Nine years ago, Ursula Cats traveled to Myanmar (formerly Burma) for the first time. That trip changed her life. In a country that was then under the oppressive rule of a military junta, locals implored her to share their stories when she returned to the Netherlands.
“The people there basically said what Aung San Suu Kyi said, ‘Use your freedom to promote ours,’ ” she recalls. “I couldn’t let go of the people asking me, ‘Could you please tell everyone in your country about what we are going through here?’ ”
Economic growth, education, and innovation stagnated during decades of dictatorship and left Myanmar one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. But Ms. Cats saw a genuine desire among the people to improve their communities and country.
In 2009, she returned to the region to help facilitate that change. Setting up a foundation in Myanmar would have been too risky for both the organization and those it was meant to serve. Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand a few hours’ drive from the border with Myanmar’s Shan State, provides a safer headquarters for other Myanmar-focused nongovernmental organizations. So that is where she headed.