By Roi Seng Hkum
Table of Contents
2. Challenges to Building Peace in Myanmar
1. 2.1. Lack of Shared History and Common Goals
2. 2.2. Entrenched Distrust and Group Bias
3. Solutions to the Challenges of Peace-building in Myanmar
3. 3.1. Humanising and Multicultural Education
4. 3.2. Democratic Dialogic Pedagogy for Conflict Resolution
6. About the Author
Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, 8 of which are known as major ethnic groups of Myanmar (Holliday, 2010; Jolliffe, 2014). The majority ethnic group, the Barman,constitutes about two-third of the population of the country. Unresolved ethnic conflicts between the ethnic Barman dominated military government and ethnic minorities’ armed groups have been hampering democratization and the nation building process of Myanmar. They also lead to several negative economic and social consequences such as poverty, entrenched distrust, prejudice, and discrimination. Therefore, identifying conceivable and sustainable peace-building approaches to improve racial and ethnic relations in Myanmar is an urgent matter.
Gill and Niens (2014, p. 11) state that sustainable peace-building focuses not only on ‘negative peace as an absence of war,’ but also on how to cultivate ‘positive peace’ characteristics such as respect, justice, harmony, and inclusiveness among people. To sustain peace among ethnic groups in Myanmar, the notion of peace-building should go beyond the idea of peace-making as eradicating civil war and conflicts and instead involve profound ways of changing people’s perceptions and behaviours toward other ethnic groups. In this entry, I analyse factors that shape people’s behaviours in order to pinpoint the possible root causes of ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. Further, I propose possible pedagogical strategies to cultivate peace characteristics among people.
2. Challenges to Building Peace in Myanmar
2.1. Lack of Shared History and Common Goals
A careful re-examination of the history of ethnic conflicts in Myanmar is a way to trace roots of conflicts since history narrates what shapes the ways people think and how they react to a certain situation. Myanmar, formerly Burma, was invaded in stages by the British since 1824, and the colonization of the country was completed by exiling the last King of Burma in 1886. Walton (2008) states that resistance movements against the British rule took place from 1939 to 1945 and by the end of 1946 it was clear for the British and the Burmese that independence of Burma would soon be achieved. Waltonmentions that the major question for the British government and Myanmar leaders before independence was whether ‘the Frontier Areas’ would be joining ‘Ministerial Burma’ in independence or not.
In 1947, the Panglong conference was held among ethnic groups in urgency of attaining unification of the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma for independence. Its result was the Panglong Agreement, a political agreement between General Aung San, the leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), and representatives of some ethnic minority groups about how to associate politically after independence. Some months after the conference, General Aung San and several transitional government cabinet members were assassinated. Thus, the agreements of Panglong were futile and the outbreak of ethnic conflict started some months after Myanmar gained independence in 1948.
The Union of Burma began as a parliamentary democracy which ended in 1962 after a political split within AFPFL and ethnic strife wrought by ethnic groups’ limited access to the parliamentary rights and political power over their own regions (Huang, 2013). In 1962, General Ne Win took over the government in a military coup by establishing a revolutionary ruling council and created the Burma Socialist Programmed Party (BSPP), a single party rule system replacing the multiparty system advocating the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ (Xu and Albert, 2016). In 1988, nation-wide strikes and demonstrations brought down the BSPP after decades of disastrous economic mismanagement and unstable political situation with ethnic groups (Huang, 2013). In 1989, General Than Shwe took over the ruling power by establishing a new ruling state council, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which later became the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) with more pragmatic economic strategies and policies for strengthening the government’s control over the state and especially ethnic areas (Huang, 2013). However, political and economic oppression over citizens without military ties and oppression of minorities fuelled frustration among citizens throughout SPDC rule. Internal and external oppositions towards the military regime led the military government to adopt a parliamentary system in 2010 in which 25% of seats are taken by military elites (Huang, 2013). In the 2015 election, the National League for Democracy (NLD), a civilian party, won a landslide victory and the first quasi-civil government took over the country (Xu and Albert, 2016). Nevertheless, ethnic conflicts in the country remain critical under the new quasi-civil government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated founding father of the Union of Burma government.
