What does peace mean to you?

by Stephen Gray

Picture of Youth art project_Myanmar/Burma Project

A youth civil society art project to spread the peace message.

In an earlier blog post about our research exploring latent capacities for peace in Burma/Myanmar, I alluded to the divergent views of what “peace” means to the different parties to the conflicts that have long plagued this country. From what we have learned so far, different groups in Burma rarely respect or understand each others’ needs, of which ‘peace’ is merely one component. Indeed, the divergent views of peace (as well as divergent interests) between the ethnic groups and the government are paramount in understanding why some of the negotiations are at an impasse, why active conflict persists in some parts of the country, and why sustainable peace in Myanmar remains elusive.

The degree of misunderstanding between and among Burma’s ethnic and political constituencies is startling, yet hardly surprising given that many of these groups have operated in forced isolation for much of the country’s history. Think Aung San Suu Kyi. Or the Kachin hiding in the hills in the north. Or the Rohingya making news recently in Rakhine state. But ultimately, if the peace negotiations between the Burmese government and the country’s ethnic minorities are to work, surely they must first agree on what peace actually means?

So what is peace? Is it merely the absence of violence, or something more? If you believe that peace is present in the absence of violence then Myanmar has arguably been at peace for long periods of its history. There have been many ceasefires, including the dozen or so of the last year, but as long as there are armed groups opposing the government you could hardly call it a peaceful country, right?

Picture of Researchers talk with Ethnic army_Myanmar/Burma Project

Talking with senior ethnic army officials about what peace means to them. It's interesting that men of war give some of the 'best' definitions of peace.

We have been interviewing and conducting workshops in Burma for four weeks now. The goal of the research is ultimately to explore how the Burmese and their partners can build peace that is comprehensive, stable, and long term. How do we get there? For most of our respondents achieving peace could, should and might come from peace negotiations and/or dialog between political elites. This ‘top down’ view is perhaps not surprising for a population that has been fixated on democratization, or the absence of it, for much of its history, not to mention that Burmese society is highly hierarchical, patrimonial, and paternal.

But as Lederach and others teach us, like the myth of the invisible hand, peace doesn’t necessarily trickle down. Rather it has to be built by actors working at multiple layers of society over time. In other words, a peace agreement brokered at the bargaining table won’t bring sustainable peace if the population at large continues to misunderstand, disrespect or deny the needs of their fellow citizens. Peacebuilding is the responsibility of many actors working towards a common goal all the way from the grassroots to the governing elite. Meanwhile the negotiations continue, but encouragingly, some groups – especially youth and other civil society groups – are working to break down rigid the stereotypes that feed Burmese conflict between Burma’s ethnic groups and promote the kind of tolerance that might prevent the re-emergence of conflict after the ceasefires are inked. This is what we mean when we talk about latent capacities for peace. Any ideas you might have are warmly welcomed.

Picture of Generation Wave Member_Myanmar/Burma Project

The reform process in Burma is allowing youth groups like Generation Wave to conduct new peace promotion campaigns.

But this is better said in the words of the Burmese themselves. Today was my last day of interviews in this phase of the project, so I thought I’d share a few responses to my favorite interview question: what does peace mean to you?* To protect the identities I won’t share the names of the parties involved, but for those in the know, you can probably guess who said what…

What does peace mean to you?

1. Peace is living together with mutual respect, understanding and justice. If we have those first, then we can have peace.

2. For our organization, it wholeness, being inclusive, and prosperity. For me, I think that only justice guarantees lasting peace. Sometimes people think you achieve peace when we don’t have violence, but we have to fight for peace as well.

3. For the government: stability, dropped sanctions, investment, doing land grabs while they can.**

4. Peace means living together in brotherhood, harmony, and equal opportunity. We have to live with each other as a family but we have to give the ethnics their sovereignty. [emphasis added]

5. Peace is stability and security and an opportunity for our country to develop.

6. Peace is the most important need of human beings. Peace depends on the needs of the constituency. Peace for government is rule of law under the 2008 constitution. But for us, we want to stop the fighting so we can provide livelihood opportunities for internally displaced persons.

7. Peace is an end to our history of fighting, territorial integrity, protection of our sovereignty, and inclusion of all of our people in one country.

8. Peace is freedom. Freedom is a birthright. Total freedom should be the answer to the peace problem, but can still be achieved within a federal union.

9. Peace means living equally together with justice in terms of politics, business, and human rights. There is no equality and justice in this country – that’s why there was civil war. We’ve had civil war for a long time but the government doesn’t admit it. They just use the word armed conflict or label us as terrorists.

10. We just had anniversary of one year of the fighting in Kachin. Our slogan: is “Justice guarantee lasting peace”. Justice is not revenge, but we deserve recognition and compensation for what they have done and are still doing – raping women, torture, and disappearances. We want an apology. Peace also means agreeing about the border demarcation of our territory – our land has been stolen. But maybe peace is best served if we tell a true version of history – not just the Bamah*** version that children learn in their school books.

11. Peace is the ultimate need for our country because without peace there is no justice; without justice there can be no democracy. Justice means equality for all of the people. Our country is ethnically diverse. They all should have equality, if you don’t have [equality] there will still be fighting [emphasis added]. ‘Peace’ ? (transitional) Justice ? (ethnic) equality ? federal democracy.

12. Peace mean all human beings must have equal and full human rights.  We don’t have peace because we don’t have these. What the Burmese and other ethnic people are asking for is different. Democracy doesn’t make sense without ethnic rights – it’s nonsense to have democracy with no rights in ethnic minority areas.


* Some of these responses have been edited to improve grammar without changing the meaning.

** This is not the government saying this

*** Bamah is the majority ethnic group that has governed what is known as the nation of Myanmar/ Burma for its entire history. The National League for Democracy is also a predominantly Bamah party.


Get our newsletter

I'd like to get more stories like this.
Email address
Secure and Spam free...


Leave a Reply to plunge pools Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *