Friday, August 1, 2014

Dialogue amidst power asymmetry: A great article on dialogue in Myanmar

Myanmar is slowly making progress to winning peace from the jaws of war. As one after the other cease fire agreement is signed with armed groups—without the direct involvement of international or outsider actors—the need for dialogue as an approach to build and sustain genuine peace becomes more and more evident.

In my work on supporting dialogue platforms in Myanmar I rely on the common wisdom that those who are affected by conflict should lead the process to transform the conflict. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia is one such organisation that understands the importance of supporting local actors. I am inspired by their example.

Below is a great article about the importance of understanding the meaning of dialogue in the Myanmar context:

Dialogue in Myanmar: Losing and winning together
IN November 2002 I wrote a book called Dialogue. On the cover I dedicated it “to the people of Burma, who do not have the culture of dialogue”.
A police officer and a Kayin man smoke cigarettes in Kayin State during a ceremony to distribute rice donated by the Nippon Foundation in February 2013. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)A police officer and a Kayin man smoke cigarettes in Kayin State during a ceremony to distribute rice donated by the Nippon Foundation in February 2013. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)
Even before the book was published I received angry calls demanding I remove the dedication. My book’s graphic designer asked me to remove it because he had received severe criticism from members of the exile community. They thought it was a provocation and an insult to Myanmar culture. They claimed to have a culture of dialogue.
Undeterred, I left the message on the front cover.
Unbeknown to them, earlier that year I had had a most disturbing conversation with one of the top exiles. It started out as a casual conversation. I told him I was writing a book called Dialogue. He then confided in me an alarming revelation: His group would only go into dialogue when it had the upper hand. Worse still, he even asked me if I was pro-dialogue.
To say that I was alarmed would be an understatement.
It was pure hypocrisy. The leader belonged to an opposition group that constantly accused the military government of refusing to enter into dialogue. He was at every gathering of major opposition groups on the Thai-Myanmar border calling for a nationwide ceasefire and a political dialogue “to resolve political problems through political means”.
I was alarmed because he did not understand what I meant by dialogue. It made me wonder. How about other politicians and opposition exiles? Would they understand it? Like the exile I spoke to, did they consider dialogue a power game?
My thoughts went further – if exiles focused on gaining the upper hand in political dialogue, how would the Myanmar military view it? It was a “no brainer”. There was no question as to who was more powerful in the context of Myanmar’s political and armed conflicts.  
As I explored further, I realised that misunderstanding was not only confined to political groupings outside the country. I found out, for example, that many in the National League for Democracy at the time considered “dialogue” as a means for transferring power to the party.  
In the end, I used that disturbing conversation with the exiled politician in the foreword to my book. I thought it would be useful for readers, who I invited to debate if Myanmar truly had the culture of dialogue.
Actually, all I wanted was to give political stakeholders an understanding of dialogue. And my message was simple.
“Dialogue” is about exploring ways together to find a solution to a conflict and implementing that solution together. It is a process to “resolve political problems through political means”.
I thought this message was fitting for Myanmar because I considered Myanmar’s problems collective and not individual. Thus, the solution must be collective and not individual. At the time of publishing Dialogue, in my view every single political grouping both within and outside the country was pursuing its own individual interests.
We are now in 2014 and the Myanmar government and the ethnic armed groups are nearing agreement on a nationwide ceasefire. Consequently, we are at the threshold of long-awaited political dialogue. I feel that understanding “dialogue” is now more urgent and important than ever.
More critically, there are still many groups pursuing individual interests at a time when we are within reaching distance of a collective solution to Myanmar’s conflicts.
The origins of the word “dialogue” come from Middle English “dialog” to French “dialogue”, Latin “dialogus” and Greek “dialogos”. It generally means “conversation”.
But the meaning I like to convey, as in Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a discussion or series of discussions that two groups or countries have in order to end a disagreement, or an exchange of ideas and opinions, or a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution”.
With that meaning, dialogue is not a casual conversation or a debate. It is a tool to resolve conflict specifically “aimed at finding a resolution”.
But I am not an expert on dialogue. In describing it in my book, I quotedThe Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich.
In his book, Yankelovich talked about the many qualities of a successful dialogue, ranging from peaceful interaction, mutual respect, equality and reciprocity to frank exchanges of deepest feelings and differences with a view to resolving a conflict.
He said dialogue is not something arcane or esoteric. But most important of all, dialogue is about winning or losing together. It is not about a contest in which one sides wins and the other side loses.It is a win-win situation. A win-lose or lose-win situation is incompatible with dialogue.
That is why togetherness, both in finding a solution and implementing it, is so central to successful dialogue.
I have often mentioned in my writings that dialogue in Myanmar is about repairing relationships that were severed due to the devastations of the war. Yankelovich, for his part, said dialogue is about building successful relationships.
In any case, democracy has allowed for peaceful and reciprocal negotiations to take place between the government and ethnic armed groups. This will help the culture of dialogue to take root and develop over time.
In the meantime, though, we should realise that focusing on power asymmetry, like the exiled politician back in 2002, will not lead to successful dialogue. We should all avoid threats, violence, hatred, unrealistic expectations and distrust – they are destructive to dialogue. Likewise, we must start narrowing the gap in terms of our interests. Otherwise, these will prevent an effective dialogue that is so essential to securing a win-win outcome for everyone in Myanmar.
Aung Naing Oo is associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Running Orders by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

They call us now.
Before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think "Do I know any Davids in Gaza?"
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.
Running Orders by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha