Grassroots-oriented leader and community mobilizer Sai Sam Phoon Seng played an important role in the most recent election campaign for Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, where he serves as its International Secretary. Sai Sam is also a 2015 DeBoer Fellow and has been deeply invested in his communities for years. The following is an excerpt from our interview with him.
DeBoer Fellowship (DF) staff: Why are you in this field of work?
Sai Sam: I was born into a family that inspired me to be intrigued in politics and political work that benefits the community. I was raised in such a community and that provided an easy transition for me into this area of work. I believe that I am carrying out unfinished historical duties for my community and country. I’ve been very passionate about working for the betterment of others. I am encouraged when I get positive feedback from the communities that our work is really effective for them. Certainly, there are times when I don’t get immediate feedback as our work takes time. But, when I do receive positive responses from them after one or more years, it motivates me to continue on in the work.
DF staff: As you are working for the youth from the community, how do you stay sharp in your work?
Sai Sam: I always try to keep myself updated and current and try to learn new things. We must be lifelong learners so we are not left behind in the age of information technology. I also try to be open-minded, accepting challenges to my ideas or finding new ways to use old ideas. I always try to polish my knowledge.
DF staff: How does your community or organization benefit from what you do?
Sai Sam: When I joined DeBoer Fellowship, I learned that an organization can be transformed with people’s spirit. From this concept, I realized that people’s attitude and spirit are more important for the long-run sustainability of the organization. So, I focused on value-based trainings to the community-based organizations. Through these trainings, they seem to have more understanding of each other through shared values, regardless of their different skills or expertise.
DF staff: What are some of the most challenging things you encounter at your work?
Sai Sam: Currently, I can’t conduct my project activities due to the government’s mobility restrictions. Another challenge comes through working with diverse groups. There are some conflicting beliefs among the elder people who faced different situations and do not have the same background or opportunities like us. It is always a challenge to coordinate with the young people who have different interests and backgrounds whenever I want to conduct training or activities. Finding common ground and a path forward takes time and dedication.
DF staff: Can you tell us about your understanding of values and integrity in the context of your life and work?
Sai Sam: From within the non-governmental organization and political sectors, I have noticed that most young people believe that politicians are dishonest and that being in politics is dangerous. It is unfortunate that they are growing up with negative points of view about politics because they saw examples from the past times. So, I have worked hard to explain and promote that politicians should be ethical leaders and that they should be men and women of integrity. I apply those practices to my daily life and work to be an example for the youth.
We must have shared values. Values can’t be sold or bargained for but shared within the organization. In my work, we focus on what we consider to be our values. I believe it is also important for our country to have shared values so that we can live in harmony.
DF staff: What kind of leadership do you hope to see in the future? Why?
Sai Sam: I want to see ethical political leadership in the future. Political leaders should be ethical and have integrity because they are leading the country. They are responsible for many important decisions for people throughout the country.
DF staff: If you could change one thing in your organization, what would that be?
Sai Sam: I want to see a change in the spirit of resilience. I want our people to have strong mindsets that prepares them for the unexpected situations or challenges of the future. Resilience is key to overcoming uncertainties and difficulties.
DF staff: Can you share with us about your experience being a DeBoer Lifelong Fellow?
Sai Sam: DeBoer Fellowship is one of the pioneer leadership programs in Myanmar. I always think about ways I can support and collaborate with DeBoer Fellowship. Unlike other organizations, I feel that DeBoer Fellowship is owned by the people of Myanmar. I believe it will keep going with innovative ideas and it won’t stop growing.
Sai Sam Phoon Seng is the Project Coordinator of Hsaipen Institute (HI) based in Taunggyi, Shan State. HI empowers youths and encourages them to get involved in the social political sector. In his role, Sai Sam oversees all project activities including coordination with donors’ organizations. He also serves as an International Secretary at the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. Sai Sam received his Bachelor’s Degree from the State University of New York Plattsburgh College with a concentration in Government and International Relations.