Addressing Religious & Ethnic Violence Through Peace Education in Myanmar: Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Mary Pham

My Background in Peace and Conflict Education

Conflict is no stranger to me or my heritage. My grandparents, devout followers of Catholicism, fled Northern Vietnam due to the fear of religious persecution. My parents were refugees from the Vietnam War—a war spanning nearly two decades—having lived through episodes of direct violence in their communities, their friends killed in combat, their property destroyed and burnt down in warfare, with little hope for the future. Born in California after their diaspora to the United States, I grew up around low-income communities with one of the highest rates of gang violence in the state: my neighbor was shot when I was six years old, a memory that marked my formative childhood. Despite my own encounters with conflict, I can’t imagine what it was like for my grandparents, parents, and siblings to flee conflict—only to experience other forms of conflict in their communities. Three generations of conflict permeate in my family bloodline.

It is a combination of my family’s history and my upbringing that drive my fascination and concern for conflict on a global scale and a sense of urgency to think through solutions toward peace. This intrinsic calling toward issues of injustice and conflict has culminated in my protracted work in Burma. Since 2011, I spent my formative early and mid-twenties in the post-conflict former pariah state during two national elections, several ongoing ethnic conflicts, and precursors of an ethnoreligious genocide. I started out as a civic educator in Burma, and eventually evolved into peace advocacy and democracy education consultancies roles for local organizations. My experiences on the ground led to my decision in studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

This summer, I wanted to expand on my knowledge of the region after having considered the coursework I took that allowed me to reflect on my practice in a wider sense. My activities took place in two ethnic states in Myanmar that continue to experience regional violence and conflict, Rakhine State and Kachin State. These were two areas I did not work on in the past as there were limited opportunities where it was possible—the AC4 Fellowship enabled me to realize this possibility. My scope of applied research was to examine best practices of civil society strengthening that can drive positive social change and increase justice, rights, peace and development in Burma, focused on these two particular areas. Based on my previous work and expanding on it, I decided to take a dual approach: I first performed grassroots peace education workshop initiatives with local civil society organizations in Kachin and Northern Rakhine State to assess the needs of the community. I also conducted a series of interviews with civil society actors on their experiences interacting with international organizations and UN agencies and to promote a constructive dialogue that promotes peaceful co-existence.

Kachin and Rakhine Peace Education Workshops

The first half of my summer activities were supporting Mote Oo’s Peace Education Project, which the organization recently completed a draft workbook on peace and conflict education. Although the workbook is designed for a classroom setting, I tailored the workbook to be suited for a 5-day workshop format in informal settings. This entailed developing appropriate activities that served to introduce the topics within the workbook. I worked with an intern trainer from Mote Oo, who came with me to the workshops, helped me augment the material for a workshop format, and did heavy translation during our workshops. She was an invaluable resource and it was intentional that she came with me to the workshops, as I knew any impact from workshops during short time in the region would not be sustainable without local support to carry it on. The funds from AC4 went to her transportation, accommodation, as well as venue and workshop food and refreshments to the participants.


My and my intern trainer. This is her first time on a plane. During the workshops, I discovered my intern trainer had never been in a hotel, on a plane, or has eaten ethnic food in the areas we were training. It was a transformative experience for her and myself.

Issues During Field Work: Kachin State

The 5-day workshops in Myitkyina and Sittwe—despite regional challenges I encountered—went better than anticipated. Security, however, was an issue I encountered in both regions, but especially in Kachin State. During my third day of training in Myitkyina, I received a phone call from a state immigration officer who began to interrogate my work, asking which organization I was representing, the purpose of my workshop, and the duration of my stay. These questions reflect the limited number of foreigners that Myitkyina receives and the general sensitive political climate of Myitkyina due to the prolonged civil war in Kachin State.



Above: A participant from the Myitkyina workshop explains, through a conflict mapping activity, the stakeholders involved in Kachin State’s current conflicts. Below: Conducting the workshop with my intern trainer in Myiktyina

In the week of the workshop, a Myitkyina University student was killed by Burmese police at a checkpoint not far away from my workshop location, and several participants excused themselves to attend his funeral during the week. This reflects tensions between civilians and police in the area, and the general climate of uncertainty and tension within the city. Receiving a phone call from state authorities also created a level of safety concern, not only for myself but for my intern trainer and the organization I was representing.

Security issues aside, I encountered a difficult reality working in a region marked by conflict: the disparity of education levels between internally displaced people (IDPs) and the non-IDP Kachin population. While most of the workshop participants stayed through the duration of the workshop, some others, primarily the Kachin IDP camp participants, did not come on the last day of the training. I later learned from my intern trainer that the IDP participants they could not read or write well, and we suspect they were embarrassed by this. These participants had some of the most valuable insight in the sense of their own experiences from the conflict, but those working or living in Kachin IDP camps seldom come out to the city and generally feel disengaged from regular society. It left me with a sense of guilt and a certain level of failure in my workshop, not accounting this issue ahead of time—but it also reflects the limited opportunities IDPs even have for education and engagement in the area. On a more positive note, the experience of having IDP participants in the workshop were valuable for local Kachin civil society members who want to further engage with the population. Many Kachin civil society participants plan to follow up with the IDP groups and integrate them into activities within the community, and that was a win for me in terms of outcomes from my activities this summer.

