By- Sai Awn Murng
The 2020 Sao Thusandi Leadership Award has been given to educator Nang Mwe Hkur at a ceremony today (February 8, 2021) in Loi Taileng in recognition of her longstanding efforts to promote and reform education for stateless and displaced children of Shan State. The award is given by the aid organization Burma Lifeline to honor “young people from Shan State who are working towards community development, peace and democracy…, particularly those working to preserve local customs and culture.” She is the 13th recipient of the annual award.
Born in 1985 in Kunhing Township in central Shan State, Nang Mwe Hkur grew up amid civil conflict, displacement, and widespread human rights abuses at home, witnessing its effect on children, in particular.
“Being born a Shan, I have always felt a duty to work for my people, and a desire to work for the development of Shan State,” she said during the event which, owing to border shutdowns and travel restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, also necessitated remote participation by Shan civil society members.
Nang Mwe Hkur decided to further her education to work as a teacher to provide a foundation for a better future for the children of Shan displaced and stateless communities, coming to Thailand to study and ultimately receiving her Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Management in Bangkok. She returned to work with the Shan Education Department, becoming Deputy Director. In addition to working as a teacher for the children of Shan State, she has also been active in providing further education for other teachers and developing educational curricula for students along the Thai-Burma border and deeper in Shan State, laying the foundation for when the opportunity arises for them to pursue further education, either at home or beyond.
The award was established by author Inge Sargent, also known as Sao Thusandi, who was the last Mahadevi (Celestial Princess) of the Shan State of Hsipaw in northern Shan State. As a young Austrian student and Fulbright Scholarship recipient pursuing her education in Colorado, she had met and married a young man from Burma, Sao Kya Seng, in 1953. She subsequently returned to Burma with him to find out that her husband was the Saophalong or ruling prince of Hsipaw, a seeming fairy tale immortalized in her account Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, published in 1996. The young Mahadevi of Hsipaw quickly immersed herself into her new culture and focused on modernizing the health and education systems of the state to improve the lives of her adopted peoples, particularly the mothers and children.
“The two of us were like a Little Peace Corps,” she once recalled.
Yet the fairy tale was not to last. In 1962, Gen Ne Win seized power in a military coup in Burma, ushering in decades of brutal military rule. Almost all the leaders of Shan State were arrested, including her husband, Sao Kya Seng. Many would spend years in prison and one, former President and Prince of the Shan State of Yawnghwe, Sao Shwe Thaike, died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Sao Kya Seng was last seen being taken by Burmese soldiers to Ba Htoo Myo military camp near Taunggyi in Shan State. He would never be seen again. Sao Thusandi would spend time under house arrest before fleeing Burma in 1964 with her two children, eventually returning to the United States to work as a teacher. She established Burma Lifeline in 1995 to send aid to displaced communities of Burma.
“I am so proud and happy to welcome you into this very special group of young leaders who are making a big difference in the future of all people who live in our Shan State…“ she wrote, individuals who “have committed themselves to apply their education and their skills to creating a democratic and prosperous society in Shan State… As the founder of a school in Hsipaw and as a retired teacher in the United States, I share your belief that success of individuals and communities depends on leadership by selfless educators like you.”
Many of the challenges faced by Nang Mwe Hkur in her work continue today, issues such as ongoing militarization, conflict and abuses in Shan State, realities which continue to displace thousands every year. These are further compounded by major aid cuts to community organizations working with displaced communities along the Thai-Burma border and movement restrictions imposed from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Nang Mwe Hkur remains undeterred in her work to lay the critical foundations needed for when the stateless and displaced children of Shan State will be able to further their education in a peaceful Burma yet to be realized.
“I never expected to receive the Sao Thusandi Award. It really encourages me to continue my work,” she said.