The popular resistance has issued a clarion call for a federal democratic Myanmar, based on inclusive politics. The practice of social cohesion constitutes both a starting point for building inclusive politics, and a much-needed trust-building exercise in a heavily trust-deficient Myanmar society.
Under the compounded impacts of the coup and Covid-19 for more than a year, daily life in Myanmar has become unthinkably tough. The year 2021 was very long indeed. Due to the coup, the governing system of state institutions has been collapsing across different domains, including education, administration, banking, health, and the peace process. The results are visible in closed businesses, rising unemployment, spikes in Covid-19 cases, malfunctioning hospitals, and more. Foreign investors, seeking to protect their reputations, have continuously left the country, citing ‘gross human rights violations’ on the part of the de facto authority. These conditions reflect the terrible situation that Myanmar now faces, which also threatens the country’s already frayed socioeconomic fabric. Will society be torn apart, or will it come together?
The coup has buried the rule of law and destroyed formal governance structures, but community-level initiatives have emerged, with the potential to strengthen social cohesion. Ward/Village Tract Administration (WVTA) leaders appointed by State Administration Council (SAC) are no longer able to take the lead in local governance. The WVTA is a critical institution for ensuring that all levels of administrative systems are in place. Some WVTA leaders, deemed to be informers, have been killed by anti-junta resistance groups or anonymous attackers. Numerous others have resigned. Many of these attacks happened under the pretext of making the country ungovernable by the coup regime.
However, as formal governance at the community level collapses, self-administered forms of governance – in which the community itself takes the lead – are filling the void. In some places, community elders informally, and on a voluntary basis, support administration functions at the ward/village level. Religious leaders play that role in other places. These developments suggest that the country is taking significant local and incremental steps toward broader unity.
There are some good reasons for this more optimistic prognosis amidst the gloom. Division and antagonism among different religions, races, and ethnicities have prevailed in Myanmar society for a long time. Religion has often been used to reinforce this disunity; Buddhist nationalistic sentiment, in particular, has been inflamed for political gain. As a result, religious tensions and intercommunal violence recur in many parts of the country. A clear example is the plight of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, where many were killed in the military’s “clearance operations”, and thousands remain displaced until now.
As formal governance at the community level collapses, self-administered forms of governance – in which the community itself takes the lead – are filling the void.
However, since the coup, this terrible landscape has begun to change – especially at the local level. Communities understand that they need to be as cohesive as possible. Actions follow. For instance, several mosques across Yangon and other parts of the country donated much-needed oxygen to Covid-19 patients regardless of religion, race, age, or ethnic background. This action shows a great understanding by a peaceful religion that was once smeared – by extreme Buddhist nationalists – as a threat to Buddhism. The action also represented a strong wake-up call to peaceful coexistence. In addition, there have been public apologies to Rohingya communities who have been persecuted in severe ways. Today in Rakhine State, the two communities – Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists – have started re-engaging each other.
These changes could not have happened without the catalysing role of Myanmar’s youth. Young adults are frontline fighters for social cohesion and peacebuilding. They are more liberal than the older generations. They are also fact-checkers who no longer trust old stereotypes or misinformation and disinformation. They are indeed attempting to escape the traps of endless conflict based on inter-religious, inter-ethnic, intra-ethnic and political differences. The youth are now transforming themselves toward assuming political leadership roles, with intention of shaping the country’s future.
The popular resistance has issued a clarion call for a federal democratic Myanmar, based on inclusive politics. The practice of social cohesion constitutes both a starting point for building inclusive politics, and a much-needed trust-building exercise in a heavily trust-deficient Myanmar society. Social cohesion needs to be strengthened locally, and then levelled up to regional and national domains. Accordingly, mutual support and understanding among people with differences must be inculcated. Mindsets and mechanisms for living peacefully together must be institutionalised.
Social cohesion at the national level also entails power-sharing and resource-sharing. A mode of ‘sharing politics’ can build upwards from community-level social cohesion precedents to achieve a peaceful Myanmar. For instance, in ethnically diverse Shan State, groups unhappy with the lack of ‘sharing’ have repeatedly instigated fights instead of seeking socially cohesive solutions. This must change.
Spoilers to the practice of social cohesion abound in Myanmar society: divisions between the Bamar majority and other ethnic groups, inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic divides, religious divides, differences between citizens and unrecognised groups, gender issues, and more. All of these divisions cannot be addressed at this point, but social cohesion must begin to take root in some areas and spread out. A Burmese proverb, ‘cross through the great darkness and you will find a light at the end’, speaks to this moment. Acts of social cohesion by communities offer a glimmer of light – dim, but distinct, and promising. This light must be sustained and magnified, guiding Myanmar’s path to a federalist democracy.
Aung Tun is Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.