The current government followed suit of the previous military regimes and upheld the prominent myth of ‘the spirit of Burmese unity or the spirit of Panglong’ which claims that all ethnic minorities have agreed to become members of the Union of Burma. A popular statement that the military government usually makes is ‘to defend the integrity of Burma against both foreign attacks on national sovereignty and against internal elements attempting to dismantle the union through separatistpolitics’ (Walton, 2008, p. 904). In contrast to the military government, NLDdeprecates the oppression of minorities. However, NLD seems to believe that a spirit of Burmese unity will be achieved through policy changes(Richard, 2016).To be able to create an inclusive policy for all minorities, NLD should call all ethnic minorities (even armed groups) for several inclusive democratic dialogues first (Lynn, 2017).
According to Walton (2008), the only official representatives of minorities at Panglong were from the Shan, the Kachin, and the Chin. However, the leaders of these three groups did not seem to represent their own people. For instance, the ruling power of the Shan leaders was challenged among their own ethnic group at that time. Moreover, AFPFL seemed to only invite to the conference the minority group leaders who had a tendency to agree with their ideas due to the urgency in attaining agreement from the Frontier Areas for independence (Thawnghmung, 2011). The Mon and Rakhine (ethnic minorities) that were parts of Ministerial Burma Areas were excluded in Panglong, as the conference was targeted to ascertain the wishes of the Frontier Areas. Several minorities such as the Wa, the Naga, and the Rohingya were also rejected (Thawnghmung, 2011; Walton, 2008). The Karen attended the conference only as observers (Thawnghmung, 2011). Therefore, the agreement of Panglong does not seem to represent the whole population of Myanmar. ‘The spirit of Burmese Unity’ that the military government has defended throughout history appears toignore the issues between AFPFL and minorities, as well as the feelings and wishes of the majority of the ethnic minorities.
While the military and NLD seem to use marginalisation (the rights of minorities are ignored) and a multiculturalism approach (minorities will be protected across the land by the law) to build a nation, ethnic minorities prefer ‘ethnic enclaves policy’ that provides specific political, social and economic autonomy to ethnic minorities within their own states (Holliday, 2010, p. 121). The lack of common goals in building a nation and asserting the myth (the spirit of Panglong) without careful attention to the needs of ethnic groups fuels conflicts between the government and minorities. Therefore, the root of the conflicts may not only be the result of futile promises of Panglong, but it may also be attributable to the lack of shared history and myths among various groups.
2.2. Entrenched Distrust and Group Bias
Betrayal of AFPFL and the military’s oppression of minorities are the primary reasons that cause minorities’ distrust toward the government (Barman). However, minorities seem to have loyalty to the British government over the Barmans when one examines the history carefully. Walton (2008) claims that minorities joined AFPFL in fighting against the Japanese during World War II due to their loyalty to the British government and hope to receive back favour one day. Ethnic minorities were favoured with important positions in the colonial military over the majority group (Barmans) as the British government feared empowerment of the majorities (Weiss, 2017). Owing to this disproportional governance over Ministerial Areas and Frontier Area during the colonial period, rarely any positive relationships or unity seemed to exist between Barmans of the plains and hill landers. Besides, group identification and group bias among ethnic groups polarize their attitude toward each other. The Barman government’s subjugation of minorities make minorities have stronger identification with their own ethnic group.
3. Solutions to the Challenges of Peace-building in Myanmar
3.1. Humanising and Multicultural Education
To eradicate distrust and group bias among ethnic groups, concepts of humanism and multiculturalism should be instigated among communities by using a multi-sectorial approach. Humanism entails cultivating values such as perspective taking and justice that enable people restore a relationship with others, and multiculturalism means valuing and respecting cultural diversity (Rosenthal and Levy, 2010; Gill and Niens, 2014a, 2014b). Steinberg (2012) argues that ‘nation-state’ policy in which a government tries to assimilate minorities coercively (marginalizing minorities’ culture) into the dominant group’s culture for a national identity creates more conflicts in Myanmar (p. 5). He suggests that Myanmar should consider using an alternative policy called ‘the state-nation’ in which people are encouraged to respect each culture, and endorse multicultural society and multiple identities that complement each other (Steinberg, 2012).
The focus of multiculturalism is to provide equal opportunities for education to students of different cultural backgrounds (BanksandBanks, 2009). Even though this policy has been implemented in most schools, the concepts of multiculturalism and humanism are not enforced in the curriculum. In some areas, such as Rakhine State, although all students have educational access to high school, students from the Muslim ethnic group (the Rohingya) are not allowed to leave their birthplace for higher education. In addition, thousands of Rohigya have been persecuted by the military government since 2012 (The Irrawaddy, 2017). The root causes of the conflict in the Rakhine state are injustice and fear that leadto extreme patriotism and group bias among Buddhist Burmese. Therefore, concepts of humanism and multiculturalism should be introduced among communities through different media and formal/informal educational channels by local and international non-government organizations (NGOs). The concept of humanism may help people to recognize human superordinate identity and it may prevent people from extreme patriotism.
To enforce these concepts in formal education system, first teachers’ mindsets should be transformed during pre-service training. Teachers should also be supported with in-service training to create opportunities for students to develop empathy, respect for differences, and justice. Moreover, religious leaders in Myanmar should be encouraged to speak against protecting one's own religion by degrading others, which is not in line with orthodox Buddhist teachings. A Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, refers to Muslims as ‘mad dogs’ in his preaching (Fuller, 2013, p. A1). Religious leaders ought to make efforts for reconciliation between communities. As people tend to have greater trust in members of in-group than those of out-group (Hamilton, 1979), other Buddhist leaders should challenge Ashin Wirathu’s preaching. The government must play a role by introducing a law under which all religious and ethnic groups in Myanmar are protected impartially.
Additionally, the majority group, the Barmans, should acknowledge that the privileged experiences that they have are different from the repressive experiences of minorities and take effort to work against the government’s oppression of minorities. Furthermore, policies for justice and national change process developed by international organisations should not be underestimated in the case of Myanmar.
3.2. Democratic Dialogic Pedagogy for Conflict Resolution
The myths of Panglong among the military, the NLD, and ethnic groups cannot be unravelled unless these three parties are willing to have a democratic dialogue. After a prolonged period with no freedom of speech under the military government, the people in Myanmar are not accustomed to having constructive democratic dialogues about conflicts. Bickmore and Parker (2014) affirm that ‘[d]ialogue processes, unlike debate, focus on cooperating to develop mutual understanding rather than on competing or winning’ (p. 293). Constructive democratic dialogue involves empathetic listening, interest enquiry, divergent perspective inclusion, and cooperative resolution (Bickmore and Parker, 2014).
Democratic dialogic practices should be infused in regular school curriculum to nurture young people for peace-building. Teachers can create activities for students to have dialogue to develop their capacities to discuss conflicts, differences and controversies from history and everyday life. However, democratic dialogue may create marginalization of the voices of minorities. For example, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students who are shy may find it difficult to express their opinions freely. Therefore, it is crucial that teachers are equipped with knowledge and skills of how to integrate ideals of humanism and multiculturalism. Nevertheless, teachers cannot be successful in implementing dialogic pedagogy in the curriculum unless there is commitment from their school head and the government. Thus, individuals in the community have a responsibility to require the government to make policy changes in education.
To make changes affecting people’s perception and behaviour, one needs to understand factors shaping their thinking and behaviour. One cannot comprehend these shaping factors without a careful re-examination of the ethnic conflict history and reflection of past mistakes. The next step is to embrace conflicts as learning opportunities and to go forward by allowing open democratic dialogues about conflicts among citizens and political parties. However, dialogue without respect, perspective taking, justice, trust, and forgiveness will only lead to further anger and hatred among groups. Therefore, cognitive and value transformation should take place first among communities before practicing democratic dialogue among ethnic groups. Patience may be a vital value that people should abide by in the transformation process. Without patience and the efforts of all citizens and parties, peace-building in Myanmar cannot be attained.
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About the Author
Roi Seng Hkum
MEd, The University of Hong Kong