From Myanmar to Nepal: comparing experiences of conflict and peacebuilding

1 February 2018 Tin Tun Aung and Lindsey Hurtle From Myanmar to Nepal: comparing experiences of conflict and peacebuilding

A recent trip to Nepal provided our Myanmar team with an opportunity to explore similarities and differences in the two countries’ peace processes and see first-hand the long-term effects of peacebuilding in communities.

Most people jump at a chance to go on a learning trip. They offer participants an opportunity to travel to new places, learn from experts in a variety of disciplines, and hear first-hand accounts of what works and what doesn’t in different contexts. These trips require meticulous planning, and everyone involved has to agree to put the rest of their work on pause for the duration of the trip. This leads many organisations to ask themselves: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

From our experience, they do.  

Early last November, members of Saferworld’s Myanmar team, together with our civil society partners the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), Karen Women’s Empowerment Group (KWEG) and Hser Mu Htaw (HMH) set off to Nepal to learn from our Saferworld colleagues there. The aim of the trip was for all participants to learn from Nepal’s transition to peace and federalism, and visit project areas in Nepal to provide us with a better understanding of community safety and community policing and how these approaches have affected peoples’ lives. Because Saferworld has only recently been working on community safety in Myanmar, participants of the exchange were particularly enthusiastic and curious to see the longer term impacts of these projects.

On the first day, we learnt about Nepal’s recently-concluded conflict and peace agreements where some obvious similarities and differences began to emerge. Professor of Political Science Krishna Khanal spoke to us about Nepal’s civil war and how it was driven by widespread discontent over a history of marginalisation, gender- and identity-based discrimination, poor governance and endemic inequality. The impetus behind Nepal’s move toward federalism was remarkably similar to Myanmar’s. Federalism in Nepal was seen as a solution to manage diversity, deepen democracy, improve administrative transparency and spur development across the country. The Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed in 2006 and a new constitution came into effect in 2015, promoting a federal state model. “These agreements have put an end to large-scale violence in Nepal, but many underlying grievances remain unaddressed”, said Dipendra Jha, a lawyer with Nepal's Supreme Court and a constitutional expert. “The federal model has been criticised for failing to address entrenched marginalisation of some indigenous communities and its visions have been interpreted differently by various groups, leading to further polarisation of public opinion”.  

In Myanmar, the peace process is slow moving at best. The government and the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in 2015, committing the parties to undertake a political dialogue process aimed at establishing a federal system of government as long demanded by EAOs. Federalism is regarded as an important part of any solution to create durable peace, ensuring that ethnic groups have an equal say in governance. However, similar to Nepal, non-inclusivity is a major obstacle as more than 20 of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed organisations have yet to sign the NCA and, following 60 years of conflict, trust between the conflict parties is also low. “The Tatmadaw and EAOs have a ceasefire agreement and it is the time for building trust”, said one community member and participant from our community safety project. “It is a critical period in Myanmar. I have learnt that in Myanmar the government does not trust EAOs and vice versa, and this is an obstacle to peace.” Nevertheless, where bigger changes at the national level face major blockages, smaller changes at the community level may offer a solution.  

Community-led peacebuilding

To learn more about these community level changes, Saferworld and partners visited Sunsari and Siraha districts in eastern Nepal where we have long been working with communities to identify and resolve security issues. This part of the exposure trip gave us the opportunity to speak with community members and project participants about the challenges, solutions and achievements in resolving conflicts and insecurities.

On the first day, we sat together in a small meeting hall with local police officers, Nepali government officials, human rights activists, UN staff, journalists, business owners, and community members with whom we had worked in two districts. Attendees agreed that the project had improved relations between police and communities, increased the responsiveness of police on drug and alcohol abuse, increased reporting of domestic violence cases, lessened damage from political protests, and reduced inter-communal tensions and empowered residents to organise and address issues themselves.

It became clear during the meeting that inclusive relationships were key to improving people’s safety and security. All attendees emphasised the need to bring together people of diverse beliefs, cultures, religions and ethnicities, and to promote dialogue and collaboration.

The next day, we saw this inclusivity in practice. Saferworld’s Myanmar team, as well as KWEG, KHRG and local authority representatives piled into a van and travelled the bumpy terrain to villages in Sunsari and Siraha to speak with the people involved in the community groups. The ‘reconciliation group’, as they called themselves, comprised women, men, boys, and girls from various social-ethnic backgrounds, and emphasised greater participation of marginalised groups including the Dalits —members of the so-called 'untouchable' community— in addition to the elderly, former combatants, members of the Maoist political party and business people. In Siraha, the reconciliation group performed street dramas to raise awareness of domestic violence, and brought young people from conflicting communities together – encouraging them to work together to coordinate events like volleyball and cricket matches. Similarly, in Sunsari's remote Laukahi village, the group raised money for bicycles and generators so they could set up police outposts in isolated areas to reduce crime and worked with journalists to raise awareness of these issues. After the project ended, the local government in Sunsari even decided to fund the group’s activities. 

Reflecting on what we learnt

Some on the exchange trip said that seeing the impacts resulting from collaboration in Nepal made them reconsider reaching out to business people and communities they had previously overlooked. “Police and communities collaborate really well in these project areas”, said Saw Chit Min, a representative from our partner organisation KHRG. “In mixed-controlled areas, I work closely with authorities. This is really applicable in Mon and Thaton areas because we see many issues like theft and gambling, and to solve this it could be really helpful to work more with the Karen National Police Force.” Others, such as the KHRG Director Naw Htoo Htoo, said how touched they were to see Dalit communities being integrated into the project. Another major point made highlighted the political obstacles holding back Myanmar’s peace process. “What I have learned from Nepal’s transition is that we need to promote the voices of marginalised communities at various levels in the political processes so that they are reflected by representatives and people in the Myanmar government,” said Aung Ku, a member of Hser Mu Htaw.  “This increases public ownership and lends legitimacy to the political processes.”

The trip provided inspiration and evidence that the community safety approach can bring together diverse people and conflicting parties, and can bridge networks that can support peace and security. Spending a week together with our partners in another country also brought us together, allowed conversations to flow freely, and strengthened relationships between participants. Those who participated in the exchange trip still feel that peace is a long way off in Myanmar, both nationally and locally. But the achievements we saw in Nepal showed that a commitment to inclusivity and collaboration can set firmer foundations for consolidating peace.

Lindsey Hurtle, Programme and Research Associate & Tin Tun Aung, Programme Officer.