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Leveraging IRI’s Leadership Training School: Thazin Toke

Three years ago, Burma held its first competitive general election in 25 years. The election was an important milestone in the county’s reform process after over 50 years of authoritarian rule. Following the election of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, expectations were high that the promised economic and political reforms would be delivered. But while this election was a positive step, it would be a mistake to overlook the on-going needs of political institutions in Burma. Under the oppressive military rule, these institutions deteriorated and now they must be rebuilt. This is the task being undertaken by IRI as part of our larger Strengthening Democratic Institutions (SDI) initiative.

One element of IRI’s SDI work in Burma is the Leadership Training School (LTS). LTS works to incorporate a more inclusive and diverse leadership in Burma’s political parties, specifically supporting female leadership. Prior to the 2015 elections, women made up a paltry 3.8 percent of parliamentarians at a state/regional level.  After the 2015 elections, subnational parliaments saw a dramatic increase in the number of women serving as Members of Parliament (MPs), increasing participation in parliaments to 9.7 percent. Although the increase in female leadership was an improvement, there is still a lot of work to be done. Both a lack of training and confidence serve as serious obstacles for women in Burma pursuing leadership roles. To that end, LTS works to equip women party members with the necessary tools and skills to take on larger leadership roles within their parties and communities.

Leading up to the 2020 general elections in Burma, IRI will feature several LTS alumni in a series highlighting Burma’s democratic transition. Thazin Toke’s story is the first.

Diverse linguistic make-up and decades of ethnic conflict make for a challenging environment for political and civil society leaders in Kayin State, Burma. Leaders view themselves as either civil society leaders or political leaders, but hostility between the two groups means that few individuals identify with both.

Thazin Toke, a civil society leader who recently took a leadership role within a newly emerging political party, has decided to bridge that divide.

Thazin is an active, ranking member of Free and Justice, a civil society organization (CSO) based in Hpa-An, Kayin State. Through her work with Free and Justice, Thazin recently implemented a road safety project that teaches the community how to reduce traffic accidents and improve transit awareness. As a prominent CSO leader, she was invited to join LTS.

From November 2017 to March 2018, Thazin was a participant in the second LTS cohort. After completing IRI’s LTS programing, Thazin realized that a woman with her background in business and dedication to solving local issues would be valuable in politics. She was empowered to share her voice in a male dominated arena and was elected to serve as the Deputy Secretary of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) for the Karen National Democratic Party.

“I was nominated to become the Secretary in the executive committee as I assumed women needed to be involved more in decision-making roles,” Thazin said. By winning her seat on the CEC, she secured her place as the only woman on the committee.   

“I often post about my abilities and activities on Facebook and from those posts, people are getting to know me better and this is one of the reasons I won the position [on the CEC]. I am also confident I have greater knowledge than my rivals and I can make a better contribution to the party as I have received various training from different organizations,” said Thazin. “I find the LTS training helpful to make important decisions for my career. I have learned more about task allocation and management to become a better leader.”

Thazin’s new position is just the beginning of her political career. She plans to run for state or national office in 2020 and will use analysis on the 2015 election results from IRI consultations to build upon her past elections experience.

To become a candidate for parliament as a member of the Karen National Democratic Party, Thazin will first face internal political party challenges. If nominated by her party, she will likely face an incumbent with years of experience in parliament. To prepare for that challenge, she recently requested copies of IRI’s Campaign Management manual to share with her political party and has already started to prepare for her own campaign.

IRI will continue to support Thazin through her next steps as she was recently selected for IRI’s advanced LTS program where she will have access to IRI mentors who have held elected office.  Thazin is excited to continue giving more voice to women in Burma’s time of transition.