How Myanmar could be
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n Yangon two weeks ago, I caught a glimpse of how Myanmar could be. In the garden of a restaurant that was once the office of Burma’s independence leader, General Aung San, 150 people gathered for dinner. They came from a wide range of backgrounds, representing different religions, ethnicities, political parties and civil society organisations. They came to hear a message about religious and ethnic diversity, harmony and peace-building.The event was organised by the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the independence leader’s daughter. The keynote speaker was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Rangoon, Charles Bo, and his address was followed by responses from the Chief Convenor of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar, Al-Haj U Aye Lwin, and Dr TheinLwin of the NLD. Two Buddhist monks endorsed the occasion with their presence.
The message of the evening was three-fold. First, everyone knew that such a gathering would have been inconceivable just a couple of years ago, and is therefore a sign of how Myanmar is beginning tochange. Undoubtedly there is a very long way still to go, but equally clearly, there is more space for freedom of expression, civil society, political actors and the media.
Second, however, many challenges remain, not least the question of how to build a nation that celebrates religious and ethnic diversity and puts an end to decades of conflict. The eruption of a wave of anti-Muslim violence that has swept the country since June 2012 has fractured society and caused death, destruction, displacement and despair for many. In my own remarks, I quoted the former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes in his excellent bookThe Dignity of Difference: “If we are to live in close proximity to difference, as in the global age we do, we will need more than a code of rights, more even than mere tolerance. We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”
Third, in the face of such challenges, the people look to Aung San SuuKyi and the NLD for leadership, and they, together with the Government and leaders of all religions have a responsibility to respond. Archbishop Bo described the NLD as “the party of the people” and SuuKyi as “the mother of all communities”. He called on the NLD to educate people about religious diversity and to recruit into its ranks more members from religious and ethnic minorities. He followed that by warning that perceived silence in the face of appalling violence “is a danger”. Quoting Martin Luther King, he warned that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and that the real tragedy is not the bad actions of bad people, but “the appalling silence of good people.” Such silence, he concluded, is “criminal”.
This event came just a few days after SuuKyi’s meeting with Pope Francis, in which the Pope encouraged her to engage more in promoting inter-faith reconciliation. The fact that this event was planned long before the meeting with the Pope is a sign that, contrary to their critics’ views, there are people within the NLD who do care about these issues and wish to address them.
Beyond the NLD, there are a growing number of initiatives to promote diversity and pluralism and counter hate speech and violence. Just a few days before this event, a group of democracy activists, some of whom had been political prisoners, organised an evening to celebrate multiculturalism, complete with rock bands singing songs of love and peace. The next day, I was invited to give a lecture at the British Council, titled “Celebrating Diversity, Defending Conscience: Living together in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.” An organisation called ‘Co-exist’ is planning to distribute DVDs promoting religious harmony, a local branch of the international group ‘Religions for Peace’ has been formed, and another group known as ‘Treasure Land’ is running projects promoting inter-faith peace, human rights and conflict prevention. In October, an inter-faith academic conference on security, peace and co-existence was hosted by one of Burma’s most respected Buddhist monks, SitaguSayadaw, bringing together Buddhist, Christian and Muslim representatives resulting in a joint statement advocating further dialogue and grassroots reconciliation work. The day of that conference, violence broke out against Muslims at Thandwe inRakhine State, and within a week SitaguSayadaw and Islamic leader U Aye Lwin visited the affected area together, in a symbolic show of inter-faith co-operation.
These are very important and welcome initiatives. Burma is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in which non-Burmans make up as much as forty percent of the population and inhabit sixty percent of the land. While the majority Burmans are predominantly Buddhist, many of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities have significant Christian populations, notably the Chin, Kachin, Karenni and Karen. Muslims live throughout the country. Decades of civil war with the ethnic nationalities and a history of anti-Muslim prejudice and violence must be addressed if a genuine democratic future is to be secured for Myanmar.
In recent weeks progress towards ending the conflicts in the ethnic states appears to have been made, as an unprecedented conference of ethnic armed resistance groups held in Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation, resulted in a six-step roadmap and a framework for political dialogue. This conference was followed immediately by a dialogue between the ethnic armed groups and the Government, in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. It appears that it is still at the level of talks about talks. The much-promised and long-sought-after nationwide political dialogue required if ceasefires are to turn into a lasting peace process is still to materialise, but the prospect of guns falling silent throughout Myanmar for the first time in over 65 years is closer than ever.
Key to real change, however, will be the behaviour of the Myanmararmy, the Tatmadaw. Just as progress towards peace appeared in the conference rooms, the Tatmadaw escalated attacks in Kachin State, defiantly contradicting the regime’s promises. According to the Free Burma Rangers, on October 22 several villages in southern Kachin state were attacked, causing 700 villagers to take refuge in a local church. Tatmadaw soldiers surrounded the church and held the villagers hostage. Eight days later, a 15 year-old girl, SumlutRoi Ja, was gang-raped by Tatmadaw soldiers. Reports of the rape of an eight year-old girl emerged more recently. These are just the latest in a well-documented pattern of rape and sexual violence by the Tatmadaw.
During my recent visit to Myanmar, I travelled to Hakha, in Chin State, a region until very recently closed to foreigners. The fact that foreigners can now visit Chin State without a permit is a sign of change. The fact that I could contribute to a three-day workshop on human rights, with participants from throughout Chin State, is an even greater sign that the reforms which have taken root in Yangon and other major cities are beginning to be felt in more remote areas as well. These are very welcome changes. But at the same time, we heard recent testimonies of sexual violence, forced labour, and religious discrimination from Chin Christians, and we saw Buddhist pagodas which had been built by the military on mountain-tops, often in place of Christian crosses, a clear symbol of Burman dominance over ethnic and religious minorities. We heard of the Chins’ desire to establish a university in Hakha, and successive regimes’ refusal, perceived by the Chin as evidence of discrimination. Clearly, over the years Chin State has suffered from a chronic lack of investment in basic services, from road construction to electricity, from health care to education, part of previous regimes’ deliberate policy of subjugation. If real change is to be secured, policies of discrimination based on ethnicity or religion must end and human rights abuses must stop.
Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is foundational to any open society. Myanmar has made significant changes in the past two years, which should be welcomed and encouraged, but unless and until Myanmar can learn to celebrate its ethnic and religious diversity, true freedom will remain elusive.
In her recent interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Aung San SuuKyi claimed anti-Muslim violence was caused by fear. She was roundly criticised for her remarks, but in essence she is right. All extremism is motivated, at least in part, by fear, albeit often misplaced, exaggerated or unfounded. The question is how to address such fears in a way that is constructive, not destructive. As Sacks notes, “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.” If Myanmar can begin to move in that direction, then the prospects for real change become more realistic.
Meanwhile, there is a very long way to go. In spite of the positive openings, there is an urgent need for real change in the system, rather than just the atmosphere. Most immediately, the forthcoming UN General Assembly resolution must honestly reflect the current situation, good and bad, welcoming the positive changes but highlighting the many serious issues that still need to be resolved. These include constitutional reform, repeal of repressive laws, development of the rule of law, proper policing, clear condemnation of hate speech and violence from the Government and the opposition, and reform of the 1982 Citizenship Act to bring it into line with international standards and ensure that no person born in Myanmar is rendered stateless on account of race or religion. It means the Government taking some very easy, symbolic steps such as signing the British Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and inviting the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit the country. It means inter-faith and inter-ethnic reconciliation initiatives taking place not only at an urban leadership level, but at a grassroots practical level. It means painstakingly building trust between different religious and ethnic communities across the nation. It requires courage, compassion, creativity, honesty, humility and transparency. If these steps happen, we can say that Myanmar is really changing. Until then, all we can say is that there is a very very long way to go, although perhaps the beginning of the beginning may have now begun.
A version of this opinion piece has been published in The Wall Street Journal.