By Saudamini Mohan
While the world has woken up in the past few years to the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, not many outside Myanmar know of the ethnic conflicts plaguing the country for the past 70 years, ever since attaining independence from the British after World War II.
The diverse ethnic composition and rich cultural heritage of Myanmar has been marred by violent clashes and conflict between the Army (Tatmadaw) and various Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Although the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed between the Tatmadaw and certain EAOs in 2015, conflict still persists with many casualties on both sides including civilian deaths. Many civilians who have been caught in the crossfire have been living in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) within the country or in refugee camps in Thailand, China and Bangladesh, cumulatively numbering approximately a million. The Panglong Peace Conference organized by the National League of Democracy (NLD) Government led by Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi has had limited success in resolving conflict and creating sustainable security sector reforms in the country. Furthermore, these discussions are at a track one level and are yet to fructify into concrete solutions on the ground.
GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT IN PEACE
It is heartening to see a growing movement at the grassroots level in the peace process. Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and citizens alike are slowly getting more actively involved in peace building activities. Many events and discourses are being organized by various CSOs and Policy Organizations, encouraging discussions about peace building. Such gatherings were unthinkable before 2015 when the NLD government came to power and the country transitioned into a quasi-democracy.
More and more young people are getting involved in the peace process in Myanmar. One simply has to go through the grants list of the Joint Peace Fund (JPF - a multi donor fund with contributions from 11 nations) to get a sense of how many organizations are involved in peace building, promotion of democracy, federalism and gender empowerment. JPF happens to be just one large donor but the number of international donors and aid is growing each day, helping Myanmar get one step closer in building a strong democracy and lasting peace.
EMPOWERING YOUTH THROUGH EDUCATION
One organization at the forefront of peacebuilding and strengthening democracy in Myanmar at the grassroots level is Thabyay Education Foundation. For the past four years, the foundation has emerged as a leader in this space under Saw Myo Min Thu’s leadership, who returned from the United States to be a part of his country’s transition towards a peaceful and effective democracy.
“I think it is very important that we recognize the potential of each and every citizen in the country, that they can positively influence their fellow citizens through their actions and behaviors. From our daily interactions with each other at an individual level to political dialogues and peace process on the national stage, the role of citizen leadership for peace is extremely crucial. That is what we want to nurture at Thabyay,” says Saw Myo Min Thu, Executive Director of Thabyay Education Foundation
Thabyay Education Foundation introduced the Community Leadership and Social Studies (CLASS) program in 2015. The CLASS program teaches subjects pertaining to citizen leadership, social cohesion and peacebuilding to students as young as 18 years old. Coming from diverse ethnic backgrounds, these youngsters have immense clarity about their vision for their country’s future and how they can contribute in making their vision a reality. Many of the graduates from the CLASS program have gone ahead to work in CSOs involved in peace building, education, gender et cetera, and are an important part of the development process of Myanmar.
“Before coming to Thabyay Education Foundation and the CLASS program, I did not know anything about different ethnic groups and focused only on my state. But now after a year, I have bigger ambitions for peace and development not only in my state but for the whole country”, says Awn Ja Lu, a student in the CLASS program from Kachin state.
Locals and foreigners make up the teaching staff at Thabyay Education Foundation. Therefore, the students are exposed to a holistic mix of local as well as international contexts and perspectives in their classrooms. There is a growing interest amongst foreigners to work in local organizations in Myanmar and contribute with their expertise to the country’s transformation. Many of these foreigners are highly qualified, with Master’s degrees and even PhDs.
In June 2018, Thabyay Education Foundation launched the Peace Leadership and Research Institute (PLRI), a year-long graduate level course for students (called fellows) who are already peace practitioners in various organizations. The program is the first of its kind in Myanmar where fellows are being instructed on the theories of conflict resolution, peace building and research methodologies in a structured manner. The program endeavors to help fellows conduct research in a peace building topic of their choice with the aim that, upon graduation, the fellows work in organizations and projects that implement their research and thereby contribute more meaningfully to the peace process in the country.
“Programs like PLRI are helping train youth of different ethnicities on the nuances of peace building backed by evidence-based research. These youth are the future of the peace process in Myanmar”, says Saw Htein Linn, the young Program Officer at PLRI, who himself is from Karen state.
Myanmar is at an interesting crossroads of strengthening its democracy, increasing development and yet afflicted with ethnic and religious conflict that is getting in the way of progress. Social media platforms were granted access in the country less than a decade ago. Since then, Facebook has become the most popular medium, especially with the youth. They are exposed to how the rest of the world lives and they want the same freedom and opportunities for themselves. The youth is instrumental in wanting positive changes in the country and with help from local and international development organizations, they can be ambassadors of change for their country.
Saudamini (Mini) Mohan is pursuing a Masters in International Policy and Practice (M.I.P.P) degree at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University as a Hoffman Fellow, concentrating in conflict resolution. She has a prior MBA degree and has spent a decade working in the banking and financial sector in Mumbai, India. While employed in the private sector, she spent considerable time volunteering with NGOs providing education to children from economically disadvantaged families.
August 2, 2018 -- Today, the Peace Leadership and Research Institute hosted local and foreign dignitaries this afternoon at the Institute’s inaugural Open House Reception. Thabyay Education Foundation would like to thank our partners: Joint Peace Fund, Forum of Federations, and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for enabling us to introduce the first batch of PLRI fellows. The fellows look forward to participating in the national peace process by contributing quality research and encouraging evidence based decision-making in Myanmar.
Minister Naw Pann Thinzar Myo delivered a passionate speech about the changing political landscape in Myanmar. She expressed the need for sound research initiatives that could support her and her colleagues as they navigate the country’s complex peace process.
Thabyay Education Foundation and Global Voices, together with musicians from Gitameit Music Institute, present a concert of original songs exploring themes of social justice. The four original songs are products of Song-Writing Workshop lead by Marnie Mossiman, a renowned American actress-singer and song-writer. This year is the third year Marnie collaborates with Thabyay's CLASS students in Myanmar.
The Annual Staff Meeting of Thabyay Education Foundation was held on January 15-16, 2018 in Bago. TEF staff from Mae Sot office and Manadalay office also joined the ASM. We reviewed all our programs and renew our commitment to the vision and mission of TEF. The ASM was followed by a day-long retreat to strengthen Team Thabyay spirit and strategic planning meetings of each unit within TEF.
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