(Interview) Rosalia Sciortino has made Southeast Asia her home and as an anthropologist and development sociologist is a prime mover in improving local and international awareness about the crisis in Myanmar. The Italian-born academic has had a fascinating career and is now working to enlighten the public through her work with SEA Junction and Thailand’s Chulalongkorn and Mahidol universities about political and social issues in Southeast Asia.
Dr Sciortino sat down with Mizzima this week – as ASEAN met to struggle with solutions to the Myanmar crisis – to offer her thoughts on Myanmar and her work over the last three decades.
Mizzima: Were you surprised by the Myanmar coup?
Well, as you know, there was quite a lot of gossip at the time or rumors that the coup was going to happen. Clearly the election had been in favour of the NLD (National League for Democracy). And there was concern about the reaction, the possible reaction of the military, which of course, has always been there. But since this is very common, right in Southeast Asia, to always have these rumors of a coup, it was still a surprise that it really happened – so it was expected, but kind of unexpected. Because yes, even if people talk about it, you never know whether it would happen or not. On various occasions, there have been rumors of coups that didn’t materialize.
Mizzima: Obviously, the Myanmar coup had a significant effect on ASEAN and how it’s handling things. How do you view ASEAN’s handling of the Myanmar crisis?
I think it’s very clear that they have not been able to handle the crisis. Of course, since before the coup they were always complaining about the way of working of ASEAN and the two principles of non-interference and consensus – that seem to paralyze the organization and slow it down and so there has been always complaints that ASEAN is talking but very slow in taking action, and always very careful about the way countries relate to each other.
But I think the Myanmar situation has shown that the way ASEAN is organized precludes quick action, and stifles initiative when it comes to finding a solution for a transnational problem, because at the end of the day, the situation in Myanmar impacts neighboring countries as well as the whole region. So, it is of concern for everyone. We should not forget that Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are among the largest investors in Myanmar. So, they have economic interests as well as geopolitical interests. So, it’s also in their interest not to have a situation like this in their neighborhood, still, they are not able to operate as they should.
Mizzima: This week we have an ASEAN meeting, which will I suspect, be dominated by the Myanmar crisis, in part because of the recent attack on the ASEAN convoy, which would have woken people up. What do you expect to come out of this?
Myanmar is not the only issue (that ASEAN will cover this week). I think there are a number of issues on the table that are quite concerned about economic growth, the post-COVID recovery, the South China Sea is still there, Timor Leste’s accession and there are some other issues, but for sure, Myanmar is a very important issue. And there are many expectations about the role of Indonesia, which has been seen as more capable than other previous chairs of ASEAN.
I must say that I don’t have a high expectation about it, yes, they are more sophisticated. Indonesia clearly has a very good Minister of Foreign Affairs. The president is also very capable of giving the impression of wanting democracy in the region in how he is trying to profile himself. This is the last year of his mandate. So, for sure, yes, the ambition of giving a good impression and maybe even aiming for some international position as other former presidents have done, but whether it will move beyond the rhetoric, I am kind of pessimistic, although, of course, I hope to be wrong on this.
And during the incident that you mentioned (attack on the ASEAN convoy) and the response of President Jokowi [official name Joko Widodo], who has invited everyone to sit together and talk peace, to start with it is not very clear what has happened there, because the insinuation is the PDF (attacked the convoy), but actually, that is not an area controlled by the PDF, so it could be a try on the side of the junta to push Indonesia and other countries to what I call would be the wrong direction.
It also looks like the AHA center is operating in a non-transparent and non-neutral manner.
Interesting also the ASEAN reacts so strongly for its staff, but was not similarly outraged for the atrocities committed daily by the junta.
I think if Indonesia was serious, they could have initiated bilateral initiatives, could have consulted the NUG (National Unity Government) publicly, not used“ silent diplomacy” and could have recognized the NUG. If ASEAN countries were serious, they should show by recognizing the NUG and inviting them to the table. And that is still far from what they are doing.
Mizzima: Right. This leads on to the fact that the Myanmar crisis has exacerbated existing conditions within Myanmar such as poverty and displacement, women’s rights, those sorts of things. How do you actually view the work of the CSOs, the NGOs of the United Nations in terms of actually trying to improve the situation for people on the ground in Myanmar?
Well, the local NGOs I think they are really admirable, right? They are working hard in very difficult circumstances. Of course, we need to differentiate also in Myanmar, there are some areas that are controlled by ethnic groups, which are kind of safer territories than others, where at the moment, there is heightened conflict. Yangon is also heavily controlled by the junta. So, the degree of difficulty of operating change, according to where in the country, but they are trying their best also to provide humanitarian help and development aid from inside and from across the border.
Now, the record of international organizations I think is more mixed. There have been complaints about the UN, still wanting to work from within the country and therefore, meeting the junta and thus giving recognition to the junta and there is fear that they are normalizing a situation that should not be normalized. Therefore, there have been complaints. And also there have been declarations and open letters by NGOs, civil society groups and other allies to the UN not to play around with the military.
There is a lot of work that can be done through a local organization, there is not necessarily the need for the UN to have a local presence. Of course, the UN are saying they’re there for humanitarian reasons, they’re there to help the people. But many of the people say they don’t want to be helped, if that implies recognition of the junta as this would help the junta stay in power for longer, with more disastrous consequences for the same people the UN is supposed to help. So, for the UN, I think in terms of working within Myanmar it remains controversial. In terms of putting pressure from outside, I think they should do much more and not using ASEAN to wash their hands.
Mizzima: Because that seems to be the situation, the UN does seem to be using ASEAN as a tool to engage with the military.
On the surface, it seems, in a sense, a very “decolonized” approach: this is a regional issue and therefore should be resolved through a regional body, we as Western countries don’t interfere. But, this is only appearance, to avoid having to deal with a difficult situation and also because at the moment Western countries are occupied with other concerns. And ASEAN is a good way to say “you take the lead on this”, but ASEAN has shown with the five points consensus not to be serious. These points don’t talk about freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and all the other prisoners nor they talk about a number of other conditions necessary to have serious dialogue. But ASEAN has not been able even to implement those weak points. So, it is problematic to entrust ASEAN with such a role.
Mizzima: Yes. And as you mentioned, the international attention is elsewhere. That’s one of the things that Burmese people complain about. They say everybody is focused on, say, the Ukraine war. And they’re not focused on Myanmar. Do you think the Ukraine war has drawn attention away from Myanmar.
Unfortunately, this has been a problem since the very beginning. Don’t forget at the beginning of the coup that there was COVID-19 and the world was preoccupied. I mean few months after the coup happened, we’re in the middle of the Delta (COVID-19 variant), that was very serious for Myanmar as well as for other countries. Then there was Afghanistan. Now there is Ukraine. So, there is always some other crisis that takes the attention.
But if there is the political will there should not be a question of one crisis at the cost of the other. I think there are many factors. People are trying to understand why it is the case. Clearly the situation of the UK, which normally has been very active and engaged if we look back in the past. The US also played a very active role before, which they are not doing these days in terms of foreign policy. This is in general towards Southeast Asia is not a priority region, including Myanmar.
Some people have also mentioned that there is not a figure (or figurehead). Take Ukraine and Zelenskyy, who is not necessarily my favorite, but is seen as someone who is able to get public attention while in the case of Myanmar at the moment, we don’t have such a figure or a figure like Aung San Suu Kyi at the time. Aung San Suu Kyi remains extremely popular within Myanmar. But as
you know, in terms of the international community with the issue of the Rohingya, she has lost a lot of credibility and that also influences the way the international community has responded to the crisis. So, there are a combination of factors that come together. But yes, unfortunately, it’s true that the attention for Myanmar has never really been, what it should have been.
Mizzima: Yes, in fact, on that same score, the NUG, which puts itself forward as the real government or the alternative government doesn’t really have a face. This is said to be part of the problem, there is not a person that people recognize and gravitate to. Do you think that’s a problem for the NUG?
This is what many people see as a problem. Personally, I would like to believe that it’s not always necessary to have a figurehead for the opposition and that actually it is better when we have a very capable team of people that can act and talk on different issues together. But in this media space, we like to have superheroes and those attract public attention. The NUG is performing already in difficult circumstances with some very strong ministers but then how to combine all these voices of the different ministries and make it more together, to communicate all what they are doing in a better way than they have done so far. So, it’s not necessarily the lack of one figurehead, but how to improve the communication strategy that yes, for sure. Since this is what the global public needs. Unfortunately, this world is very PR based.
Mizzima: Moving on. Judging from your biography and the roles you’ve played, it appears you’ve had a lot of responsibilities. Can you tell us something about your work as a regional director of the Rockefeller Foundation related to Burma?
Yes, so I started my career as an anthropologist, but I have worked mostly in donor organizations, particularly American foundations, US foundations, although I am myself, European, but I have worked for the Ford Foundation since 1993 initially in Indonesia and Philippines and then I became the regional director for the Rockefeller Foundation and established the office here in Bangkok in 2000. And this office, we designed a programme which focused on the transnational impacts of regional integration. This was in the period when the socialist countries of Southeast Asia were starting to become open to the global market. So, in 1992 with the help of the Asia Development Bank 5 countries of mainland Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Yunnan province of China formed the Greater Mekong Sub Region to promote economic integration among them. This was done with an economic focus through all kinds of infrastructural development, but with very little
attention for the social, cultural, and health aspects of development, and this was what the grant-making initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation focused on. It was called “Learning across Boundaries” and it provided funding to build the capacity of local organizations across countries in the GMS to address transnational issues, like at the time cross-border health.
That was very early on, you know, with HIV as the main concern, even before SARS, and avian flu, but then SARS and avian flu appeared so it was very relevant, and again with COVID-19 we have seen how important is to pay attention to this region as a hotspot for zoonotic diseases. Just to give an example, we supported the forming of this alliance of the Ministries of Health in the Mekong region, MBDS (Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance) cooperation, which included also the Ministry of Health of Myanmar. At the time, as a US institution we were not allowed to give funding directly to Myanmar, but we were able to operate through “intermediaries” in neighboring countries and matching funds of other organizations so to say, fund activities at the border, and include people from Myanmar into all kinds of regional activities related to transboundary issues such as migration, cross border health, ethnic minorities living in upland areas and upland agriculture and many others. We had a strong gender and human rights focus in our program with involvement of civil society and universities. Because of the particular situation at the time, we worked with Myanmar organizations through a regional approach.
Mizzima: Can you tell us about your past work with the IDRC as regional director?
So, the Rockefeller Foundation was from about 2000 to 2007, that was the period but then, as you know, Myanmar started to open up and gradually the embargo was up lifted. So, when I was Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia based in Singapore with IDRC which is a Canadian semi-governmental grant-making organization, I was involved in discussions about engaging or not with Myanmar at the diplomatic level in terms of going to Myanmar and talking with various stakeholders. Countries wanted to go back to have a presence in Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the elections. But at the same time, there was also a little bit of fear, whether it was premature or not and whether democracy was for real. So, we did some kind of mapping as well as evaluation, whether it was a good thing to start to operate or not again in Myanmar. And as IDRC we funded mostly for development-related research and training. We did fund a number of think tanks as well as issues related to the environment and many other issues through development research. Canada indeed, eventually opened the embassy and we were more free, compared to the times at the Rockefeller Foundation, to provide grants to civil society and other groups locally.
Mizzima: Can you tell us a little bit more in detail what your work was like as a grant maker in terms of this?
Working as a grant-maker implies providing funding strategically to attain certain institutional and program objectives based on an analysis of development challenges. In the 20 years of work in this area, I have worked at two different levels. So, one as program officer at the beginning, you really are responsible for a certain field of work, whether gender or reproductive health or migration or human rights or whatever is the field and you have a strategy of what kind of initiatives are important but then it’s really responsive to an understanding of local conditions. At the time grant-making was contextualized and responsive, with greater autonomy for the program officers as experts in the field and much more open to receive proposals directly from local organizations. It was very focused on supporting local ideas and initiatives (rather than global ones), which now has changed. I actually have written about changes in philanthropy and development aid in the last two decades that have made funding much more centralized, uniform and top-down and resulted in reduced funding for local civil society organizations.
