Rhonda Mays is IRI’s Director for Southeast Asia. In this role, she oversees implementation of political party development, democratic governance, civil society, elections, women’s political engagement, youth leadership, religious tolerance and countering violent extremism programs in more than a dozen countries in Asia.

Mays joined IRI in 2014 to manage the Institute’s programs in Burma, and subsequently oversaw IRI’s work elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Laos and regional youth engagement through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Mays is a civil society expert with more than a decade of experience in democracy, human rights and advocacy work. As an advisor to IRI’s Civil Society Development Community of Practice, she offers IRI staff across all regions guidance on best practices and innovative approaches for supporting civil society in challenging political contexts.

Prior to joining IRI, Mays was the Asia lead on Freedom House’s Emergency Assistance Program, providing support to threatened human rights defenders and civil society organizations (CSO) in the region. In that role she worked extensively with former political prisoners in Burma, providing assistance to help them reestablish their lives after release from prison, and worked on religious freedom and LGBTI rights issues in Southeast Asia. She also briefed U.S. government officials and members of congress on human rights issues in Asia to inform foreign policy decisions impacting the region. Mays started her career at the National Endowment for Democracy, administering grants to local CSOs across Southeast Asia and helping develop their organizational and technical capacity.    

Mays holds a BA in International Politics from Pennsylvania State University and completed graduate coursework in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on the political history of Southeast Asia and the role of nationalism in independence-era Burma and Indonesia. She previously lived in Jakarta, Indonesia and speaks Indonesian. She is the co-author of the chapter, The Evolution of Violent Extremism and State Response in Indonesia, chronicling Indonesia’s lengthy struggle with violent extremism, in Routledge’s forthcoming volume, Countering Insurgencies, Terrorism and Violent Extremism in South Asia.   

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