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Witnessing Burma's Transition Through Its People

Learn how the Liberty and Leadership Scholars, together with others in Burma, are forging a path to democracy and peace, bringing diverse communities together through mutual understanding and respect.

Article by Jieun Pyun and Michael Bailey September 30, 2019 //   5 minute read
Liberty and Leadership Program Scholars showcase what democracy means to them through a photo scavenger hunt activity

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.