A recent SOAS graduate in South East Asian Studies and Burmese, Maya Muller-Mizrahi moved to Myanmar over a year ago to work for a Yangon-based NGO, Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, where she focuses among other issues, on non-discrimination in the workplace, including writing Myanmar’s first LGBT+ ‘Equality in the Workplace’ Handbook.
During her time at SOAS, Maya was chairwoman of SOAS Myanmar society, and two-time HART Essay prize winner on essays about Myanmar. Maya is now using her language skills to promote language learning around the country, her passion being to empower others, especially young women.
Current SOAS student Andrei Lejonvarn sat down with Maya for a chat – you can read some of the key questions from the interview here, or watch the conversation in full below.
Andrei: What led you to South East Asian Studies and Burmese at SOAS?
Maya: It was a couple of things. I initially signed up to do Arabic and Hebrew because I‘m half Israeli, and then took a gap year. During that gap year I went to South East Asia and felt so drawn to the feeling, the culture, and the people. I went to Bhutan, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, and Myanmar just stuck more than any of the other places. So, that was the beginning of my fascination with South East Asia, but then specifically my answer to why I started learning Burmese is that in and of itself, it‘s such a beautiful and fascinating language. The writing of it, listening to it, there’s something so beautiful for me. Especially hearing people from Mandalay speak Burmese. So, that’s my answer to that, and I encourage everyone to learn it.
Andrei: Learning languages is very easy for some people and very difficult for others. In terms of the specific course at SOAS, and learning Burmese, was it something that was easier in the beginning or was there some struggles – what was it like?
Maya: The reason I think it ultimately worked out was because I had one linguistic professor who knew 13 languages and knew the technical side of things, and I also had one professor who was a native speaker teach me. Having those two combined, and on top of that having the Myanmar society which had quite a big group of people, about 55 students with a lot of Burmese people. That combination was very powerful. Having said that though, Burmese is a language where you have to be in the country, so after three years, even though I had been studying Burmese for three hours a week, when I arrive here in Myanmar, I couldn’t really speak. I could say very basic things and that was it. However, it gave me a foundation and I can sense that the way that I’m learning is way faster than the people who arrive here and study from scratch. SOAS gives you that solid foundation and that’s what I think is so good about the course.
Andrei: Well, it’s all about your confidence and building that up to continue learning. So, you did your degree at SOAS for three years and then you graduated in 2019, and now you’re in Myanmar. So now you’re there, how’s that with the pandemic and how is it being there?
Maya: It’s nothing like what I would have expected. Every day is a beautiful bundle of chaos, there are power cuts and this and that, but Yangon, where I live, it’s a hustling and bustling city, even during Covid. The thing that’s so beautiful about living here is that the people are incredibly kind, helpful and generous. There’s a reason that Myanmar is one of the most generous countries in terms of giving donations to each other, and you really feel that. Whenever I’ve had a problem, e.g. when I’m on my bike and suddenly I have a puncture, immediately about five people come to help, or even when I’ve forgotten my wallet in a taxi they’ll come and bring it back to me. These kinds of things are amazing, so living in Yangon during the pandemic has been a massive blessing because the sense of community is very strong. Even though we can’t see each other, and regulations have been quite strict, everyone is super connected on social media. It’s been great because there has been that sense of solidarity among the people of Myanmar as well as foreigners here. There were the elections as well, so before the elections things were very closed and there were curfews, etc. Now that the elections are over, things are looking to open slowly.
Andrei: So this organisation you’re talking about right now, you’re working with them to create the first LGBTQI+ handbook. What was your experience with this and how was this received in Myanmar?
Maya: I’m really excited about this question! Basically, the month that I arrived, we had a workshop that brought together big multinationals and SMEs to learn about LGBTQI+ in the workplace. Why don’t we rephrase LGBTQI and create a handbook since there hasn’t been one, and my boss immediately agreed so we forged a partnership with the biggest LGBTQI+ organisations in Myanmar. We wanted to create something that would be a very direct manual. It’s very short and visual, and pleasurable to read. The reason for creating the handbook is both because I’m queer, so it’s something I’m very passionate about, but also because Myanmar has a long way to go.
On the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, we had a day where, in spite of Covid, we had a lot of companies raise the rainbow flag. The handbook has now had about 500 downloads, which is not a lot, but it’s our job to raise awareness about it. The cause is being cause forward, thanks to organisations that we are working with, and we also provide training and things. I want the big CEOs to read it, and the best way to do that is to pick up the phone and call them. For that, they need to know who I am, so it’s really helpful that I’ve become like a public figure here
To hear the rest of the conversation, watch the video below: