By Stephen Gray
In our experience of researching in Myanmar over the past two weeks, we have borne witness to a country in rapid transition. The rhetoric of Thein Sein’s reformist military government is embodied in real changes for ordinary Burmese citizens. Whereas three years ago pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi were banned and she could only be secretly referred to as “the lady,” her pictures now adorn T-shirts, coffee mugs and posters all around Yangon, while her celebrity tour of Europe is daily front page news—a far cry from the blanket censorship of the not-so-distant past. Freedom of expression is emerging, but far from complete, a fact revealed this morning when I learned that phone conversations are regularly bugged.
Change will not happen overnight, but it is happening. You can now buy a mobile sim card for $20, quite remarkable considering that all mobile phones had to be registered and cost over $1,000 not long ago. The same is true for car registration. It’s not only the generals now who are driving a Lexus. But more importantly for Myanmar’s ordinary citizens, censorship has been relaxed, citizens can talk and engage more freely in the political process, and the nominally civilian government talks candidly of the need to engage in pro-poor economic reforms and manage the impending FDI gold rush in a manner that supports job creation and environmental sustainability.
Again, the rhetoric is supported by tangible efforts. The government has signaled its intention to sign up the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, an international mechanism for ensuring transparency in the practices and resource distribution stemming from the extractive processes of national and foreign businesses. Labor reforms are also on the agenda, signaling a future that distributes the fruits of Myanmar’s considerable economic development potential more equitably. These signals should be treated with healthy skepticism, as corruption and cronyism still dominate the tightly coupled domains of Myanmar’s political and economic life. Yet these reform processes represent a significant opening of space in which national and international actors can take action to support and stabilize Myanmar’s positive progress.
So what does this mean for our research? Funded by Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4), our work focuses on the prospects of sustainable peace between the government and ethnic minority groups amidst the concomitant processes of democratization, reform, and liberalization currently underway. On a practical level, recent changes in Myanmar mean there is now more opportunity than ever for national and international actors to influence the probability that sustainable peace and reconciliation can be achieved, a development evidenced by the (albeit controversial) Norwegian participation in negotiations between the government and the Kachin Independence Army.
An important consideration in pursuing sustainable peace is the divergence in what peace actually means to parties at the negotiating table. For one side, peace might mean the absence of violence that stabilizes ethnic minority areas and allows for economic development, an outcome described cynically as “ceasefire capitalism” by some. But for others, peace is not merely the absence of violence, but also recognition of past injustices and guarantees of self-determination, freedom of religion, and more—liberties that sometimes fall outside the purview of traditional ceasefire agreements.
The failure of some parties to give credence to the divergent, historically rooted perspective of other groups has created an impasse that continues to hamper the ceasefire negotiations, and can in part explain why some ethnic minority groups are refusing to lay down their arms, and to a lesser extent can explain why violence is escalating in Western Rakhine State. The current approach to addressing this impasse brings political elites together at a negotiating table who present positions and make tradeoffs with the aim of forging novel solutions that only came into being through the negotiation process. These might broadly be considered a “problem-centered” approach that focuses predominantly on manifest issues at the time that negotiations take place.
But can we look at things differently? What if instead we focused on solutions instead of problems as our starting point? What if instead of focusing on issues, we attempted to transform the underlying structures that give rise to these issues? The theoretical paradigm that underpins our research—Dynamical Systems Theory—posits that conflicts emerge due to the complex interdependence of people, processes and issues over time. Conflicts of this nature do not occur because of a repressive government, illegal mining operations, the quest for self determination or religious rivalry, but as the child of all of these elements evolving in concert over time. Just as this system can give rise to conflict, alternative configurations of the system’s constituent “parts” can support the emergence and sustainability of peace.
Thus, while an understanding of the issues that influence conflict in Myanmar is necessary to think about how sustainable peace might be reached, our research instead focuses on identifying “latent peace capacities” that already exist in and outside of the country, while also exploring means of transforming the underlying structures that give rise to conflict. Recognizing a society’s latent capacity for peace is fundamentally different than focusing on problems or confronting an adversary on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.
Our research seeks to identify pro-peace constituencies that are either not empowered or not connected to the power structures or change processes that might maximize their positive impact. Using mapping techniques, we identify relationships that need to be built and actors that need to be empowered to positively transform the landscape in which conflict emerges. You might call this fostering networks of effective action. What might happen in Myanmar, for example, if ethnic minority groups were better incorporated into the NLD—Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic opposition movement? What might happen if ethnic civil society groups were better connected to their Bamah majority counterparts?
Another tenet in our theory of change is the need to increase complexity in how groups perceive members of other groups. Speaking of the Rohingya/Rakhine conflict that has plagued western Myanmar in recent weeks, a trusted Burmese advisor told me yesterday, “They have no morals, they have no religion, they have no right to be here.”
“Which ones?” Nikolas [Katsimpras] asked him.
“All of them,” he replied.
Another trusted Burmese friend responded to my question about what should be done about the “Rohingya situation” the other day by saying “send me there and I will kill them.” While the Rohingya issue isn’t the same as Myanmar’s other ethnic divisions, this sentiment reveals the prevalence and danger of deep-rooted, negative and monolithic views of “the other” in Myanmar society. Tolerance is best served when these simplistic, negative views of the other are broken down.
So how do you do this in practice? Rewriting school textbooks might be a start. At present they are heavily biased towards a Bamah view of history and downplay the narratives and cultural practices of minority groups. Inter-ethnic interaction is also vital to fostering nuanced understandings of your “adversary.” Building infrastructure between ethnic and Bamah majority areas would help, as would sorely needed improvements in telecommunications infrastructure.
In the short term, other means of inter-ethnic exchange might prove fruitful. For decades ethnic minorities have not been able to attend universities in other parts of the country or climb high in the Burmese military. Repealing these draconian measures would increase interaction and mutual understanding between the Bamah majority and ethnic minority groups, particularly youth who aren’t engrained in the patterns of enmity that have characterized the past and who will ultimately be charged with shaping the country’s future.
In the NGO sphere, Shalom has a national program that brings together young people from different ethnic groups to develop small business ventures in their communities. Peace is fostered on a local level by promoting positive interdependence between these groups, which breaks down the rigid ethnic and religious stereotypes that feed mistrust, conflict and grievance. “It’s harder to change the minds of leaders,” said one community representative we spoke with yesterday. “But when so many young people from their communities are coming together, they take notice.”
Bringing young people from different backgrounds together as entrepreneurs is one means of creating super-ordinate identities—a further example of a latent capacity for peace. By identifying with a common identity, less importance is placed on those aspects of identity that divide and induce conflict between groups. Art can also play a role in strengthening superordinate identities in the interest of tolerance and unity. By chance we learned that Iron Cross, one of the most popular bands in Myanmar, is made up of members of several different ethnic groups and is enjoyed by young people all over the country. Could diverse groups be bought together by their mutual love of music? What if Iron Cross played “tolerance concerts” throughout the country? It’s an interesting possibility that has worked elsewhere.
We will spend two more weeks in Myanmar working with stakeholders to search for latent peace capacities such as these. Beyond supporting the emergence of peace, the long-term challenge is how it can be sustained over time. Burma’s progress is real, but fragile, yet now more than ever there is space in which to act. In doing so, we should recognize and support capacities for sustainable positive change at all levels of society.
Stephen Gray is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a Fulbright Scholar and an associate of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. This post first appeared on the consortium’s web page. His colleague in the Myanmar/Burma project is Nikolas Katsimpras, a researcher at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a fellow at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity.