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.
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.