Optimism and hope for the future in Burma have risen dramatically over the last year. This has culminated in celebrating the recent by-elections and a seat in parliament for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and forty two other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). But whilst there have been reforms over the last year, such as the release of some political prisoners and relaxation of media censorship, the civil war has continued in Kachin State, with 75,000 displaced people.
The seeds for democratic change were sown during the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by thousands of monks. The first elections ? neither free nor fair – took place in 2010, after which Daw Suu was released from almost 20 years under house arrest. From the start of the new parliament a year ago, President Thein Sein has reached out to Daw Suu and to ethnic leaders in attempts to broker peace, whilst also having to placate the military.
Following the announcement of the NLD wins, Daw Suu spoke of the need for ongoing democratic change, and yet she, like many others, feel this is the start of a new era. There can be no going back! National reconciliation has long been a priority for Daw Suu and the NLD, to find peaceful resolution of conflicts with ethnic minorities. However, the legacy of fifty years of military dictatorship, violence, war, exploitation of natural resources, human rights violations, increasing poverty, and neglect of health and education (especially in the ethnic minority areas), has been deep human suffering. Change will be slow, and many people are deeply wounded, but there are now opportunities to facilitate the healing process.
Last November 2011, Hozan Alan Senauke and Jill Jameson from the INEB Burma Working Group, visited Myanmar to facilitate workshops and trainings through our kalyanamitra in the INEB network. Trainings focussed on peace building and conflict transformation and were timely for helping to bridge difference in Burma and heal the wounds of repression and violence. Two local organisations requested that Alan and Jill return to Myanmar to deepen this training.
In February 2012, the focus for three different trainings was to more widely introduce a culture of peace with peace-building skills training. Recently released political prisoners were given priority as there are few training opportunities for these people and it was felt there was a great need to offer support and healing in this way for people in transition back to civil society.
1. The first training over five days was held near Bago, in a monastery and village two hours north of Yangon. With security still an issue, we appreciated the protection and environment in this place, the support of the abbot and two excellent translators/ co-facilitators. There were twenty participants, nine of whom were recently released political prisoners and almost all had worked in civil society. Many worked in their communities or organisations ?mostly as volunteers, such as trainers in citizen rights and voter education, working for candidates in the forthcoming by-election, work on human rights and land rights and organising youth book- reading clubs. The most recently released political prisoners (released in the previous month) were in transition and were still trying to find their way and to catch up on changes during their incarceration.
The purpose of the training was for participants to deepen their understanding of the root causes of conflict, to explore what gets in the way of harmonious relationships, and using and developing tools to deal with these issues. In this process, it was anticipated that they would deepen trust through sharing and strengthen their interpersonal and training skills to become more effective in civil society and in their own particular organizational capacities.
A key question explored by participants was what did peace look like from their own experience, and what were the resources they already have? From small group discussions, it was agreed that a peaceful Myanmar would fulfil basic needs of its citizens, with opportunities for a good and simple life for all, would value justice and equality and have non-violent means to resolve conflict. There would be freedom from fear and want, mutual respect, unity and love.
The conflict mapping exercise gave participants an opportunity to share their stories in a supportive environment, and to deepen understanding of each issue, its causes and its complexity through sharing and group discussion. The issue of civil war in Kachin State was mapped, showing the major conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military since June 2011, as well as the many visible and invisible parties. What is needed now, said one person focussing on Kachin, is community participation, and he was now planning to return to Kachin State to offer peace-building training to communities. He himself is not from Kachin, and this reflects a growing trend of people from majority Bamar areas reaching out to work with and across difference, towards equality, social justice and peace.
Review and recommendations from the first training:
From small group discussions, the following points were made:
– Due to the historical divisions between Bamar and Ethnic nationalities, some behaviour should be avoided, for example, a Bamar cultural show where ethnic groups have no chance to promote their own culture. There is a need to respect the culture and customs of all ethnic groups;
– Development assistance and more scholarships were needed in ethnic areas;
– Need to promote peace-building skills across the country and include training of trainers;
– There have been different opportunities to access higher education between the children of the authorities and others, and there should now be a move towards equality;
– It was recommended there be sovereignty for Bamar and Ethnic States, with divisions of power, resources and economy, education and culture. General Aung San had wanted equality between the hills people and those from the plains, but General Ne Win claimed a federation was not suitable for Burma, with a danger to unity, so he imposed power over the Ethnic Nationalities.
