The first Panglong conference took place in 1947 and a commemoration of it recently took place on Feb. 12, which is commonly known as Union Day in Myanmar. The conference was meant to unite Myanmar's ethnic groups who have been co-existing since time immemorial.
Soon after British colonization, they were subjected to the British system of "divide and rule" and the subsequent conflicts have remained from the colonial era onwards. Such a situation must be remedied by transforming the mindset of people wounded by decades of hurt.
The ongoing 21st Century Panglong Conference* — which are set to have talks every six months until a resolution to the country's internal conflicts are found — will certainly bring change as well as consequences, hopefully that they will bring the nation in line with how things ought to be: to set things right.
As such, they are not value neutral. Even if these values are not stated explicitly, the way someone acts and what they choose to do can reflect their implicit values and assumptions. These actions can have the effect of either reinforcing or changing existing systems, structures and relationships.
Therefore, it is of great importance that peacemakers are clear with their values and aspirations so they may be better able to develop strategies and methodologies that are compatible with their long-term visions and aspirations. It goes without saying that there is a need to transform deeply embedded attitudes and patterns between groups of people historically shaped by conflict.
Therefore, in the words of John Paul Lederach, "The goal is not stasis (stagnation) but rather the generation of continuous, dynamic, self-regenerating processes.... Such an infrastructure is made up of a web of people, their relationships and activities, and the social mechanisms necessary to sustain the changes sought. This takes place at all levels in the society. An infrastructure for peace building is oriented toward supporting processes of social change generated by the need to move from stagnant cycles of violence toward a desired and shared vision of increased interdependence."
There can be three basic orientations in actors working with conflict situations: conflict management, conflict settlement and conflict resolution. Linked to conflict resolution are peace building initiatives aimed at overall transformation.
I would like to see the 21st Century Panglong Conference to aim for conflict transformation. It involves a sustained and multi-dimensional process of addressing these wider social and political sources of conflict. Thus reforming and reconciling relationships that have been affected.
The idea is that we should aim to transform the sources and dynamics of the conflict and the contextual factors that gave rise to it.
The actors who aim to promote conflict resolution are essentially working for "positive peace," an umbrella term often used to combine conflict resolution and peace-building, creating just and sustainable relationships and structures. This approach transforms the deep roots of social and political conflict. It also deals with the behavioral manifestations of people engaged in conflict so that they respond in more peaceful and constructive ways.
All I can say at the outset of the 2017 Panglong conference is that it will be a long process for complex Myanmar. But one thing I dare predict is that it will give a formula to the rest of the world that peace is possible even in Myanmar with its complex of 135 ethnic groups.
Father Christopher Raj is currently serving as project coordinator in Lashio Diocese. He earlier worked as chaplain at the Karuna Myanmar Social Services and he has given workshops and seminars about peace.
*The first talks for the 21st Century Panglong were held in Naypyidaw Aug. 31- Sept. 4 of last year. It was initiated by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi whose father, General Aung San oversaw the 1947 Panglong Agreement that covered issues related to self-autonomy and federalism with the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups. However, the deal was never fulfilled and after the 1947 conference Aung San was assassinated and ethnic groups took up arms against the central government.
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