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What hope for Myanmar? A Christian specialist comments ...

Recent news from Myanmar is heartbreaking, writes Chris Mabey. It seemed the country was inching towards a more democratic regime, but since February the full force of the military junta has cracked down again on defenceless protestors. As someone who married into a Burmese family and visited Myanmar many times over the past 30 years, I am confronted by two vexing questions.

What factors have led to the current and long-standing malaise in Myanmar?
What signs of hope exist to suggest a radical shift in fortunes? 

Why the crisis in Myanmar?

I think there are five reasons why Burma, since gaining independence from the British in 1948, has struggled politically and socially. 

First is the multi-ethnic nature of Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1997). Within the national borders, there are at least 130 people groups, each with their own dialect or language, indigenous culture and vested interests. Many, like the Karen, the Chin, the Kachin and the Shan have long maintained their own militia, fighting for basic human rights. The conflict between them and the dominant ethnic group, the Bamars, has continued unabated for 60 years. 

Second, the intransigence of the junta. It is one thing to impose military dominance on a country in chaos, but the generals that rule Myanmar have shown remarkable resilience in retaining their iron grip over their peoples for 60 years. Government legislation and affairs of state have been systematically passed from one small cadre of generals to another. The cards have been shuffled, but from the same pack.

third factor is the bullying nature of the military regime with frequent outbursts of extreme brutality. For long periods the people of Myanmar have acquiesced. On the occasions when popular uprisings have occurred, they have been repulsed by intense ferocity. Notably, student protests in 1988, the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 when monks fronted civil unrest, and again since February 2021. 

Fourthly benign Buddhist beliefs have infused the Burmese mind-set for centuries. Characteristics like tolerance, conservatism, pacifism and profound respect for others do not readily lend themselves to armed revolt against the political status quo. 

fifth dimension to the junta’s durability in Myanmar is the cloak of secrecy with which they surround their political and social activities. Psychological research tells us that a heavily armed regime and extreme paranoia go hand in hand. 

What hope for the future? 

Since February, more than 700 protestors have been killed, many more incarcerated. Increasing numbers have fled to Karen State and the Thai border for protection, with reports of a shadow government forming. It looks highly unlikely that the persistent discrimination of the military regime will soften soon. What is needed is a wholesale replacement of generals with leaders exhibiting socialised power, those who can restrain their egotistical behaviours. There is growing evidence that so-called responsible leadership can be found in many of the world’s spiritual traditions. Here, individuals animated by a higher purpose, embrace power in the context of conscience, good purpose, love, awareness and service.

Over a period of 10 years, I have coached and trained successive cohorts of students at a Bible college in Yangon. Each year a dozen or more graduates – along with hundreds more alumni from similar colleges – return to their villages as community leaders. They work in hospitals, schools, business and churches, often alongside staff from international NGOs like World Vision and Medical Action Myanmar. 

On each visit, I have also spent time with inspirational millennials. People like Kamaylar who gives mine-risk instruction in her home area, Hsar Doe Doh who is helping to create an ecological peace park in rural Karenni State, Dr Sasa bringing medical know-how to the Chin hills and Swe Swe (an ex-PhD student of mine from Birkbeck) who runs a management training centre in Yangon. 

All talk about the importance of early – often harrowing – experiences and the influence of family members in forging their Christian or Buddhist values. Each benefited from Prospect Burma scholarships to study outside their country. Operating outside the myopic bubble of central government at Naypyidaw, all have chosen to return to Myanmar to invest their skills for the next generation.  

It would be tempting to dismiss these young people as isolated cases of self-sacrifice and dedication which have little purchase against the monolithic problems facing Myanmar. Yet I find myself disarmed by their courage. For much-needed improvement in war-torn Myanmar, it is perhaps on these grassroots activists that we should pin our hopes.

Chris Mabey is emeritus professor at the Business School, Middlesex University. His book Whispers of Hope: A Family Memoir of Myanmar is published by Penguin Random House. More details at www.chrismabey.co.uk.

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