In 2018–2019, we ran the Build Peace Fellows Myanmar program, supporting three initiatives to pilot technology tools to support their peacebuilding work. Here, Hein Paing Htoo Chit, Founder and Executive Director of SEED for Myanmar, reflects on his journey as a fellow.
Seeing conflict first hand
I can trace this journey back to 2014, when I graduated from medical university and traveled around Myanmar, volunteering in mobile clinics in disputed areas. In 2015, I found myself working in an area where ethnic conflict had driven many people out of their homes and into camps.
One day, I returned from an IDP camp after a medical service tour and had dinner with a group of local residents. They seemed confused and asked me why I was supporting these groups that, they believed, were harming them. I was shocked to see human beings questioning the health rights of other human beings because of their differences. At this point, I realised how much conflict impacts our basic humanity, and saw first hand the importance of addressing this challenge.
Setting up SEED for Myanmar
When I returned to my hometown, Mawlamyine, in Southeast Myanmar in late 2015, I decided to set up a youth organisation, SEED for Myanmar, to provide a space for dialogue and education. Traditionally in Myanmar, peace issues are considered to be the concern of senior people and officials. We initially set up SEED in Yangon in 2016 and then moved to Mawlamyine, our homebase, in 2017.
At SEED we see things differently — we believe it takes fresh minds and tremendous energy to address centuries-old problems like direct violence, and to build a peaceful and inclusive future. We believe youth are crucial to that change. We empower youth to become active citizens, responsible leaders and social entrepreneurs.
As Build Peace Fellows, we set out to create a Facebook campaign that allowed youth to imagine their futures and connect that vision to local stakeholders. By providing young people with the tools to positively imagine their future, we wanted to empower them to engage in building that vision, and show local stakeholders that youth have a powerful voice for change. We called the campaign Common Imagination.
The Importance of Positive Approaches
In our society, openly talking about the challenges of our community is considered quite bold. As of the end of 2019, over 220 people have been charged on the basis of their expression, including 28 students. Of them, 18 charges were related to the organisation of and participation in peace and anti-war protests. This is a major challenge for freedom of expression.
As part of the Build Peace Fellows program, we developed the following strategies to overcome this challenge.
Positive framing of the future: SEED provided workshops on video making for advocacy to youth across Mawlamyine. Our curriculum emphasised the importance of positive messaging alongside teaching basic techniques for storyboarding, filming and editing with mobile phones. After the training participants went out to the streets, interviewing community members on the challenges and aspirations of youth, which they edited into one minute videos. The videos were then assessed against the criteria of creativity, content, comprehensibility and, most importantly, communicating a positive message. Those that met the criteria were selected for inclusion in the Common Imagination campaign.
We have since shared over 50 of these positive one-minute videos on our Facebook page, covering topics from disaster management to human trafficking. We found the positive approach allowed youth to talk about issues that had previously been trouble to raise. Based on the video campaign, a dialogue was held between youth and a number of local parliament members, resulting in the first ever promise to push for a youth budget. The campaign also created a platform for the students’ request to build a canteen in the Mawlamyine Technological University — today we are thrilled that a canteen has now opened. As part of this positive approach, we also explored the concept of Nonviolent Communication, organising a training for two dozen of our alumni for two days to go deeper into this topic.
Nearly one year after the project started, we organised an event called Festivals For The Futures where 180 youth gathered to share their dreams, challenges and projects. By using the positive frame of the future, we are able to discuss the challenging issues in an inclusive, non-threatening way, which opens new doors to policy-makers.
Positive peace: In a country like Myanmar, the idea of peace has historically been based around ethnic conflicts, and more recently around religious conflicts. The introduction of non-violent communication to SEED during the Build Peace fellowship led us to the concept of positive peace — defined as peace with justice. Although we had studied conflict a lot, we had paid little attention to the concept of positive peace.
Positive peace is a new concept in a country like ours where we experienced a lot of direct violence over more than seven decades of civil war. Today, as the country is opening up and moving into a more liberalised stage on the road to democracy, it is important for us to understand that peace is not only about ceasing violent conflict. Even as there are still battles in disputed areas, we need to recognise the importance of building a resilient, understanding, educated and tolerant society. How can we move towards positive peace? We believe it is by empowering local communities and inspiring them to create a better, more prosperous and more sustainable future together — to develop a Common Imagination for change.
Reflecting back on the past few years, we feel proud to have come this far and to have built our network as a small youth organisation. One of the biggest contributions to our strategy, our institutional learning and our approaches to the community came from understanding the value of positivity. We continue to learn and apply these lessons from the fellowship. I feel so much gratitude to have walked alongside Build Up in our journey towards building a better future!