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Witnessing Burma's Transition Through Its People
With a population of 55 million people and more than 135 ethnic groups, Burma’s leadership should celebrate the country’s diverse ethnicity. Instead, ongoing conflict and systematic discrimination have torn the nation apart. But at the George W. Bush Institute, we are optimistic that Burma can mend and continue building its fragile democracy.
Last month we were privileged to travel to Bagan, a historic city in central Burma, to meet 23 new Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Burmese Scholars. As part of the program, they participated in courses on leadership, teambuilding, conflict resolution, and networking. These individuals are civil society leaders, former political prisoners, journalists, LGBTQ activists, lawyers, educators, entrepreneurs, and policy makers. Although they have differing ethnic backgrounds and religious and political beliefs, they found common ground.
The scholars shared their hopes for Burma and participated in team building activities such as photo scavenger hunts to show what pluralism and democracy means to them. By the last night, the scholars were singing and dancing their traditional ethnic songs together. The training and lessons allowed them to discuss some of the country’s most pressing challenges today and find a common vision. Their shared vision provides hope that the country can also, in time, unite.
Much of the systemic discrimination and ethnic conflict in Burma has been aimed toward the Rohingya—a Muslim ethnic minority group based in Rakhine State. Many citizens of Burma mistakenly believe that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and do not belong in the country.
Since August 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya have been driven into exile in Bangladesh by the Burmese military. Recently, Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh rejected a second repatriation agreement between the United Nations and the Burmese government citing fears of not being able to return to their villages or have a pathway to citizenship, meaning most of the exiles will remain in refugee camps for the foreseeable future.
Given this current environment, we were encouraged to hear one of our Rohingya scholar, Thosmir’s optimism for a united Burma. He is working with other Bush Institute scholars and the United Nations Food Program in Rakhine State to establish programs that will educate the Rakhine and Rohingya communities. While no easy feat, he views this as one of many avenues of freeing the Rohingya, and, ultimately, uniting his country.
Sadly, many children in Yangon, the largest city in Burma, live and survive on the street. They make money by selling flowers and helping on construction sites. Often they are recruited to participate in violent armed conflicts, prostitution, and criminal activities. Liberty and Leadership Scholar Ye Yint Naung is using his community theater talents to create a mobile theater for the children of Yangon. Through this work, he hopes to foster a sense of community and create educational opportunities.
In Northern Burma, violence between the Burmese government and ethnic armed forces is ongoing. Peaceful protests by the Kachin people have been met with military force and harsh punishment. In early September, Liberty and Leadership Scholar Seng Nu Pan was convicted and briefly imprisoned for her role in organizing an anti-war demonstration.
Unfortunately, Seng Nu Pan’s story is not unique. In December, Liberty and Leadership alumnus Lum Zawng was jailed for stating simple facts about the military preventing innocent citizens from escaping a conflict zone. He was released from prison in late April.
There are many other examples of scholars who are just as selflessly working toward a more democratic Burma. In mid-October, our scholars will visit the United States, many for the first time, exposing them to democracy in action. They will see how our judicial, legislative, and executive branches work together and how the Constitution provides the guarantees for our liberties. Even with all the problems gripping America, we know they will learn that democracy is imperfect by nature and is designed to be improved by the people.
The Liberty and Leadership Scholars, together with others in Burma, will forge a path to democracy and peace, bringing diverse communities together through mutual understanding and respect. We believe they will prove that while building a new democracy demands nurturing, there is hope for a better future.
Jieun Pyun serves as Senior Program Manager, Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. She is primarily responsible for development and implementation of the Liberty and Leadership program, an innovative educational and training program that equips young leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed during a democratic transition. The program currently engages young leaders from Burma (Myanmar).
Prior to joining the Bush Center, Jieun was the communications director with the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies and a fellow of the Sun & Star Program on Japan and East Asia at Southern Methodist University.
Jieun currently serves as a council member of the National Unification Advisory Council of the Republic of Korea and the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Korean School Principals. As a proud member of the Korean Women's International Network, Jieun works to promote women’s leadership in local, national, and global politics and society. Jieun is a writer and presenter who has brought to light the many urgent issues suffered in North Korea.
A native of South Korea, Jieun is a graduate of Southern Methodist University with an M.B.A and B.A. in Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.Full Bio
Michael Bailey serves as Program Manager, Leadership Programs, for the George W. Bush Institute, focusing on international leadership programs. In this role, Michael works with the Liberty and Leadership Program, which strives to equip young leaders with the knowledge and skills to succeed during a democratic transition, and the WE Lead Program, which works to equip young women from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan with the skills to become more effective leaders.
Prior to joining the George W. Bush Institute, Michael provided operations, media, and communications support to The American Choral Directors Association, a music organization dedicated to the excellence and advancement of choral music.
Michael is a native of Arlington, Texas. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Music (Voice) from The University of Oklahoma, and he holds a Master of Business Administration with concentrations in finance and real estate from Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business.Full Bio
Bush Institute Leaders Are Contributing to Burma's Democratic Transition
Since the launch of the Liberty and Leadership Program, the Bush Institute has engaged 79 men and women from Burma, including former political prisoners, civil society activists, members of parliament, journalists, educators, health practitioners, and other emerging leaders.
Burmese Court Jails Liberty and Leadership Program Scholar for Freedom of Speech
Burmese activist and 2016 graduate of the George W. Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Program Lum Zawng was released from jail last week for his role in a December 2018 peaceful protest.