Breaking the silence: dialogue in Myanmar

Silence is golden goes the saying. But in the golden land of Myanmar the culture of silence that still dominates so many villages and townships is more an indicator of a dark and repressive past than an allusion to anything shiny or valuable.

The behaviour of remaining silent and the underlying attitudes of fear, mistrust and suspicion are the direct results of years of military repression and an oppressive and undemocratic system of government. During the years of repression keeping quiet was a coping mechanism and a survival strategy that became the modus operandi that remains even as the country begins to change and new spaces and opportunities are beginning to open up.

Within this context the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, sister organisation to the ACTION Support Centre, has teamed up with a consortium of local partners in Myanmar, the Shalom Foundation, Knowledge and Dedication for Nation Building, Gender Development Initiative and Paung Ku.

The consortium invited a South African based ACTION member to get involved in the design and implementation of a People’s Dialogue Initiative that has been unrolled across the country over the past few months. The PDI involves training local dialogue facilitators who then work in teams to run dialogue processes in grassroots communities across the country. The long-term plan is to run these processes in several hundred villages and townships and to build a resource pool of facilitators who can work at multiple levels in support of the peace process.

The PDI aims to involve township and village participants in a positive experience of a facilitated dialogue process. These carefully facilitated dialogue processes will combine to begin to nurture and contribute to a culture of dialogue, the antithesis to the culture of silence that is so strongly linked to the past. Dialogue will not be able to change everything that needs attention, but it will amplify the voices and encourage the active participation of those who need to be heard. In a country that still faces enormous challenges in navigating the stormy waters of transition it is these voices that might make all the difference.

September saw the final reflection and learning session for the teams of facilitators who have been out in the field applying their skills. Working between the rains and floods of the monsoon season and the heightening tensions in the run up to next months election, these facilitators have been building up an amazing array of experience-based insights and learnings.

These insights and learnings have been collected and will mark the end of Phase One of the PDI as well as serving as the foundation for the envisaged second phase. Over the next few months partners will sit together to think through the best way to take the project forward. The ASC will be watching closely, ready to support and contribute whenever and wherever we can.