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From Fairy Tales to Peace Myanmars’ Storytellers working for peace

My stories find me mostly on detours. While I'm looking for one, I come across the other. This is also the case in Myanmar, where I had actually prepared myself for the Myanmar Art Social Project. But as it turned out when I arrived, the planned workshop was not suitable for a report. That's why I was introduced to another organization, The Third Story Project - a stroke of luck, as I was soon to find out.

But first, was it necessary for me to plunge in the foreign Southeast Asian culture, the smells, sounds, colors, logic, the story, the theme - peace. Unraveling, reconnect and not lose the thread.

The more I approach the country physically and in my research, the more blurred and complex the contours and the realities become. Myanmar suffers from so many long lasting conflicts that it is difficult to get an overview. It is impossible to cover everything chronologically, but what are the criteria for setting priorities in this confusion of powers? ? By the size of the armed group? By number of ethnic minority members? By number of victims? By media popularity?

The Third Story Project (TSP) stands in the middle of this chaos of conflict strands, feelings of revenge and breaking test. The organization calls itself a "social enterprise", a charitable organization that finances itself. The concept is as simple as it is target: Together with children, TSP writes children's books on peace and human rights and gives them away to children and sells them to schools and (international) organisations.

Storytelling workshop in Dala

How did you succeed in developing a company out of the NGO? "It was a market niche. There was no children's literature, and there was no place where children and teachers could get or borrow books, we covered both." The co-founder Mindy Walker in an interview.

Drawing the peace stories

In order to reach as many regions and children as possible, TSP trains young people to become storytellers, community leaders who work for peace in their community through storytelling. This training program was launched in 2017 under the name Story of Friendship.

On the way to the workshop

The office of TSP is well hidden in the turbulent Indian quarter of Yangon. Outside, the rudimentary stalls are overloaded with fruit, pasta and fish. In between are Trikshaws and cars. Milk tea is served at every corner of the street on low plastic tables reminiscent of children's furniture. Men in colourful Longyi and women with yellow Thanaka strokes on their faces hide under umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat or offer mangoes and watermelons stacked on their heads for sale. A series of monks in reddish-brown robes roam the streets barefoot in search of alms.

Indian Town, Yangon

In the Indian Quarter, Yangon, soaked in by the street life I almost missed the crooked hanging sign, it indicates - in English - that I arrived unexpectedly at the right building. A narrow, steep, dark staircase leads up to the first floor to the office, where books pile up and a colorful children's wall painting in bright colors exudes a touch of the fairytale world.

On the way to the workshop

Here I meet my protagonist, Ei Pwin Rhi Zan, the director of Third Story Project. I still have to get accustom to the long names in this country. "You can call me Rhi Rhi" (sounds like "Schi Schi"), laughs the 29-year-old bright-eyed entrepreneur. In a mixture of unshakable calm and energetic drive, she organizes, telephones, chats, and packs the last bundles of books together. We are about to go to Taunggyi, where a workshop will be held with the participants of the Story of Friendship Program.

More about Third Story Project can be told by Ei Pwin Rhi Zan:

After a rough night bus ride, we arrive early in the morning at the capital of the Shan State, which is situated at an altitude of 1400 meters and differs significantly from the Caribbean temperatures in Yangon. Muzzled in my down jacket and with my backpack on my back I finally find my hotel after some searching in the dusty and similar streets. The reception beams towards me, I am probably the only guest for today (or for the whole week?). No, there's no electricity right now, but It'll be back soon. And then we arrived at the end of their English and my Burmese.

On the market in Taunggyi

It doesn't feel touristy here anyway, in my four days stay I can barely recognize a tourist. I'm looking for breakfast, everything is written in Burmese handwriting, and I can't recognize a single sign. The people in the streets look at me amazed and intrigued, never pushy, while they are selling peanuts wrapped in their thick hoodies on the roadside, queuing up at the food stall with their chrome steel lunchbox turrets and blinking in a sunlight that reminds me of the Andes, although I was never there.

Between the pale headless chickens, betel-nut stalls and baskets overcrowded with eggs I finally found my luck, a pancake baker - street pancake, a weakness I have acquired in Yangon. He baked me a wonderfully fluffy pancake in his cast pan for 10 centimes, cuts it into pieces with a pair of scissors and mixes it in a plastic bag with coconut powder.

In the streets of Taunggyi

Afterwards, I spend most of the morning finding a place to charge my computer and camera batteries. Unsuccessfully and quite desperately I return to the hotel, without electricity I miss pretty much everything I need for blogging and survival. Packed under two blankets I try to plan the course of the report, but I miss pretty much everything. Except for "interethnic workshop" there wasn't much concrete information to get out of the organizers. Who are the participants? Who are the leaders of the workshop? Who are the audiences? What is the program of the day? Wait and see what happens. My feeling tells me it comes well and it came well.

In the streets of Taunggyi

On my last percentage of battery power I receive a text message from Rhi Rhi, she wants to go with me and the team to a winery in the area for an evening drink. That sounds good, even though Shan State is better known for its conflicts than its wine and I thought Buddhists don't drink. Here, Ei Pwint Rhi Zan tells me what the Story of Friendship Program means in the soft evening sun and with a view of the vineyards. The romantic ambiance makes it difficult to summon the destructive battles that haunt Shan State for decades.

And the next morning they were all there suddenly, the storytellers who came together from all over Myanmar to get to know each other, to share their experiences and to think about how storytelling can be applied in the different communities and conflict situations, to build bridges in the jagged society, to curb prejudices and feelings of hatred, to create understanding and interest.

Workshop participants

The more than 50 participants, most of them under 25, belong to different ethnic groups. But they are not here to get to know the other cultures with which they have little or no contact. They are here to share a passion, their passion for storytelling.

Storyteller in action

Sometimes loud and expressive, sometimes thoughtful and serious, sometimes playful and expressive, they exchange their experiences as storytellers, their difficulties to approach certain topics, their personal day to day life and their experiences with conflict situations.

Community building

The lively group is led by two young leaders who, with great skill and empathy, promote creative expression and group cohesion and ensure that peace work is also combined with fun. Ogga is a community manager and has the difficult task of picking up the very mixed group of young people who are meeting for the first time today. He told me in the inner courtyard of the Christian Church where the workshop took place how he succeeds and why he works with monks in community building. As it turned out, the courtyard is very busy and sometimes used to play football, theatre, and for song practice.

Shortly after, at the same spot and meeting point for different committed people, I meet Ko Ko Lwin, a group leader of an inter-ethnic workshop with young people from Rakhine, the state of Myanmar, which has been shaken by tensions between Buddhists and Rohingyas since 2012 and has reached a new peak of destruction and expulsion since August. But young people from this state in particular are also committed to peaceful coexistence, despite trauma, threats and imprints caused by a deeply divided environment. Not only Ko Ko Lwin, also Ei Pwint Rhi Zan comes from Rakhine (Rakhaing, Arakan).

As with most good stories, there are several variations of the origin of the name "Third Story Project". One of them tells me the storyteller Thant Zin Soe and what drives him to believe in the power of storytelling in a country like Myanmar.

On our joint bus ride with Ei Pwint Rhi Zan she had already told me various stories from the TSP-collection, which contains more than 34 children's books. Whether she finds the time to tell me her favorite story (and without the potholes and the miserable neon blue light on the bus ride) I ask her in the middle of the bee-heap mood. She smiles as if I had done her a favor and not her to me and will soon find a relatively quiet place.

When I retire after a hard day's work, the sun has long gone out of the mountains, the organisation team is still in planning mode: Let's go over the course of tomorrow again." And I really don't know where they are taking the energy from and I leave the place looking for a working socket to charge my camera all over the city. It turned out that the statement that the electricity in my hotel was "coming soon"had been a bit too optimistic. But out of compassion I don't manage to cancel my booking and so I stay in my room with headlamp light and cold shower.

Creating visions

With my (newbie) pancake in my pocket, I will be standing the next morning on the church square in front of the room, where the event will take place. The last of the welcome balloons are glued on, the storytellers’ layout handicrafts on the tables at the entrance area, fluctuating between pride in their culture and a lack of knowledge of it, uncertain as to which material the fabric is woven from, what the patterns on the colorful umbrellas mean and whether the jewelry is for men or women. They laugh with embarrassment and I confess reassuringly that I have no idea what our costumes are made of. Together we drink a cereal juice from a mysterious black pot, the contents of which I don't know much about due to a lack of language skills, and then the program starts.

With the gentle sounds of the Burmese language in my ears and many children's book drawings in my mind, I join Ei Pwint Rhi Zan on the night bus. Thankfully, I got to know another project and special personalities who prove that it is always possible to create something new and spread a spark of hope even in a very rough environment. And that there are people who even then - and especially then - when statistics and national maps on conflict-affected areas fail to give you a voice and make every notion of peace impossible, who just then move out to train this imagination with the children, who find words to address the impossible and create images that open up other worlds for the listeners. Worlds in which diversity is a richness, worlds in which living together is a mutual help, and worlds in which children are free from pre-fabricated negative images and narratives in which they usually live.

Children in the audience

After a long journey back home and 30 sleepless hours, I end up in the middle of Advent in a Swiss coziness. On my flight halfway around the globe, I had cut the last video thinking that would be a good end of the story. But then there was this email, as soon as I landed, which brings me back to reality and once again reminds me that the story in Myanmar has no end. "Just so you know, one of our co-founders was arrested this week, not for Third Story Project, for his journalistic work." I am shocked about the news. Not only because I accompanied the project and have the bright eyed of the leaders, co-founders, and children in mind. It is also because it is the fourth journalist I have heard of who has been arrested since I arrived in Myanmar. And once again I realize how much courage it takes to tell stories in a country with so many uncertainties and unsteady fronts, how fearless it is to ask questions, how much conviction to believe in justice and non-violence.

And yet there are those who do it, who dare to persevere.

Despite everything.

Created By
Lea Suter
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Lea Suter

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