Strengthening Civil Society and Building Peace in Myanmar

The following is an excerpt from the key note speech given by 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, Lahpai Seng Raw, at the the Border Consortium Seminar on “Evolving Perspectives of South East Burma/Myanmar” at Chiang Mai, 06 November 2013. The speech is reproduced here, in light of the recent agreement reached on the draft text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement.

Creating peace requires the involvement of everyone. Everyone needs to build it and experience it. Consequently, strengthening civil society should be our priority at this point in time – that is, if we are truly seeking ‘eternal peace’.

However, years of mismanagement by successive governments and the unabated armed conflicts have impacted adversely on the people and paralysed them. There is no short cut to reverse this, but getting civilians to make their own choices and having their voices back in the forefront of discussions, I believe, will be a key deciding factor in the transformation process.

We all need to focus on enhancing ways to regenerate civil communities, as “strengthening civil society” refers to the flourishing and effective delivery of NGO-CBO groups. This does not need to be a particular end goal but simply the meeting of needs and challenges that will ultimately help strengthen communities, society and the country.

Local Kachin NGOs have come up with certain conditions pertinent to the IDP issue, which they hope the KIO and the government will discuss in their negotiations, so that some kind of agreement may be reached.

1. Humanitarian Response

To ensure that humanitarian agencies can safely undertake humanitarian response for all the IDPs without restriction. In order to avoid overlapping and gaps, and to provide effective support,

there should be effective coordination among international agencies and existing local organisations providing humanitarian support.

2. Return and Resettlement

To respect and abide by international humanitarian laws, ethics and principles[1] to ensure that there is a voluntary, safe, and dignified return and reintegration[2] of the IDPs. The entire process requires thorough and systematic consultation, and the IDPs should be provided with all necessary information before their return. Return and resettlement support should be sustained for at least 5 years.

3. Monitoring

To ensure that an independent monitoring group, composed of individuals and organisations acceptable to both sides, conduct objective and unbiased monitoring.

Needless to say, the rehabilitation and resettlement of the IDPs and refugees should go in tandem with addressing and resolving the root causes of the conflict.  For peace, stability and sustainability, there must be political solutions where people are properly represented and consulted on all social and political issues that affect their lives. Otherwise the cycle of armed revolution, ceasefire, civil conflict, displacement, and resettlement will go on. And what is progress when refugee numbers decrease but IDP numbers increase?

Let us give space for civil society to be empowered and local NGOs to become stronger.

It is also important to keep in mind that, in the Myanmar context, strengthening Civil Society and Building Peace are intertwined.  Building Peace will be a long inclusive process. It is not possible to prioritise issues in sequence due to the complexities and uniqueness of our country’s situation. But some of the issues to be addressed in the comprehensive peace process include the following:

  • Withdrawal of troops
  • De-mining
  • IDP and refugee rehabilitation and settlement
  • Time to plan for and carry out political dialogue
  • Time for leaders to freely interact with constituents
  • Constitutional changes

And not to forget, as we are rebuilding a common future and peaceful co-existence, there is a need to document the facts and origins of past violence.

We are therefore looking at a comprehensive Peace Process that involves grassroots people and civil societies – not just military and political leaders. There are lessons to be learned from other countries and we know we can do this too. A successful transformation will rely on the extent to which communities are empowered, and the support local organizations get, as they are undoubtedly the foundations of a new peaceful society that will regenerate our country.

Of course, peace agreements cannot last unless demobilized soldiers from all sides find worthwhile livelihood opportunities to reintegrate them into society and receive help to support their families and communities.  I have had the opportunity of discussing this with armed personnel from the KIO regarding their visions for civilian life when peace eventually comes. Many expressed a common wish for a small piece of arable land to work on, to be independent and to be able to provide for their families. Most foot soldiers in the frontline armies on all sides are from rural families, and I think this vision is shared by the great majority of them. Such a fundamental desire should not be difficult to achieve, providing that real social and political agreements are achieved.

In summary, to finish with, I want to emphasise the need to acknowledge the difference between ceasefires and peace. Armies can agree to ceasefires between themselves, but they cannot make peace – peace requires the people.

So let me reiterate: “Peace” is a social state and cannot be developed by military men, and cannot be developed without the leadership and will of the people – the civil society.

[2] Secured and dignified return and resettlement means ensuring prevention of conflict, protection from risk of landmines, relocation of army camps away from the villages, elimination of forced labour, freedom of mobility for the civilians, provision of basic needs and social infrastructure, right of every citizen, restitution and fair and relevant compensation for the houses and assets destroyed or lost.