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The Peace and Civil Rights Movement in Burma

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By Nai Banya Honghsar, Mon Writers Club, June 2012 – A “peace movement” has been the foundation of modern civil rights in many western nations, while in many Asian nations, such movements are still fledgling. However, the newly formed civil rights and peace movements in Burma are a welcome effort toward everlasting peace within the various ethnic and socioeconomic communities. A country with such diverse ethnicities, religions, and political conflicts will never truly be unified unless a common goal for peace and shared humanity is identified in the local and national community. I have lived outside Burma in a peaceful society for over ten years, and I offer my hope, with cautious optimism, for peace in my lifetime.

A movement for peace requires the art of soft politics, individual and collective wisdom, and mutual respect based on principles of nonviolence and universal human rights. Peace and human rights movements must be based on “justice and equality” for all human beings. More than 60 years of armed conflict can end if all leaders and members of political, social, and ethnic groups alter the mentality of war and the old concept of “victory.” In the case of Burma, war wins battles, but conflict has never been resolved.

Many people have given genuine support to my call for peace. It is not surprising that we are not seeing results immediately, but if everyone works as best as they can, peace will eventually come. As I stated in a press release regarding my meeting with Minister U Aung Kyi, I see that there could be potential for cooperation that will benefit the people. To paraphrase a statement by Aung San Suu Kyi on a September 1st, 2011, Radio Interview, “Although this is just a beginning, I must say that it is a positive beginning.” Daw Suu Kyi toured Europe for 15 days to share her hope of ensuring Burma’s place in the 21st century under a new direction for peace and national unity within the parliamentary framework and movement for peace.

After I read and listened to news from Burma about the peace movement for “67/67/67,” marking the 67th birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of hope for democracy and peace in Burma, I was pleased that action for peace and democracy has been transferred from the global community to local youth in the country. After more than 20 years of global campaigning for reforms by the U.S., U.K., Australia, and other western nations, young people in Burma have begun to use new media and other resources to implement their own movement.

A movement for peace shall be planned in the country if the people pursue a “forever peace,” as a youth group’s slogan read in a recent campaign. From 1940-1962, and from 1994-2006, the peace process was largely designated to the government and ethnic armed leaders. However, Burma’s armed conflict has never ceased over the last half of the century. Local civil society or youth leaders have never initiated the messages coming out of campaigns for peace. Peace seekers and peacemakers shall supply the movement for peace both financially and socially until the goal of lasting peace is attained.

I hope that this movement will take 10-20 years due to social, cultural, and ethnic elements. However, if local youth and civil society play the critical roles at the center of the peace movement, the campaign can build its own rapid momentum.

“Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace. Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness,’” concluded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during her speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in June this year.

The failure of the peace talks or ceasefire agreements between the government and ethnic armed resistance leaders is a good “lesson learned” that any peace movement without local community and civil society cooperation and inclusion will not sustain in the long term. A peace movement should serve for the interests of local people, especially those affected by armed and other ethnic conflicts. Unless all ethnic and political leaders place utmost emphasis on the sustainability of peace for the people, deals and agreements for development or other social benefits will not last. Peace is not an action for gaining political power but an action for nation-building and national unity. It is the hope for the new 21st century generation that yearns for a place to live with dignity and freedom from fear of persecution and oppression of any kind.

A peace movement led by local artists, musicians, media members, and other spiritual groups is far more important than amendments to legislation in the near term, because the nation requires peace and stability to properly debate new legislation.

In its more than sixty years of independence, Burma has not yet known a time that could truly be said to be peaceful. At this very moment, hostilities continue between Kachin forces and state troops in the north.  In the west, communal strife has led to the loss of innocent lives and the displacement of tens of thousands of helpless citizens.  “We need to address the problems that lie at the root of conflict,” remarked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairwomen of National League for Democracy, at her recent official joint-parliament speech at Westminster Hall.

Professor Elliott Prasse-Freeman, Director of a US-based human rights center, urged that, “The quintessential intermediary is the former political dissident, and many of them are looking for creative ways to re-engage the political sphere. They appear poised to capitalize on this space and to keep these kinds of movements expanding and deepening. The 88 Generation Students Group, an increasingly active affiliation of former political prisoners, is holding rallies, conducting civic education, and militating for pro-poor policies. If anyone can politicize civil society groups, it’s them, given the vast social capital they hold as a result of their decades-long struggle.” However, student leaders shall not jeopardise the role of spiritual and other cultural leaders within each ethnic community if they wish to find solutions for peace and unity within the diverse contexts of each ethnic state and territory.

The 26-member World Movement for Democracy published a report in 2008 with some tips for Burma’s activists, but due to lack of access to resources and online media, local youth and civil rights campaigners may not have seen the useful report and knows its value in influencing public policy. Legislation for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press is the foundation of any peace movement framework.

The report asserted that, “Because of international law, a state is not only bound to refrain from interference with human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of association and expression, among others. This includes an accompanying obligation to ensure that the legislative framework for civil society is appropriately enabling and that the necessary institutional mechanisms are in place to ensure to all individuals the recognized rights. An enabling legal framework will help create an appropriate environment for an NGO throughout its lifecycle. Necessary institutional mechanisms could include, among others, a police force to protect people against violations of their rights by state or non-state actors and an independent judiciary able to provide remedies.” This is not only a helpful summary, but also a tool for Burma’s peace movement to seek out and include voices from all sectors. The freedom of expression of officials within Burma’s army and other armed ethnic groups should be welcomed in the public arena just as the voice of the people should be embraced by policymakers.

As a father and community worker who, at 44 years of age, has experienced many years of peace, I am saddened that my parents, brothers, sisters, and millions of other people in Burma have lived with fear and without the benefit of knowing a peaceful existence. The peace movement is truly a people’s movement for peace within diverse races, cultures, and political beliefs based on the principle of universal human rights. Legally, each citizen has to be protected from all form of human rights violations. Everyone in the country is granted civil rights by the constitution and should legally be free from oppression and free to pursue his/her own cultural and religious beliefs.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) conducted assessments of the armed conflict in Burma and, in its 2009 report, described how, “Ethnic conflict is a key issue that needs to be resolved in order to bring about a lasting political solution. Without a political settlement that addresses the ethnic minority issues, it is extremely unlikely there will be a peace and democracy in Burma. Instead of isolating and demonizing the cease-fire groups, all national and international actors concerned with peace and democracy in Burma should actively engage with them and involve them in discussions about political change in the country.”

President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must draw up a nationwide peace and action within the next one to two years, before the 2015 election. Armed ethnic group leaders should also devise a peace framework, and local youth groups and civil society organizations can likewise define and address the needs of the public. Burma’s new generation should be campaigning for nationwide peace by promoting ethnic harmony and embracing ethnic diversity with a sense of belonging to the country’s past and present political context.

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