Dressed in traditional Chin textiles, a cup of tea in one hand, Anna Sui Hluan cuts a dignified and impressive figure. In the refined interior of Le Planteur Restaurant & Lounge, we sat down to discuss her life, faith, and her many projects, all with the same fundamental goal – improving the lives of disadvantaged people in modern-day Myanmar.
Being the wife of Myanmar Vice President Henry Van Thio is perhaps the least interesting thing about Dr Anna. She is a linguist, researcher, Christian preacher, and social activist, writing extensively about language, rights, female emancipation and the difficulty of scriptural interpretation in the modern world.
“I’m better at preaching than interviews”, says Dr Anna Sui Hluan, taking a sip of tea to calm her nerves. Dr Anna has given few interviews over the years, preferring to dedicate her time and energy to social causes.
Although she was born in Chin state, she grew up in Yangon, Myanmar as her first language. She grew up in a family of Christian pastors, and her father was a preacher. After the strike broke out in 1988, many schools were closed, so she chose to attend a nearby bible college, where her interest in social activism fermented. Although Dr Anna has lived abroad for many years, she makes it clear that her burning desire has always been to spend her life in Myanmar, “serving the people”, as she puts it.
Dr Anna has just returned from her most recent project, the Myanmar Women’s Leaders program, of which she is the patron and joined to support the effort put in by its young female founder, Pyit Thiri Thaw of Myanmar Financial Center. Over the course of the trip, a delegation of Myanmar women visited Munich, Zurich, and Milan to attend training courses, meet other leaders, experiencing the different cultures and bond through a shared vision of female empowerment.
Dr Anna talks warmly about the diversity she encountered on the trip, which featured women from many backgrounds – business, teaching, NGOs, and even commercial jewelry. Not only were the Myanmar women impressive, but so were the European women occupying positions of influence and power in Europe progressive societies.
“I accepted because this seems like a priority right now,” explains Dr Anna. As a young girl, she explains, Myanmar culture confronted her with many limitations. “I always questioned “Why? I remember watching a boy climb a tree, while I was forbidden. Why?”
Ironically, this lack of female freedom is in some ways a new phenomenon.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European and American missionaries were astounded by the liberty afforded to women in Myanmar culture. During the dark days of the 20th century, this equality was eroded and diminished through political, religious and authoritarian methods – until now, when a new wave of global gender activism has washed over contemporary Burma, buoyed through social media and new forms of technology.
“Despite the challenges, progress is being made” states Dr Anna confidently. “Women are determined to do more, and there is hope again.”
I ask her why she chose this as her primary social cause. “I was blessed with a father who believed in educating sons as well as daughters. And my husband, he also believes in empowering women. Because of him, I was able to study until my Ph.D. My supervisors and teachers see me as a person – a person with a brain, with capabilities and qualities. So they decided to invest in me.”
She continues, warming to her point. “If you educate a woman you can educate a whole generation – if you invest in a woman you are investing in generations. Men should see their daughter as valuable alike son.”
If women’s rights are one of her areas of expertise, another is her faith. I ask Dr Anna if she feels that modern-day religions are positive forces for female emancipation, and she pauses for a second before she answers.
“In my dissertation, I highlighted the fact that scriptural interpretation is key. That raises questions- in the 21st century how can we understand these ancient scriptures? Religion is just an object. It’s the people that uses the religion that are the problem. Religion itself teaches many good things.”
Dr Anna is also optimistic about the potential for better integration of Myanmar’s diverse faiths. “I am very positive that Myanmar is going to move forward. Myanmar was ironically much more inclusive in my school days than now. We have already done it, we can do it again!”
Dr Anna sees the need for intervention across Myanmar society. For example, the Wash Project in public schools – building toilets and wash stations in public schools. “We are also doing workshops where we talk about hygienic and clean toilets. We want to raise awareness, and change the mentality people have about these things” she says.
“To me, the behavior of a person lies in how they use a toilet. If you are considerate of other people you will wipe the toilet seat before you leave. It raises issues of kindness. This stuff challenges a lot of our natural selfishness. It might seem small but you can draw larger conclusions from these small actions.”
We pause to adjust the microphones. I ask her if she is tired. She laughs
“I am a preacher – I preach one or two hours. This is just a warm up!”
Beyond just women and religion, Dr Anna is also involved in a number of other projects. One is a school for the disabled, and another is “Water Mothers”, a group of women seeking to provide better access to fresh and clean drinking water across Myanmar.
“These are the areas where I feel not a lot of people are interested and they are neglected,” she explains. “Anywhere where I see people who are voiceless – that’s the right place to focus.”
“Anything else you would like to say?” I asked her. She smiles one final time.
“One misunderstanding is that we are against men. We are not against men. We are saying let’s have harmony by recognizing each other as human beings, as valuable. A society that is kind, inclusive and considerate of others. That’s the kind of society I want to live in.”
Watch her video interview here