As program officer, you are very much in touch with the issues and local networks, but later in my role as director, it is more at a distance, as you have to oversee the entire office and all the programs being undertaken. So, you also have to oversee the grant making strategy not only for a field, but how all the sectors come together in a strategy for the entire region, and for particular countries. So, you are somewhat farther away from the real action. But it’s quite important because you have to make strategic decisions about what kind of funding is for the benefit of the region or not and advocate for resources with the central office. And within this, like I gave the example of the transnational issue and the time of the Rockefeller, so you kind of define what is the scope of action, and then within the scope, we can accommodate the proposal and decide whether to fund or not to fund those activities. So, it’s much more at the strategic level than not at the direct level of funding of certain groups, although there is discretionary funding for the director, so still, there is some funding that can be done at the director level. Clearly, I miss this now that I have to seek funding for SEA Junction!
Mizzima: Can we move on to your work with the Thai universities, namely Chulalongkorn University and Mahidol University? What are you focused on there?
Yes, so after IDRC, I kind of concluded my grant maker and donor career and retired… kind of …since I started to teach at Mahidol university as Associate Professor and Visiting Professor at Chulalongkorn University. And there, you can see my broad interests. So, I teach about gender, health and sexual and reproductive health rights at Mahidol. And at Chulalongkorn it is more about regional integration, the ASEAN process and how globalization plays out in Southeast Asia. But in both cases my focus is Southeast Asia. So, also when I talk about the gender issue or when I talk about the health issue, the concern is about how these issues occur in this particular region. And so, of course, then I talk also about Myanmar. When we talk about ASEAN, for instance, what we have been discussing, is the relevance of what is happening in Myanmar for the entire region in terms of ASEAN role, transboundary impacts, refugee flows and implications for democracy in the region, these are the kind of discussions I have with students. In Mahidol, to give an example I may discuss the seriousness of maternal mortality in Myanmar, and for instance, the issue of domestic violence, as well as, for instance, rape as a tool of war. And this is an issue I have been concerned with for long time. Actually, already when with the Rockfeller Foundation, we supported women’s groups to study and write about rape as a tool of war in Myanmar. So, in a sense, what I am doing now is the continuation of past concerns only that was with financing and now it’s more in terms of building knowledge on development issues from a theoretical as well as a practical perspective. So, it’s not only what are the development problems, but what can you do about that? How can you find a strategic entrée point to intervene? How to avoid repeating the same mistakes? And what are the gaps? So, these are the ways I approach a multitude of development issues related to Myanmar, as well as other countries and processes in Southeast Asia.
Mizzima: With regards to the Foundation for South East Asian Studies, and SEA Junction, what are you focused on at this particular point with regards to both?
So again, you see it is like I have passion for Southeast Asia in different ways. So, when I was working with Ford, Rockefeller, etc, we supported a lot of development research as well as a lot of interventions and you see that there is a gap between knowledge production and then how to communicate to the general public to advocate issues and build social movements. If you see most of the think tanks are based in a university or cater to a more academic public, but there is very little in terms of venues that are in public places. So, the SEA Junction idea was to be based at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center, which is a public venue, a very public venue in the middle of Bangkok and we bring issues that normally are not brought to the general public, bring it directly to the public. We do so by having discussions, but even more important by having exhibitions, photo exhibition as well
as art exhibitions. We have been very consistent with our concern for development issues in Myanmar. Actually, the very first event of SEA Junction was about the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines planned to link Myanmar’s deep-water port of Kyaukphyu (Sittwe) in the Bay of Bengal with Kunming in Yunnan province of China was done by one of my former students, who is an independent researcher in Myanmar, and now outside of Myanmar, and that was six years ago, so we have a long tradition of focusing on Myanmar.
