Sue Anne Teo is a Senior Programme Officer at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. Before coming to RWI, she worked in the UN on Myanmar refugee issues.
Originally wanting to study fine arts, Sue Anne’s experience growing up as a Malaysian Chinese LGBT citizen largely influenced her decision to work in human rights. She has worked for RWI in Sweden for seven years now on projects in countries including Vietnam, China, and Myanmar.
Can you tell me about your background?
I’m from Malaysia and came to Sweden seven years ago for this job. I received my law degree in Malaysia, and then I went to the UK to do my two masters degrees. Then, I went back home and worked at the UN High Commission for Refugees for a bit. I also served in the OHCHR peacekeeping mission before I came here.
How did you decide to study and work in human rights law?
I think it has something to do with the fact that I watched a lot of TV when I was young, and one of the things I liked to watch was the news.
I saw a lot of coverage of the Bosnia and Herzegovina crisis, and that dominated the news for a couple of years, so I thought it was horrible and wanted to do something about it. That has always stuck with me.
My elder brother studied law in Australia, so I though why not look into it. I liked it very much, especially the more philosophical aspects of law – jurisprudence, legal philosophy, that sort of thing. When I graduated I was head hunted by two big law firms focusing on company and commercial law, but I said no to them. My first job was actually with the Human Rights Commission in Malaysia, so I went straight into it.
I actually wanted to study fine arts, but I come from a Malaysian Chinese family and it was frowned upon to study art. So I had to drop that idea – it was expensive anyways. I make up for it by following a lot of artistic developments, art galleries, specific artists, etc.
Is there a specific artist or art period you are particularly interested in?
I like Rothko very much. Lately I’ve been into Danish art because my partner is Danish, and her mom is really into art history. The first thing I do when I get to another country is go to their art galleries to see the artists’ interpretation of historical events. I like seeing it being interpreted rather than being presented directly.
What type of work were you involved in at the UN?
When I was with the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur, I worked mainly on the caseload from Myanmar for about five years. We had a huge caseload – more than 10,000 cases per year – and I was overseeing that.
At that time, it was the height of military rule, so a lot of people were coming to Malaysia, especially the Rohingya group. Some of these refugees are now my friends – some went to the US and they have brand new lives there, some are my friends on Facebook and I get to see what they are up to, so it’s quite nice.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a statelessness project in Myanmar. The project works with students from Mandalay University so that they have a bit more ownership on the statelessness issues in Myanmar, so that it’s not always just foreigners coming in, doing research, and leaving.
It’s more about building up local knowledge, getting them interested in these issues, and getting them to see that they are issues worth engaging with. When you speak to people on the streets there, they don’t realize that some people who have lived in Myanmar for generations still don’t have an ID card for example.
So I’m working on this project right now, and it’s supported by the UNHCR.
The other thing I am working on is this disaster displacement project with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. They deal with disaster response and recovery for both natural and man-made disasters, and we’re coming in with a human rights angle. The other project I am working on deals with climate change and displacement where we are supporting researchers from ten different countries on displacement-related research that stems from climate change.
What do you find challenging about the work that you do?
In terms of the statelessness issue, what’s challenging about it is the fact that if you raise this issue in Myanmar, it is likely to be shut down immediately, and people live under the impression that there’s no problems. The country had been under military occupation for 50 years. A lot of things were not allowed during that period, and one of those things was independent academic research. So for a long time, there hasn’t been this culture of questioning things.
Also, discrimination toward certain populations in Myanmar is pervasive. In a way, this has been made worse since the country has transitioned to democracy because people can now openly say discriminatory things which has resulted in a lot of hate speech on the Internet. So we’re going in slowly going step-by-step – talking about documentation and ID card issues and linking those to prohibition of discrimination. It’ll be a long road ahead.
Why do you think working in human rights is important?
I think it’s important because we have to treat people with the dignity and respect that they deserve. It also has to do with growing up as a double minority in Malaysia – as a racial minority and as LGBT in a predominantly Muslim country. It’s challenging – that has shaped my view on the worth of a human person and why it’s important to respect that.
Back home because of my race, it is incredibly difficult for me to get a place in a public university. There’s been many instances of students who score the best in the country they don’t have place in a local university because they’re the wrong color.
And, if I were to buy property in Malaysia, I would need to pay more whereas there is a discount for people of the majority race. When you’re going through these things on a daily basis, you don’t think about it so much. Having come to Sweden where it is a very accepting, open society, you think about all of the things you have missed out on and the opportunities you do not get because of who you are.
Quick Facts about Sue Anne
- Born: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
- Office: Lund, Sweden
- Education: Masters of Human Rights from the London School of Economics, Masters of Law from University of Cambridge, Bachelor’s degree in law from University of London
- Currently reading: “Right now I am reading a book in Swedish called En droppe midnatt by a very famous rapper named Timbuktu who wanted to put his experiences growing up as a mixed black and Caucasian kid in Sweden and all of the discrimination he was subjected to. His father Arthur works here doing research.”