Teen building Burmese democracy

ESSAYS ON TRANSITION: Akshan de Alwis of Sharon created the Youth for Youth Democracy Building program in Burma last year. He has also written about countries in political transition for the Diplomatic Courier and the Turkish Policy Quarterly. His latest essays are on political transition in Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan, and the application of the responsibility-to-protect doctrine in Syria.

He also recently won a national gold medal for writing in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards program, and his piece was selected as part of the Anthology of Best Teen Writing of 2013.

He is just getting warmed up: The incoming senior at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham turns 17 on Sept. 12.


“Doing work in Burma appealed to me because it’s a nation in transition,” said the soft-spoken teen. “The Burmese government has made attempts to reconnect to the West. Last year, they took big steps in relaxing some of the policies they had in effect.”

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Alwis visited Burma and was invited to return to teach and engage with youth, develop the democracy-building program, and write a curriculum based on democratic governance in different countries, including the United States, India, South Africa, and Great Britain. He returned to Burma last summer and taught hundreds of youths in temples and Democratic Party offices.

This summer, he returned with an expanded curriculum on youth and good governance, which was translated to Burmese. He has developed a group of Burmese youth leaders to continue teaching.

“I think it’s a most important time to try helping the Burmese people transition toward a democratic government,” he said.

Alwis, son of parents who came to America from Sri Lanka, was drawn to Burma because his late grandmother was fond of the country. He said there is a large Buddhist population in Sri Lanka.


“Burma imported Buddhism back to Sri Lanka after it had died out a couple of hundred years ago,” he said.

His work has been well-received, he said, adding “they keep inviting me back. A lot of youths seem to like it, and I’ve made some really good friends.”

Asked if the government interferes with his work, he said it does not, because “they don’t like messing with foreigners, especially if the work is phrased correctly. A lot of governments who don’t like what you do let it go until it becomes dangerous.

“Although there’s a lot of repression there and has been for about 30 years, there’s a lot of democracy building in Burma,” Alwis said. “The government tries to handle it by moving away. They built a city 150 miles away from other big cities, they secluded the government and don’t have a schedule for its parliament. They do a good job of ignoring a lot of the work we do; they don’t like getting involved.”

After he finishes at Noble and Greenough, where he writes for the school paper, Alwis isn’t sure where he will go to school, but said he likes Brown University in Providence because it’s close to home.


“My career goal would be more domestic,” he said, such as working in constitutional law or history. “But international work has always been my thing because I have access to a lot of resources. It’s been more focused on Sri Lanka and returning to my roots, and the connection between Burma and Sri Lanka has always been strong for me. What I want to do is not necessarily tied to a profession, but something I’ve always wanted to do.”

BC HIGH STUDENT EARNS AWARDS: Michael Coffey of Quincy, a graduate of Boston College High School, earned special awards at graduation, including the Richard Reardon Award for what school officials said was a commitment to service and concern for the well-being of all people. He also earned an award for excellence in Spanish Advanced Placement.

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Janet Pistone of Marshfield was named manager of the Jack Conway Co.’s Plymouth real estate office. Pistone, who was recently elected vice president of the Duxbury Business Association, also manages the company’s Duxbury and Marshfield offices. Meanwhile, Sue Gilbin of Hingham has joined Conway’s Hingham office as an associate. She has been in real estate for 10 years and is past president of the Hingham Mothers’ Club.

Dennis Tellier of Quincy has joined Acella Construction Corp. in Norwell as a project superintendent. Tellier coordinates site construction work and supervises all field personnel in his new job. He has more than 30 years of experience in the construction industry and most recently was a project superintendent with Bond Brothers Inc.

E-mail Paul E. Kandarian at