University of Virginia School of Law student Rachel Gallagher ’19 used her $6,500 Public Interest Law Association grant to fund her work this summer investigating human rights abuses and researching ongoing human rights violations.

I’ve spent most of my summer working at the Yangon office for the Japanese nongovernmental organization Human Rights Now in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Yangon, although no longer the capital of Myanmar, is still a vibrant and culturally rich city, and like the rest of Myanmar, is experiencing rapid economic and political growth since the democratization and opening up of the country at the start of the decade. This has made it both a fascinating and critical time to work on human rights issues here.

The HRN office is fairly small, with only one permanent staff member, and after my first week here, she was rotated out to attend the Human Rights Council Sessions in Geneva for a month. It was a bit challenging to abruptly be the only intern/staff onsite, but thankfully, I started the summer doing the familiar task of legal research before transitioning into the investigative portions of our work, and only had to conduct one unaccompanied site visit.

One of my favorite things about working for HRN has been the chance to participate in field investigations into human rights violations and have the opportunity to interact with all sorts of people that many tourists will never meet, as well as have a look into some of the less-well-known parts of life here that, although glossed over by informational brochures and tour guides, are still a quintessentially Myanmar experience.

In one of our investigations we were headed into a small village, made up of huts built with bits and ends of scrap metal, which was the kind of place that obviously didn’t see much in the way of foreign travelers. Almost as soon as we started conducting interviews, we were swarmed by 20 to 30 local children who had come to say hello, smile, wave and observe. They actually ended up impeding our ability to interview the villagers, so I got to serve as the distraction. I broke away from the other interviewers and the children and I kicked around an empty plastic bottle in an impromptu soccer match, which is one of my best memories of the summer so far.

As I wrap up my last week in Myanmar, what sticks out the most to me as I think back over the summer is just how openly good-natured and inviting the people I’ve met are. From the time the fisherman we were interviewing told me I was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen and offered me a large, fresh-caught eel (as well as the other fisherman who liked my eyes and tried to hand me a carp instead), to a local woman in Bagan, who upon learning I was traveling solo, grabbed my arm and squeezed me into the open-air pickup truck she and  her seven other relatives were sharing so I could join them on their family vacation, I have been continuously surprised at the number of people willing to go out of their way to offer me assistance.

Despite the monsoon season and the near-constant rain that loomed overhead, my visit was far from dismal, as I was able to get out and travel to Myanmar’s most scenic spots, spend a week of vacation traveling Taiwan with my dad, and meet so many incredible people, all while contributing to important and meaningful work!

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