Just over five years ago, the Buddhist monks of Myanmar (Burma) were marching in the streets by the thousands to demand sweeping changes from a repressive military dictatorship that had ruled the country for 20 years. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest while thousands of other political prisoners languished in jails across Myanmar.
Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is a prominent member of the Myanmar parliament and travels the globe to meet with presidents and prime ministers. Hundreds of political prisoners have been set free, censorship of the press has been lifted and many other sweeping reforms have indeed come to pass. Myanmar is a very different country from what it was five years ago, and the people are full of hope for the first time in a generation.
Plenty of things could still go wrong. The biggest challenge to the further democratization of Myanmar is the existence of so many interethnic conflicts that could still tear the country apart. Myanmar is a richly diverse country made up of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups.
The majority Burmans (or Burmese) occupy much of the central region in and around the capital city of Yangoon (Rangoon). To the east along the border of Thailand are the Karen. Bordering China are the Kayah, the Kachin and the Shan — the largest of the minority ethnic populations. The Chin border India in the northwest, while on the west, bordering Bangladesh, are the Rakhine — a stateless people who were stripped of Myanmar citizenship in 1984.
For many decades, the government of Myanmar has faced armed opposition, not just from one guerrilla movement but from dozens of different armed groups representing these various minorities wanting some level of autonomy or a change of government or both.
There are currently 16 armed groups operating across the country, and the government has so far signed cease-fire agreements with 11 of them. That is an impressive signal of peaceful intentions, but the situation remains precarious, since Myanmar lacks the history or tradition of monitoring cease-fires or turning these into lasting peace agreements.
Further democratization depends on establishing and maintaining peace across the country. That is a challenge but also an opportunity, because establishing that peace can itself be a tool for deepening democracy in a country like Myanmar. When ordinary citizens are involved and empowered to play a role in keeping the peace, all kinds of other power relationships begin to shift.
Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international organization that got its start in Minnesota, has seen the effectiveness of this approach in far-flung parts of the world over the past 10 years. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is still racked with violence after 20 years of bloody civil war that left over 2 million dead. There, NP works with farmers and cattle-keepers, with traditional chiefs and local government officials, with the official armed forces and with breakaway militias — helping them all to find better and more peaceful ways to resolve their differences and reduce tensions.
In the Philippines, NP has been working with local organizations to monitor the cease-fire that led last October to the first hope of a final peace settlement in decades of fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Using unarmed civilians to monitor a cease-fire not only helps break the cycle of violence that is perpetuated when governments (or the United Nations) use soldiers armed with guns and tanks to keep the peace. Unarmed civilian peacekeeping strengthens the hand of ordinary citizens and civilian structures, allowing them to ensure some semblance of democracy at the end of the process.
NP has been invited by both the government of Myanmar and local civil society organizations to help consolidate the peace processes now underway in that country through these innovative methods that have proved to be so successful in places like South Sudan and the Philippines. These methods alone will not bring peace or democracy to Myanmar, but are a way for a Minnesota organization to offer a country with such a violent and repressive past a more promising and hopeful future.
Tim Wallis is codirector of Nonviolent Peaceforce.