‘Outrespection’ is not technically and English word – but it is being proposed as one, defined as “A method in which you get to know oneself by developing relationships and empathetic thinking with others.”
On the morning of October 25, 2017, Nang Shining stood in front of over 400 delegates and delivered a powerful opening speech about her work in Myanmar’s Shan State. She detailed a world where she, colleagues and other Shan citizens watched their world unfold in directions that they frequently did not like, and which worried and concerned her. She spoke about the WLE Greater Mekong programme as one avenue (amongst many in which she is involved) by which she and her Weaving Bonds Across Borders group try to redress the present by changing the future. In the meantime, her partner walked the edges of the ballroom, watching her and listening as he cradled their baby and, I supposed, cringed when it bleated.
And when Nang Shining was finished, and the applause had subsided, she introduced and handed the podium over to the Australian Ambassador to Myanmar.
Nang Shining is young, like many of those involved in our programme. She’s also very smart, and deeply involved in and committed to the work that she does. Like most people in WLE Greater Mekong, she sees no shame in having a powerful emotional connection with the work that she does. Like everyone in our programme, Nang Shining works in a turbulent environment. Myanmar is a rapidly changing country, and her topic matter –water – is always challenging. Perhaps more than any other resource, water has the potential to pit neighbours against each other, whether at community or national levels. Negotiating a path through highly emotional strategic interests is something we have become good at in the WLE.
431 people registered for our 2017 forum, representing 171 different institutions. 16% of these were regional government agencies, while 13% were regional NGOs, another 11% were international NGOs. So too, we had representation from the private sector, regional and international research interests and international government. If you have even modest amounts of experience in the Mekong Region, you’ll know that, by rights, it really should devolve into imbroglio. But it doesn’t. At the 2017 Greater Mekong on Water, Food and Energy, civil society rubbed shoulders with governments and the private sector and constructively discussed the challenges they mutually faced.
Dare I say that I think all of those we work with have come to understand that the space we convene is intended as a co-creative space? That, in this space, you need to meet others half way? That in this space, listening is as important as speaking, and that all ideas, positions and perspective are respected? It takes time and patience and creativity to develop such spaces; it takes considerable trust in order to achieve them.
The lines of tension are not merely between those in favour of developing water resources and those who prefer conservation; the lines are also gendered, between those who perceive women, men and the relations between them as fundamental to the social landscapes that define water use and exploitation in the region, and those who see water use and exploitation as fundamentally masculine. As a social scientist, I have never understood how a contrasting variable as profound as a person’s gender can be overlooked when conducting rural research, or as a fundamental politic in the exploitation of natural resources. Gender lies at the very heart of all natural resources political economies.
It was this question that our friends at Oxfam grappled with in Session 11. Have you ever seen ‘forum theater’? Elsewhere known as ‘the theater of the oppressed’, forum theater sets out to create empathies, calling upon the audience to place themselves in particular contexts so that they can feel what it’s like to be someone in some place in some moment, such as a woman being disempowered, or ignored, or overlooked, or underrepresented. I have appreciated immensely their use of this tool as a way for both women and men to caste themselves as another gender.
Our colleagues at the Ayeyarwady State of the Basin Assessment were also clever with their session (the first of the forum, in fact). They brought in an immense, three-dimensional model of the basin, around which participants organised themselves, and which served to focus discussion. Meanwhile, up in Session 7, inhabitants from the Salween Basin – many of whom wore their national costumes – sought to convey the challenges of governing this basin from the very most local of levels. And in Session 9, back down in the ball room, our colleagues from the Department of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems proposed a river basin organisation for the Salween.
My point here is to emphasise the different ways and different approaches that each and every session team brings to the forum. As we design the event, we are asked every day for the agenda. But the agenda is literally not ready until three days before the forum. That’s what you get with intensely participatory processes. But the trade-off is so very well worth it, and I am confident that no other event is able to bring to bear such immense diversity, such an explosion of different ideas and formats and expressions in the portrayal of argument and in the presentation of scientific evidence.
Those of you who have read my ‘outrespectives’ in the past will know that I dwell repeatedly on the diversity of the event. That’s because it amazes me every time we implement it. This year, our Myanmar hosts turned out in very significant numbers. 34% of participants were Myanmar nationals. Perhaps unkindly, I lumped the 14 different nationalities who weren’t from the Greater Mekong into a single class named ‘international’ – they comprised 27% of participants. But then the balance was more or less evenly distributed between the other Greater Mekong countries.
The latter included China, where, despite the competing dates of the 19th Party Congress, 6% of participants came from. It will be an enduring memory for me of Dr. Lu Ying from the Asia International Rivers Center at Yunnan University wandering about with his highly specialised mobile phone video stabilising equipment. The product is splendid, and you can see it here.
This year’s forum also seemed far less tense than previous ones. Was it that our hosts were so circumspect? Or that my colleague and friend, David Clayton (who is primary organiser on the event) seemed to have found inner peace and radiated good will and humour throughout? Or was it that I knew how hard our facilitators had been working, with each and every session team, to support them and encourage them away from output and towards input? Perhaps it was because we were so well supported by Mayvong, Ruby, Noi, Lei Lei and the Mandalay Technology team? Or was it the really rather excellent venue of the Inya Lake Hotel, a truly beautiful spot?
We have now run the forum every year since 2011 (with one exception in 2014). What happens next? Where will it be? Will we run it in 2018 or 2019? I cannot say at this stage. But if you want to share with me what you think about it, or how it might have changed you in a small but meaningful way, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
If you were there, thank you for participating; if you weren’t, I hope we’ll have the opportunity to welcome you in the future. It’s a really great event – please support it!