Burma has faced various ethnic conflicts since shortly after its independence in 1948. In that time, five different peace efforts have failed, leaving Burma in what constitutes the world’s longest running civil war. However, since the country’s November 8 elections, there has been a flurry of meetings between ethnic-armed organizations and the military, known as the Tatmadaw. These unexpected talks are the first signs of progress toward a resolution of the seemingly intractable war—that is, if the sides can learn from the past and create a fresh, inclusive renewal of the peace process that draws on the country’s diverse voices advocating for peace. 

An 85-year-old ethnic Rakhine man on his way to work in their family's garden planting flowers, in Mrauk U, Myanmar. Sept. 12, 2018. (Minzayar Oo/The New York Times)
An 85-year-old ethnic Rakhine man on his way to work in their family's garden planting flowers, in Mrauk U, Myanmar. Sept. 12, 2018. (Minzayar Oo/The New York Times)

Previously, peace processes have failed to consider the diverse visions of peace among the numerous ethnic communities across Burma—choosing instead to rely on the visions of elites and armed actors. To help reverse this trend and demonstrate the power that everyday Burmese citizens have in building peace, USIP held a poetry and essay competition in which more than 4,000 authors from across the country submitted work. The sheer number of submissions demonstrated the Burmese people’s yearning to be heard, revealing an untapped supply of innovative thinking to be considered.

The Peace Process Still Falls Short

This series of convenings marks a distinct new line of effort toward a resolution of Burma’s most violent ongoing conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, a Buddhist ethnic minority insurgent group in Rakhine State demanding self-determination. But it’s important to point out that the complex peace process played absolutely no role in facilitating these dialogues. In fact, the peace process has demonstrated time and time again just how irrelevant it is when it comes to building peace in the country. Before the November elections, a USIP study found that Burma continues to repeat the mistakes of the five previous attempts to negotiate peace.

One of the main reasons that peace efforts have repeatedly failed is the lack of a shared vision for the country’s development in which all ethnic groups can see themselves prospering. Instead, the peace process has been myopic and highly exclusionary. Short periods of negative peace have been achieved through tenuous concessions to leaders of armed groups; concessions that only exacerbate community grievances and reify exclusionary narratives of belonging.

The ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in November creates an opportunity for it to reverse this trend by articulating a hopeful vision for a more peaceful future and facilitating a national conversation in which a diverse range of communities can offer their visions. An inclusive national dialogue about the future would not only offer a deeper understanding of the myriad definitions of peace and pathways for achieving it—it would be an exercise in national reconciliation.

Creating a Shared Vision of Peace

As part of an effort to encourage this conversation, USIP and its partners invited young people from across the country to submit essays and poems that outline their vision for a more peaceful Burma. USIP received more than 1,000 essays and 3,000 poems from a diverse array of authors, including students, monks, internally displaced persons, refugees, activists, and armed actors—among many others.

After reviewing the submissions, USIP’s partner, Mandalay Community Center, compiled 100 of the most compelling poems into a book and disseminated them to key actors in Burma’s peace process at the Union Peace Conference in August 2020. A few weeks later, on the International Day of Peace, USIP hosted an event to announce the winners of its essay competition. During the virtual event, the three winners read from their essays, drawing tears and thoughtful responses from the audience. Each of the winning essays offers an intimate view into the experiences of those affected by conflict and their vision for a better future:

  • Mae Kan Kaung, a Rakhine teacher now living in a refugee camp, reflects on the power and importance of dreams, particularly when living in a nightmare. She said, “I am familiar with the smell of gunpowder, the deafening sound of shuttering rifles. I’ve had to throw myself underneath benches and lie down flat together with my students in fright.” Yet, she holds tight to her simple dream of the “chance to teach in a peaceful environment … [where] only the laughter of our little children rings out over our school.”
  • Kyaw Zeya is a teacher from the Magwe region of Burma who was posted to southern Chin State, which is engulfed in violent conflict. He offered an intimate first-person description of his nervous first days in a town afflicted by war, where “no information is exchanged … eyes looked cold; everyone is treated as a suspect; and you often hear the faint booms of heavy weapons from a distance, coming as though from nowhere.”
  • Pyae Phyo Aung explored his dream of a nation that seeks happiness as its primary objective by reflecting on honorable characters from Burma’s past. He dreams of a country “in which there live rulers, government servants, and citizens with a strong sense of responsibility and accountability; a country of peace; a country where the citizens have never heard of the word ‘war;’ a country that enjoys a good reputation, free from corruption and bribery.”

In addition to painting an intimate picture of the human cost of violence across Burma and of visions for a more peaceful future, these essays provoke two important insights for peacebuilders in Burma:

First, they challenge the assumption that there is a single definition of peace. Policymakers and practitioners must remember that peace looks different to every person and every community. As an international organization operating out Burma’s urban center, USIP must seek to better understand the diverse visions for peace and continually re-evaluate its own. These essays and poems represent an important source of information in that process.

Second, they remind us of the role of hope and history. Forward-looking efforts, like this essay competition, offer an opportunity for new ideas and for traditionally marginalized voices to be heard. These efforts will be stronger, though, if they are coupled with a deep understanding of history. USIP’s recent report warns of the perils of ignoring the mistakes of Burma’s numerous failed peace efforts. Many of the essay authors make the same point, reflecting on their experience with persistent conflict and failed attempts at making peace. Solutions can only be achieved when the lessons learned from past failures are paired with a vision for the future.

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