The idea that the country we used to know as Burma is now commonly referred to as Myanmar takes some getting used to. Although the name changed officially in 1989 many peace activists opposed the shift for years. There is little doubt now though that the name change is here to stay, and that this shift is only the thin end of a wedge of transformative changes affecting the country and its people.
A new approach to peace and an opening up of political spaces for expression and organisation began under government chief negotiator Aung Min in 2011. There are now over 18 different dialogue processes engaging government teams and representatives of armed groups and minority communities. This includes efforts to connect the disparate processes into a broader more integrated national peace effort. This time around the approach, focused on more inclusivity and the recognition of the importance of trust and confidence building, appears to be significantly different.
As the wide range of peace dialogues proceed in fits and starts an even deeper set of changes appears to be taking hold across the entire country. The opening up of a society isolated from the rest of the world for almost 50 years has set in motion a new way of thinking that seems unlikely to reverse direction. This democratisation process, for a country held in the grip of a series of highly autocratic military dictatorships and an almost fanatical socialist regime, is perhaps an even deeper and more significant change for the people of Myanmar.
Significantly ACTION Asia, sister network of ACTION members in Africa, selected Myanmar as the host country for its International Forum that got underway on the 1st of October. Baht Latumbo, head of the secretariat and a member of the ACTION Support Centre Steering Committee recalled the differences between the first meetings of ACTION Asia members in Myanmar in 2001, held under the radar, amidst real security concerns, and the openness that marked the 2014 international gathering of peacebuilders and conflict transformation practitioners from over 15 different countries across the region and around the world.
ACTION Support Centre Steering Committee member Richard Smith was able to attend the opening evening and take part in the celebrations. The opportunity arose on the back of a working visit to Myanmar to carry out a series of awareness raising and capacity building workshops on conflict sensitivity as part of a UNDP driven initiative. Workshops were carried out in 5 different contexts, with participants from UN Agencies, International NGOs, local and national civil society groups and government counterparts from the Ministry of Border Affairs.
The trainings covered various contexts including northern Kachin state on the border with China and Rakhine in the West, flanking Bangladesh. Rakhine has been much in the news lately and is severely affected by complex identity conflicts. A key part of the trainings included a workshop with members of the government Ministry of Border Affairs in the central capital of Nay Pyi Taw. Overall more than 100 people participated in discussions about the connections between conflict, humanitarian assistance and development.
In many of the analytical dialogues that took place examples were shared of how resources and external actors can end up doing more harm than good. Throughout the country cases were narrated of where the international community and local development actors had inadvertently escalated existing tensions, with violence an all too regular unintended consequence of the attempts to assist people in real need.
As with many contexts there were also several examples of where a more innovative conflict transformation approach has had transformative outcomes. The key difference between whether resources are used as a force for peace or violence appears to lie in genuine efforts that build relationships and learn from local communities, seeking to build on the resilience, skills and experiences of those in the midst of conflict and to see conflict as a challenge and an opportunity, not an obstacle.
The workshops formed part of UNDP efforts to better integrate Emergency Relief, Humanitarian Assistance and Development initiatives under the framework of Early Recovery. The “Conflict Sensitive Approaches to Early Recovery” trainings were based on a Trainers Manual and a set of Handouts developed specifically for the Myanmar context.
These materials incorporate a lot of the learning and insights from work done using a conflict transformation approach by peacebuilders and development practitioners within the ACTION network. The materials are available for use by ACTION members – just write to us requesting a copy and we will gladly share them.
The ACTION Support Centre intends to continue strengthening the connections between ACTION members in Africa and South East Asia. This will include having representatives from Asia at our Conflict Transformation Encounter later in October and an exploration of deeper forms of collaboration and learning throughout 2015.