MYITKYINA, Kachin State, Myanmar — In 2010, at the age of 19, Zenan Sumlut fled her native village of Gara Yang in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. With a return to civil war following a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military, the village was no longer safe.
Five years later, as sporadic fighting continued, Sumlut found herself studying agriculture at the Paran cooperative community in the Central Arava region of Israel. Her family was still living in a camp for internally displaced persons in Kachin’s state capital, Myitkyina.
As a participant in a yearlong applied agriculture and entrepreneurship program organized through a partnership between the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) and the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), Sumlut harvested and packed peppers five days a week while taking weekly classes.
Sumlut’s participation was motivated by a desire to learn and experience life abroad, as well as to visit places of religious significance. Like most Kachin, Sumlut is Christian, and the program includes three trips to religious sites. Some Kachin also identify with Israelis as a group with a shared a history of persecution.
Sumlut now manages an organic rice mill and oil press back in Myitkyina. The products are sold at affordable prices to local communities, including others displaced by the conflict. An estimated 97,000 Kachin currently reside in displaced person camps.
Sumlut doesn’t have clear memories of her parents, who died before she finished high school. Raised by relatives, she grew up farming rice, oranges and teak trees. In 2017, her relatives went back to their village to check on their land and found soldiers living in their house; shortly after, an acquaintance was killed by a landmine during a similar visit.
“Because of the war, my family got no benefit from our land,” Sumlut says. “Living in the camp, we lost our dignity. I lost so much from the war, but one good thing was I got to go to Israel. Before, I never thought of leaving my village, let alone living in a foreign country. Through studying in Israel, I increased my knowledge, skills and experience.”
Sumlut’s studies were part of a diploma course in sustainable development through the KBC; in addition to the year in Israel, she studied for a year at the KBC’s Ake Eco Farm and Sustainable Development Learning Center near Myitkyina. Since graduating in 2017, she has supervised the production and sale of rice, mustard and peanut oil, and fertilizer made from the byproducts, for the KBC’s community development department.
Approximately 340 KBC participants have studied agriculture through AICAT since the partnership began in 2011. Students from Myanmar join those from 13 other Asian and African countries at one of five agricultural cooperatives in the Central Arava region – Ein Yahav, Hatzeva, Paran, Idan, and Tsofar.
The sincerest form of flattery
Back in Kachin, program alum and current Ake Learning Center coordinator Pauhkyi Sinwa Naw has sought to replicate the AICAT model, practicing entrepreneurship by giving students seed money and allocating plots of land for them develop their own small businesses. Students are also given the chance to conduct applied research projects on Ake’s 89-acre campus.
AICAT’s founder and director Hanni Arnon, who visits Myanmar annually, is aware that “the gap is huge” between the countries in terms of resources and technological advancement. However, she emphasizes that farming in the Arava desert, where average annual rainfall is less than 50 millimeters (roughly two inches), can serve as an example of “how to make the impossible possible,” and that success “is not magic – it is hard work, creative thoughts, believing that you can do it.”
At Ake, this can-do attitude is reflected among students. Dumdaw Naw Zet, the son of a small-scale farmer, grows cucumbers under a bamboo greenhouse with a drip irrigation system he fashioned out of intravenous tubing and water bottles. He plans to begin studying in Israel in July, where he can “learn how to farm more systematically so I can share this knowledge with my family.”
Hpung Jat Tu Seng, who will also begin studies in Israel in July, cultivated an interest in natural fertilizers, which he is testing on okra plants.
“In my village, farming is not systematic and people use a lot of chemical fertilizers. I compare [those methods] with the things I learned at Ake, and I see that [natural methods] are right,” Seng says.
For others, the program offers a reason to hope. Htoi Seng Mai was struggling to find a direction when her single father passed away last year.
“I lost my way,” Mai says. “I didn’t know what to do. I passed my time playing games, going to tea shops with my friends, playing football.”
A friend informed her of Ake, and though she struggled at first, her bright smile now radiates from the front of the classroom. After joining the Israeli course in July, she hopes to use her earnings to start a small business upon her return.
For their work, AICAT students are paid hourly wages set individually by farm managers, who must abide by national minimum wage and overtime laws. School tuition and accommodation fees are deducted; students are self-funded and must also cover their own travel expenses including airfare. Working alongside Thai farmworkers, students are exempt from the most strenuous tasks. According to alumni, most students return with low net earnings but some save enough to start small businesses.
Founded in 1994, AICAT, supported by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Agriculture, trains about 1,200 students per year. Students from Myanmar also study at the Ramat Negev International Training Center for Advanced Agriculture.
Between the two schools, Myanmar sends 200 to 300 students per year through the KBC and other organizations.
Several returnees have gone on to pursue agribusiness back in Myanmar. Soe Min, who studied at Ramat Negev in 2010 through Yaesin University, established a 60-acre macadamia nut farm using a kibbutz model, and Thida Win, who studied at AICAT in 2011 through the Myanmar Fisheries Federation, is now CEO of a social enterprise which trains and supports beekeepers to operate 2,000 hives. The beekeepers produce honey for market distribution around Myanmar and in Hong Kong.
Htawshae Lum Hkawng, the first AICAT student from the KBC and now the KBC’s development program coordinator, says that in addition to instilling technical knowledge and skills, the program promotes linkages between Kachin participants and Israel.
Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Ronen Gilor, tells The Times of Israel that the program can also strengthen bilateral relations at the diplomatic level.
“The expectation is that when [students] come back, they will be good emissaries of what Israel is. [The program] gives us an opportunity to enlarge and expand the relationship between the two countries,” Gilor says.
Both Myanmar and Israel gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, and the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1953. According to the Israeli Embassy website, since that time, “the two countries have nurtured a strong bond of friendship.”
Myanmar was the first country in Southeast Asia to recognize Israel as an independent state, and in 1955, U Nu was the first foreign prime minister to visit.
To date, 23 Israeli ambassadors have visited Myanmar and 22 Myanmar ambassadors have visited Israel – prominent Israeli visitors have included Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, former president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and former foreign ministers Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres.