My co-op term at the Embassy of Canada to Burma was a wonderful, challenging, and eye-opening experience. I highly encourage students to pursue this co-op and hope this post provides insight into its great value.
Before I applied for the co-op I hardly knew anything about Burma as the country was closed off from the international community for decades. When I was offered the phone interview I tried to do a lot of research on the country to prepare. At that time, most of the information I found focused on the brutality of Burma’s military junta (from 1962-2011), and so I pictured the country to be controlled, bleak, and conflict-prone. It is true that the country has many conflicts and challenges that should not be overlooked, such as ethnic and religious conflicts, widespread poverty, and lack of education.
With this being said when I arrived in Burma I realized that Western media tends to focus on only one narrative of the country as listed above. I soon found out that Burma has so much beauty and livelihood that many people don’t know about. There is has been a huge influx of development in the country, and a lot more freedom than one may imagine. For example, there is no internet censorship anymore. Living in Yangon I actually felt very safe, and I found the Burmese people to be extremely friendly, positive and welcoming towards me. There’s also a strong sense of tradition and culture that I haven’t seen in another country, which is really quite stunning. This includes the wearing of thanaka which is a paste people wear on their faces for sun protection and aesthetics, as well as the wearing of longyis which are garments that look like skirts and are worn equally by men and women. Another common sight in Yangon: lots of monks!
The Embassy and Burma (Myanmar)
The Embassy is located in downtown Yangon, next to Sule Pagoda, which is in the heart of the city. Before major political changes towards democracy around 2010, Canada had Burma under sanctions and there was very little Canadian presence in the country. As Canadian-Burmese relations are still relatively new, this is the first Canadian Embassy in Burma and it’s only about one years old. It’s quite small, with about twelve people in total, both local and Canadian staff.
The Embassy is divided into three main sections: political, trade and development. I didn’t realize that with the exception of the program assistant to the Ambassador (Mark McDowell), that it was only me and the Ambassador in the political section. So from early on there was high expectations to work directly with the Ambassador on political relations in the country. I often felt like my job duties were beyond an internship level which was very rewarding. This co-op is a lot of responsibility!
One of my favourite roles was writing reports on political issues in the country. Some example topics of reports I wrote, which were then edited by the Ambassador included: controversial proposed race and religious laws and media freedom in the country. I often gathered information by shadowing the Ambassador on his meetings and taking notes.
Preparing for high-level visits from Canada was also part of the role. I organized the visit Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom. The visit took about three months of planning, and was challenging to organize at time as unexpected instances would come up. For example, the arrival date changed after I had planned an itinerary within the previous timeframe, so I had to shift some meetings around at the last minute.
Another big role of the job was managing the Embassy’s Facebook page, which has about 50,000 followers at the moment. The Ambassador has a background in public diplomacy and was very hands on with the Facebook page, sometimes writing posts himself. Our Facebook audience is mainly young Burmese so it’s a great way to connect with active users and to promote the Canada “brand”. I was excited to be featured as April’s Staff of the Month on the Facebook page as well, which was another great way for me to share about my experience at the Embassy.
As noted, this job is extremely rewarding and really sets the bar high in terms of work. Because of the workload there was a lot of overtime, both evenings and weekends. Additionally the internship was unpaid, as is common with the Embassy of Canada internships. I was grateful to receive funding through both the International Co-op Award and International Co-op Bursary, which definitely helped me out.
What I Learned
This co-op taught me so much. Firstly, I am a Communication major with an International Studies minor. I knew I wanted to explore work in international studies but had a hard time trying to find a job because of my lack of formal experience. I learned that although it takes some persistence, it’s possible to get an offer and succeed in a co-op outside my major. I was even able to utilize my communication skills at times, such as with the Facebook page and reporting on media freedom in the country.
This was my first time living in a developing county and at times it took me out of my comfort zone, especially with the language barrier and choosing to do some solo traveling around the country. In all though this incredible learning opportunity has opened my eyes to a different way of living outside my BC bubble, and I hope that anyone interested in the co-op go after it with open arms.