphasis on preserving the traditional and unique weaving practices of the Sone-Tu Chin. In recent years, traditional weaving seemed on the brink of extinction because it was not economically profitable.
“Until 2002, only the older generation of women in my community were proficient in weaving complex traditional designs,” she said. “As these women died, the information they carried with them was lost. Since the weaving project began, we have trained over 450 weavers and currently employ over 270 weavers across three different townships in Rakhine State.”
In addition to preserving a cultural tradition, the weaving project has had additional benefits. Proceeds from sales of the textiles has allowed many children in the area to attend school. As the weavers are all female, the weaving project has also empowered women within the Sone-Tu Chin community, Ni Aung said.
Though her groups have achieved some success in combating the loss of cultural heritage, Ni Aung noted that many minorities in Myanmar are facing cultural extinction.
“The traditions of many minority groups with Myanmar are nearly extinct,” she said. “Urgent action is needed to ensure the preservation of traditional cultural heritage and traditional activities. With each day, more history is lost. For many minorities, the saying, ‘an old man passing away is like losing a chapter of history’ reflects a sad, but accurate, truth.”