Challenges During Field Work: Rakhine State

Of the four years I have been in Burma, I have not experienced so much emotional exhaustion as I did conducting workshops in Rakhine State. It was the most expensive component of my summer activities. I wanted to provide opportunities for actors outside of Sittwe to come to the workshop and share their experiences with conflict.

I invited participants from Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Maungdaw to participate in the workshop in Sittwe, the capitol of Rakhine State.

Photo: Map of Rakhine State in Burma. I invited participants from Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Maungdaw to participate in the workshop in Sittwe, the capitol of Rakhine State.

The outcomes from the workshop in Rakhine State were much more challenging that I had planned. A number of Rakhine participants seemed indifferent and unconcerned with the content of the workshop. Because of this, it was challenging to create open dialogue and a feeling of mutual respect between us—the trainers—and the participants.

During one of the activities, participants were asked to visualize and draw peace; one of the participants drew a picture of a Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist man holding hands. He later disclosed that “he felt scared once his drawing was posted among the participants” due to his unfamiliarity with how they feel regarding religious conflict. When participants were asked about local conflicts in their region, some of them labelled the Rohingya crisis as a merely “Muslim conflict,” where the only perpetrators of the conflict were the Muslim population in their region.

A drawing illustrating one workshop participant's idea of peace in Rakhine. Disclosed to me after the session, "he felt scared once his drawing was posted [among the participants]. He was scared what the other participants may do."

A drawing illustrating one workshop participant’s idea of peace in Rakhine. Disclosed to me after the session, “he felt scared once his drawing was posted [among the participants]. He was scared what the other participants may do.”

The indifference I felt directed toward me and my intern trainer, in many ways, reflected the overall social climate of the area. Two years ago, aid workers left Sittwe because mobs of Rakhine Buddhists extremists damaged their offices. During the week of my workshop in Rakhine, hundreds of mobs of angry protesters in Sittwe demand the administration call the Rohingya community Bengalis. Taking this into consideration, it is somewhat expected that the community would feel leery and skeptical of outsiders coming in, including my intern trainer and myself.

By the end of the workshop, there was relatively more cohesion among the participants. I decided to completely augment my last day to include a component of peace advocacy. Since Facebook and social media played a major role in exacerbating religious conflict in the region, I went through a workshop in creating a peace campaign on Facebook in the region. This was met by both welcome and hesitance—the latter primarily due to the fear of their identities being revealed to their Rakhine peers who may disagree with the issue and cause harm.


Image of the peace campaign on Facebook created during workshop.

Interviews with Civil Society in Myanmar

Traveling to Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan State this summer gave me opportunity to interview local civil society organization members on how they felt about international organizations and their effectiveness with programs, which are posted on the Paung Ku Forum Facebook website and blog. The Facebook page has as of writing this reflection over 11,900 likes, with high visibility from civil society actors, UN agencies (OCHA, UNHCR), and international organizations. I tailored a series of questions to ask civil society on their opinion of the work that their communities do and their viewpoints on the role and effectiveness of international organizations. An interview I conducted in Shan State that has a critical stance on the UN has received many views and likes. Another interview I conducted in Kachin State received less visible likes, but many views. My time interviewing local actors yielded in mixed views regarding the work of international organizations, largely dependent on regional context.

Overall Reflections: Work Experience and Training at Columbia

My first year at Columbia SIPA consisted of exploring skills and themes within humanitarian and human rights work. Since my background and ongoing interests are trainings and education for civil society actors, I also cross-enrolled at Columbia Teacher’s College. In particular, Dr. Felisa Tibbits‘ course on “International Organizations, Civil Society, and Peace Education” and “Human and Social Dimensions of Peace” were highly applicable in my work I was doing in Burma, allowing me to reflect upon different levels of actors in peace education and exploring a level of this during my summer fieldwork. Much of my work this summer reconfirmed the technical areas of focus I’d like to deepen (education, peacebuilding) but also made me think about ways to reach a greater number of people. I’m thinking of figuring out ways to introduce technology as a form of disseminating peace education and will consider this additional angle in my graduate studies moving forward.

Having been a peace and civic education consultant in Myanmar in the past, I had certain expectations of what Myanmar would be like and how it would change. My summer activities opened my eyes to how different it is to work in regions with relatively little support in Burma. It offered ways to visualize future projects with great potential but also complexities involved in designing projects that yield effective solutions. To this degree, my project—especially given the short time frame I had to execute it—has elicited more questions than answers: it has forced me to think more critically about political negotiations outside of my control that protracts conflict. Having focus my work from a grassroots angle can cause overlook of much larger forces that orchestrate conditions for conflict, and it is those actors that I need to be cognizant of when considering the relative impact of grassroots initiatives—and seeing how civil society fits within this overall framework.

I am honored and grateful that AC4 has provided this opportunity for me to deepen the knowledge of my work. My applied research project this summer enabled me to understand and gain important connections with local civil society actors of areas that my partner organizations previously had little to no contact with. I hope that my work—while relatively short and consequently low in impact—provides a few seeds of support for future peace education project initiatives by my partner organizations. This summer working in Kachin and Rakhine State in Burma has allowed me to explore that which is viscerally connected to me—my background in conflict—and has enabled me to consider the very real possibility of making this connection a tenant of my future professional and personal endeavors.

Author: Mary Pham is a masters student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), with focus on international relations studies in human rights and peace and conflict. She is combining her SIPA studies with a more ‘specialist’ look at peace education and education in conflict setting with a 2nd field of study in International Education Policy, at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and expects to graduate from SIPA in May 2018.

Images provided by author, Mary Pham.

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