Friday, September 22, 2017

In Myanmar, moving beyond the miracle

U Aung Naing Oo. Ko Taik / The Myanmar TimesU Aung Naing Oo. Ko Taik / The Myanmar Times

When political exile U Aung Naing Oo released Dialogue, a book about political negotiations and conflict resolution, in 2002, he dedicated it “to the people of Burma, who don’t have the culture of dialogue”.

He invokes the Myanmar saying, “Nga hlay nga toe, Bago yaut yaut, nga myin nga saing Sagaing yaut yaut”, to make his point. Roughly translated it means, I’ll row my boat, and if I end up in Bago that’s fine, and I’ll ride my horse, and it’s okay if I end up in Sagaing.

“It signifies a mentality that doesn’t take into account other people, other issues. But we’re in a democracy, we’re not in a revolution, so whatever you do, especially if you’re a leader, either in government or opposition, you need to take into account the democratic institutions, the bigger picture,” he told The Myanmar Times in a recent interview.

“We should look at the bigger picture; we should use dialogue to resolve our differences. We must promise ourselves that whatever we do, we won’t go back to the old ways, the square one.”

One of the more notable features of Myanmar’s transition to democracy is the first “traces or instances of a dialogue being used”. At a recent town hall-style meeting convened in response to the series of labour strikes in Yangon industrial zone, for example, government officials, employers, workers, labour activists and lawyers were all able to discuss their grievances and views.

It is an example that U Aung Naing Oo said needs to be replicated to resolve other conflicts and challenges that Myanmar faces. Speaking before the outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine State, his words take on an extra poignancy given the events of the past few weeks.

“The meaning of dialogue is, we have a problem, we find a solution and we carry out that solution together. It’s basically working together as equals and in a true sense of dialogue, not just one of us wins. It’s either both of us win or both of us lose. You talk through things frankly and with respect. The idea is really important here. The most important thing in our country is, if there’s a conflict, we need to use dialogue to resolve that conflict, because in democracy that’s what you do, you negotiate.”

Failure to engage in or encourage dialogue could result in the transition stalling, or being set back, at the first hint of trouble. The consequences would be disastrous: It could take “15 or 20 years to get back up and running”, he said.

“The problem with these transitions is that they’re tricky, they’re messy. … [We] need to use available democratic institutions like the parliament, the media, and the processes in which dialogue is encouraged, dialogue is used to resolve the differences,” he said. “Countries like Myanmar … with no history of democracy, countries with no rooted democratic traditions, they go forward and run into a roadblock and what is likely to happen is they go back.”

For U Aung Naing Oo, the deputy director of Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute, the transition is as much a personal as a professional challenge. He left the country in the upheaval of 1988 and joined the All Burma Students Democratic Front.