– The Government of Myanmar should give the right to manage their natural resources to Ethnic States;
2. The second training of three days was held in Yangon. There were initially 14 participants coming from a wide range of student generations ? from 1962 to 2012. They included two former political prisoners from?96 and ?07, as well as and a range of political parties ? NLD, the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Front ( including the founder of the NDF) a breakaway from the NLD before the 2010 elections. There was also a wide age range, and the older participants were reluctant to share in small groups and instead wanted to hear examples of peace and reconciliation in other countries. Also in the first couple of hours a journalist ? unbeknown to me- had entered and sat in for 20 minutes. Such situations, and a further one where one of the temporary translators was accused of being a spy, were rich ground for deepening our understandings around conflict! Some participants dropped out with these events ? as well as some of those who were busy with forthcoming elections – and more joined. The training was flexible, responding to needs as they arose. We spent time listening to the stories of two of the former political prisoners ? both of whom were musicians, so we also sang and listened to lots of songs, such as We are the World: ?We are the world united by love so strong?, and the following:
?For all the humans who are suffering,
May there be freedom from suffering and poverty,
To give your heart for those people
And to work hand in hand?.
The two recently released former political prisoners said that now they have no fears or hatred and feel OK during day time, but at night, they are ?often back in prison?. They don?t know the public bus routes, and still have to ask for support from their parents as they are still involved in politics. In asking about their needs, they both said they needed assistance for healing the trauma of prison, and also they needed education and training in capacity building, having missed opportunities for these whilst in prison. In asking them what helped the process of healing, they identified sharing their stories, singing songs, opportunities to attend trainings, and work as volunteers.
3.The third training over two days was held in Yangon for between 24 and 30 participants. This was organised by a small local organisation, Badei Dha Moe where a small group of people work as volunteers on issues such as land rights. Most of the participants were students, many of whom are trying to revive the student union movement. There was also one former political prisoner and others linked with former political prisoners, NLD Youth and Community Based Organisations (CBO?s). Several participants from our first training came back to help and support this training.
We explored conflicts in the family ? with, for example, roots in poverty, poor education and fear – and in organisations ? with roots in lack of trust, discrimination and in the system, following 50 years of military dictatorship.
Key issues arising from the three trainings:
* Peace building training provided opportunities for both inner healing and for healing in their communities and organisations, through finding inner peace, sharing their stories, working with and across difference, understanding the root causes of conflict, learning tools and skills to work with and transform conflict, expanding their volunteer work in their communities, and in celebrating life.
* Conflict mapping was found to be a useful tool and framework for sharing one?s story, for understanding the context and broader issues from one?s own and others? perspectives. It is a useful tool for mediation, and for exploring the broader and common issues and conflicts in Myanmar, such as organisational conflict, land confiscation and civil war.
* Increased reaching out to other ethnic nationalities by participants from Yangon, with vision of equality for all, whilst acknowledging that the educational needs were greater in the ?hills? areas.
* The process of healing will be long term after the impact of 50 years of military dictatorship and the internalisation of oppression.
* Discrimination towards former political prisoners. They are often rejected by their families, feared by their communities and they are walking a fine line in continuing political activities, knowing they are being ?shadowed?.
* In asking former political prisoners what helped in their healing, they identified sharing their stories, singing songs, opportunities to attend trainings and opportunities for work, even as volunteers.
It was said by many of the participants in all three peace building trainings that this training was simple and practical and can be shared in their communities. Most plan to share this training with their friends and communities, and they would like more opportunities for similar training in the future. About one third said they would like to become trainers. For most, the opportunity for training – and one which was free – was of great benefit, they said, for the new skills learnt and deeper understandings, and perhaps most of all, for opportunities for healing.
Jill Jameson, April, 2012
Hozan Alan Senauke and Jill Jameson are on the Advisory Committee of INEB.
Credit Photo :www.actionaid.org