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“Open ears: the value of regional conversation”

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Jasmine An

Since joining the UCRSEA team, one of my favorite parts of the job has been the opportunity to travel within the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) and meet with professors, researchers and students from many countries who are also interested in understanding urbanization and climate change. This October, I got to join a group of over 15 UCRSEA partnership members in the inaugural Collaborative City Exchange trips to Dawei, Myanmar.

The Collaborative City Exchange trips are built into the UCRSEA program to provide partners an opportunity to network and also strengthen their knowledge about the various issues of urbanization, regionalization and climate change affecting the GMS. Once a year, UCRSEA partnership members will gather together in a different target city to learn from each other, and also learn from local multi-stakeholders about the specific challenges and issues of the selected city.

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Despite the complex nature of urbanization, many cities across Southeast Asia are facing similar challenges related to rapid development and the changing climate: poor governance leading to ineffective management, air, water and solid waste pollution, inability to cope with population growth, and etcetera. These similarities, and also to the unique factors of each country and city, make it especially productive for interested individuals from different countries to gather together, share knowledge and see what can be learned from their neighbors. As well as learning from the multi-stakeholders of Dawei (knowledge that will be discussed more in depth in a future blog post), this trip provided the participants a valuable opportunity to learn from each other as they shared stories of successes and challenges in their own work.

During a Shared Learning Dialogue the first afternoon we arrived in Dawei, the UCRSEA group met with a group of local researchers, university lecturers and concerned citizens to talk about the affects of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ) that is currently under construction about an hour’s drive from Dawei city. As we talked about the DSEZ, the local multi-stakeholders were able to speak to the concrete needs of their communities, and specific local affects of the construction such as displacement of local communities, and the need for greater transparency and communication from the developers. To supplement this information, UCRSEA members were able to speak in terms of the regional effects of the project and its regional history. In particular, my discussion group, which included professors from Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar was able to draw historical patterns tracking the displacement of dirty industry from Japan, to Cambodia, to Thailand, and finally to Myanmar. This regional information, along with the specific local information, allowed us to see a more complete picture of the DSEZ’s potential impacts.

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However, I found some of the most valuable moments of learning occurred at unexpected times outside of the planned workshops and meetings. At dinner the first night, I compared the political and economic development of various Asian countries with Professor Naret from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Waiting in the Yangon domestic airport for our delayed flight to Dawei, I struck up a conversation with ThanousornVongpraseuth, a researcher from the National University of Laos, about comparing traffic patterns to water flow and our shared interest in sustainable architecture. During the hour-long van ride from Dawei city to the DSEZ, I chatted with our local translator about the university system in Dawei and her hopes to do translating work for civil society organizations in the future.

For me, these informal sharing sessions and exchanges were an important part of the trip. Gathering sucha collection of international experts together is a great opportunity for learning and regional exchange. In future Collaborative City Exchange trips, I look forward to deeper opportunities for interdisciplinary analysis and engagement through workshops and Shared Learning Dialogues. However, we should also remember to leave room for the informal, unstructured dialogues and spontaneous moments of learning that can teach us so much as well.

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