Mai Ni Ni Aung
With the support of Prospect Burma, Mai Ni Ni Aung undertook a Master’s degree in International Development at SOAS University in London, which helped open her eyes to other cultures as well as encourage her plans for the preservation of her own cultural identity. Mai Ni Ni Aung is from the ethnic group Sone-Tu, a small group living mainly in the south of Rakhine State. She told us:
“The education I received and the contacts I made as a result of my Prospect Burma scholarship gave me opportunities that would not have been possible otherwise. The work at SOAS gave me a foundation upon which I was able to expand. In particular, I realised that there were many ways that I could contribute to the development of my Chin ethnic group in a remote part of Rakhine State in Myanmar, and also preserve the traditional backstrap weaving skills. This work could create employment opportunities for Chin women so that they could meet their basic needs and help support their families. My education has been essential in the work I do in Myanmar. I plan to continue to work in Myanmar for the improvement of the Chin people and to give them the education and skills needed in a modern Myanmar.”
Today, Mai Ni Ni Aung runs an organisation called Sonetu, born out of her passion for her heritage and a previously vanishing craft. As she relates in an interview with the Myanmar English language publication Irrawady, Sonetu was born out of a shocking realisation. While working with a film crew to document the history of the Sone-Tu in a local village, they realised that there was no item of traditional woven cloth to be found in the entire village. The skill was no longer in use or demand, as mass-manufactured, cheap clothes flooded the market. Mai Ni Ni Aung organised training for young Sone-Tu women, from some of the remaining practitioners in the village. She soon realised however, that in order for the skills to be preserved there needed to be a way for the women to be able to make a living from it. She created Sone-Tu as a way for the textiles to be sold, and create an income for the artisans, as well as share their skills with the world. Today, the Sonetu organization works directly with different Chin ethnic group members to preserve a living cultural identity, believing that by providing economic opportunities and encouraging self-employment, the quality of life of both Sonetu individuals and the entire Chin community will benefit. The Sonetu organization believes that by preserving Chin cultural heritage and incorporating the Chin people’s traditional identity in the modern world, it can deconstruct perceptions that stereotype and discriminate against Chin people. At the same time, Sonetu inspires individuals unfamiliar with Chin ethnicity to both understand and respect Chin history, culture, and traditions.