Peace Education Training Update- Kayin State, Myanmar

In November 2015, ISDP in conjunction with the Myanmar Minerva Education Center conducted a peace education training workshop in Kayin State in the southeast of Myanmar. Aimed at increasing local understanding of the peace process among a variety of stakeholders, ISDP’s local office in Yangon reflects on the significance of the workshop against the backdrop of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the NLD’s victory in the general elections.

It was a forty five minute drive from the Kayin State capital of Hpa’an, through rice paddy fields dotted with dramatic limestone mountain formations, and eye-catching glints of gold from barely visible Buddhist stupas at their tops. This dramatic countryside is set against the ghostly background of the distant Dawna mountain range, the former heartland of the ethnic armed groups from the area. A team of national facilitators, who had attended “training of trainers” peace education workshops in Yangon in June 2015, travelled to the well-known monastery at the top of Thamanya Mountain to give a 2-day workshop for people from surrounding villages on the peace process in Myanmar. The participants were mid-level members of political parties, civil society organizations, ethnic armed groups and former combatants.

The workshop included sessions on the political dialogue phase of the peace process, and despite the heat the participants showed a strong interest in the topic. For many the topics presented were new. The National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government, Defence Services and eight ethnic armed groups was signed on October 15, 2015. The NCA also includes a broad schedule for political dialogue. Despite the signing receiving focused media attention, participants working on peace issues had a low understanding of the political dialogue phase of the peace process and how it had been scheduled.

The location of the workshop was significant as since the 1980s, the monastery and its surrounds had provided a sanctuary for villagers displaced by a war between government and ethnic armed groups that started in the 1960s and had raged in this area of Kayin State between the 1970s and mid-1990s. The 60-year old conflict is known as the world’s longest running civil war, and the Karen National Union that used to operate in the area were the first ethnic armed group to sign a bilateral ceasefire with President U Thein Sein’s government in 2012. At times the monastery hosted and fed approximately 4,000 thousand people per day. The head monk or Sayadaw had established the monastery in the middle of a warzone as a place of peace where arms were forbidden and the killing or eating of animals was not allowed. His followers came from all sides in the conflict and different backgrounds. The head monk passed away in 2003, and the monastery has since waned in popularity, but his reputation and the legacy of his work on peace remains. The current head monk is keen to operate a peace training center out of the monastery but with a lack of resources and knowhow has been unable to start such a project.

National trainers from civil society organizations in the region presented the political dialogue phase of the peace process, its timetable and how it would work. They also presented international examples of other peace processes. Participants were interested in how local concerns and needs could be brought from the ground up to higher levels of the discussion, and about how long the process would take. One community leader summed up the major concern of people in the area having just emerged from the 60-year conflict: “We just want to go forward {in the peace process], and do not want to go back”. A civil-society representative in the workshop stated: “We have witnessed the bitterness, causalities and damage caused by civil war in person, and now we have learned the theory, we more fully understand the cost of war”.

Participants in the workshop found the following topics most interesting and applicable to their work: ceasefire monitoring, federalism and case studies of international peace processes. They suggested that peace education trainings be expanded further into more conflict-affected areas and that the workshops should be longer than two days so that topics can be covered in more depth. Most participants found the training practical, “I like the topics on advocacy as we can use advocacy as a tool to keep the peace process going”. Another commented that advocacy could encourage the elites involved in the peace process to “… be more pragmatic about the peace process because war is something that has affected us so badly…”

The workshop took place despite sporadic fighting between EAGs and the Tatmadaw over recent months in the area, and the current heavy fighting in Kachin and Shan States. It also took place in the week following the election results confirming a landslide victory for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Political leaders in the area acknowledged that the NLD victory could bring positive change, but concerns remain on low levels of representation from ethnic parties post-elections despite ethnic representation within the NLD. The team found a place that was formerly an oasis of peace in the region reinvigorated with updates on the peace process and information on the political dialogue process that had just started. There is much national and international debate on whether the NCA can hold given the ongoing and worsening conflict in Shan and Kachin states, and given the fact that only 8 out of the 16 eligible armed groups signed the agreement. However, with the NLD elected and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stating that she will support the peace process, and meetings between her and the Defence Services in December 2015, participants are hopeful that peace is achievable.

Peace education training is being implemented by the Institute for Security and Development Policy and the Myanmar Minerva Education Center (MMEC) is supporting national civil society leaders from the main conflict affected and rural areas to explain phases of the peace process to key players in their areas. It aims to create local understanding of the higher level negotiations and support the building of networks between relevant organizations around the country, and within each participant’s area. There are a total of 30 trainings with half remaining to be implemented over coming months. The project is funded by the European Union.