Later on, we have given a lot of attention to the Rohingya situation with photo exhibitions in Thailand and Indonesia by Bangladeshi photographers about the exodus of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh and their lives in the camps, such as with a recent exhibition of quilts of Rohingya women in the camps with their concerns and hopes. Since the very beginning about the coup, we have given attention to what’s happening in Myanmar with a regular update first with Aung Zaw from The Irrawaddy, and then later on with Debbie Stothard, and Khin Omar. Initially, we had the Updates every two weeks and now every month, because, as we said, the attention of the public is less, but we want to continue to do it because it’s a way of documenting the evolution of the Myanmar crisis. So now we have done 30 episodes of one hour in which the resource person highlights the key points of what has been happening. But we also have done exhibitions using the BACC space, like for instance, on the women’s role in the Spring Revolution, then on the anniversary of the coup, these are very big exhibitions, which reach “normal” people who just come to BACC, Thai and tourists and a lot of young people and a lot of other Thai people. And so it’s often people who are not necessarily aware of social or political issues in the region.
Now when we do a panel discussion, of course, those come because they know and they are interested, but particularly for the exhibition, they just come to BACC. And they see the photos and art works and ask questions. So, you have hundreds of thousands of people seeing things that they don’t expect. So, this is the point of SEA Junction, inform and advocate with the general public. The next exhibition is going to be about the drawings of Insein prison done by an artist who was a prisoner for six months in Insein Prison, and this is going to be for two weeks with the launch on 20 May. And on the 17 of May we have a panel discussion also related to Myanmar which is about cybercrime. There is a lot of talk about trafficking with victims from Indonesia and other parts of the world. And, Myanmar with Cambodia and Laos is also one of the centers of these scams. Because of the conflict is even more difficult to rescue people that have been trafficked there. We don’t focus only on Myanmar, but we have focused a lot on Myanmar because I think it’s very important what is happening there. We know that Southeast Asia is in general an authoritarian region, right, I mean a lot of governments are kind of authoritarian, so if the Myanmar people can be successful in changing (their country into a democracy) that will be a very important example for the rest of the region. The vision for a pluralist New Burma, for gender equity and diversity as an integral part of democracy is very compelling. On the positive side. When? I don’t know, but it will happen since the majority of people are clear they do not want another military or pseudo-democratic government.
Mizzima: On a completely different subject. We are interested in your late husband’s award that you’re running. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, so that is really, SEA Junction and the Award, I think, are two of my babies, so to say that are born out of grief. After 25 years of being married to my husband O’ong Maryono he died in 2013 of the rare cancer of the appendix in Singapore, now 10 years ago, and it was devastating. I stopped working and starting these two initiatives in due time was part of the grieving process. What has helped me is to do things I believe in, engage with people and activities in promoting shared values. This with the support of many friends with the same vision.
And for him, he was quite famous because he was a multiple world and SEA Games champion in Pencak Silat, which is a Malay martial art and a trainer for national teams all over the region. He was Indonesian, so we are very diverse, he was Muslim, I Catholic, originally from Italy, but it was a good match, of course with the usual ups and downs of married couples. And when I thought about how to honor him, I think it came quite natural to do something related to his field in a way I could do it according to my skill. I am not a martial arts expert. We came from very diverse backgrounds. But he had written a book about Pencak Silat, which many people refer to it because it is quite comprehensive there are not many books on the socio-cultural aspect in Pencak Silat. That book is a reference for people and his frustration was that Indonesians and others did not pay enough attention to their tradition, including Pencak Silat and that more should be done to document that. And so when I thought about what I could do, the idea emerged of doing a small grant program to support people who are interested in doing research and writing about Pencak Silat, whether they are Indonesians who want to write about pencak silat or for the translation of studies by foreigners into Indonesian so that Indonesians know about what has been written abroad.
And now we have just had the celebration of 10 years from his death, on March 20, and what I am proud to say is that there are nine books that have been funded and published including the republishing of his own book, because there is quite a demand – much more successful than my book! And also another one he had written before dying, which is more about techniques, with very beautiful drawings “Pencak Silat for Future Generations”, so those are included, but the others are from other people from Indonesia mostly, with two translation from researchers from Australia and France. The idea is to continue to realize his wish to see more interest and really build respect for this martial art which is not well known. Internationally, it is always in kind of secondary to comparative other martial arts, but quite beautiful and with spiritual aspects as well as cultural aspects. So that is the O’ong Maryono Pencak Silat Award.