‘Working in the Field of Human Rights Requires Passion’ – Interview with Chou Yi-Lan, Sutawan Chanprasert and Barrisar Busimunkunkul.
12 January 2018 10:00 am

This month, January 2018, there are three new people joining the office in Bangkok. They are Chou Yi-Lan from Taiwan as the Communication and Media Programme Officer, and Sutawan (Ploy) Chanprasert from Thailand as the National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) Programme Officer. At the same time, Barrisar (Sha) Busimunkunkul, who is hired for the Innovation for Change Project, which shares the office with FORUM-ASIA, as their new Finance Officer.

In the following interview you will learn more about them, how they got involved in the human rights field, what they want to share with the younger generation, and more. 

Sha, Yi-Lan, and Ploy (from left to right)

What is your background and how did you get involved with human rights?

Yi-Lan: My studies focused on the connection between conflict and development, and I spent the past four years working with ActionAid in Burma/Myanmar, as I have always been interested in the country’s transition and how it impacts the lives of Myanmar migrants and refugees. It was a unique experience as I had first-hand interaction with communities who live in poverty. I realised how many people struggle and fight for rights in their everyday life, which many of us may take for granted.

Ploy: I graduated from Chulalongkorn University in International Development Studies. I have worked as a human rights researcher for both a local foundation and for the Freedom of Expression Project at Columbia University. My research experience mainly regards the rights of prisoners in Thailand and the human rights situation in Southeast Asia region.

Sha: I studied accounting at Chiang Mai University, and I have worked in several organisations, including an accounting firm and a local NGO. I also worked in the marketing sector in Tachileik at the Burma/Myanmar-Thailand border for four years. Though I do not have direct work experience related to human rights, I have seen how people suffer when their rights are violated and I would like to support them.

How did you get to know about FORUM-ASIA?

Yi-Lan: The first time I heard about FORUM-ASIA was when I worked with the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) to coordinate the Election Monitoring Mission in Taiwan in 2012. I learned about FORUM-ASIA as a regional NGO network that has incubated several other relevant human rights networks.

Ploy: I heard about FORUM-ASIA for the first time a very long time ago, as it is one of the most prominent human rights organisation in the region. I always wanted to be part of it. I utilised the reports produced by FORUM-ASIA during my research, and later on, as my network expanded, I further encountered more people who were involved with FORUM-ASIA.

Sha: As I want to use my accounting skills to help other people, I looked for the NGO website where I found job announcement that fitted my interests. This is the second time that I work in the NGO sector. Although accounting work is the same, I feel that working for the people is more benefiting.

What have been inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

Yi-Lan: I was inspired by my experiences in a country like Burma/Myanmar that is transitioning to democracy. When the local people, especially the youth, are very excited to exercise their rights, to participate in many public activities that affect their daily lives, ranging from voting, joining the parade, and express their opinion through media. Those people reminded me of how rights are not automatically granted but need to be fought for, and I want to work to promote this concept.

Ploy: There was a time when I interviewed a sex worker who was in prison due for drug-trafficking. She shared with me how she entered this sector because of poverty, and her family being in debt, and the way she was arrested and treated by the police. She made me feel that I have more opportunities with my knowledge to do things that can support those people. I also have a lot of activist friends whose lives are often in danger, but they continue to fight for the right things, which also inspires me a lot and I want to support them.

Sha: When I worked in the border town of Tachileik, I saw how people living in Burma/Myanmar were struggling a lot to be able to survive due to the poor human rights conditions, and I felt I had to support those people with the skills I have.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?

Yi-Lan: It is always very difficult for me to explain about human rights and the nature of my work to people who are from a different sector, or even to my friends and family. Because for many people, especially in Asia, human rights seem to be a very abstract concept that people are not familiar with. People are not taught about human rights, nor encouraged to pursue them due to various reason. To overcome this challenge, I learned to listen to people’s experiences first, try to use examples that are relevant to their daily life and to link those with the concept of rights.

Ploy: Sometimes the topics I wrote about were very sensitive, so if I was not always careful enough, which could have put my life in danger. I need to think about how I can protect myself, as well as the people who shared their information with me. Therefore I tried to write in a more neutral and objective way, and made sure that names were not revealed in any publication I produced.

Sha: Although I could see people suffering and I felt pity for them, I did not know how I could help them because I did not have much experience working on human rights. So I am now contributing my finance skills to the human rights sector, and meanwhile I can have more interaction with colleagues to learn more about the work for human rights.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights and development, what would it be?

Yi-Lan: I would like to encourage the younger generation to share your new ideas and inspiration with as many people as you can, especially with people who are not necessarily working in the human rights and development sector, so that more and more people can be engaged and contribute their expertise and resources to support the human rights movement in Asia.

Ploy: Working in the field of human rights requires passion; otherwise what you do would be less meaningful and not interesting. You also need to have patience, because most of the time change does not come overnight.

Sha: Nowadays, young people are enjoying a life in a better human rights situation, and many of them did not go through the same suffering that was experienced by previous generation. I hope the new generation can learn more from history, from their family, and to get involved with the work that enhances their learnings about the evolution of rights in the Asia region.