Sail or Sink—Together—in Myanmar

“United we sail together; disunited we sink—still together.” These words of wisdom shared by my colleague Amina Rasul Bernado during her compelling presentation in Yangon, Myanmar at the “Peace, Security & Co-Existence” conference continue to resonate with me.  We can choose to work together with people who may not act, look, believe, or vote like we do such that we all work together to contribute to the common good and therefore “sail together.”  Or, we can avoid collaboration, perhaps due to the fear of the “other,” and “sink together.” No matter whether we decide to work together or separately, as common global citizens we will unavoidably rise or fall together. In the age that we live in, technological advances have shrunk the world into essentially a global village, and as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson and General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, said at the same conference, “all peoples living together in this global village are duty bound to face together all challenges of the world today.” 

As a young professional working at the nexus of religion and global affairs, I have come to realize not only the needand duty we have to bring diverse groups of people together to collaborate on solutions addressing global challenges, but also the absence of “safe spaces” where these challenges can be discussed.

I am blessed to work for the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), a non-profit organization that works at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. Through local partnerships, IGE works transparently to convene, connect, and build consensus among government officials, religious leaders, and scholars to ensure that all people, of any religion or no religion, have full freedom of conscience and can participate as equal citizens in public life. As a result of ten-plus years of trust and relationship building, working in various countries, IGE has developed a theory of change which provides a framework for IGE’s activities. A key component to that theory of change is the essential step of creating a space for people who would otherwise not meet to come together—people from different sectors, geographic regions, disciplines, and faith communities.

Earlier this month, I was able to help facilitate and witness this theory of change in action in Myanmar, a country going through political opening amidst religious and ethnic violence. IGE, alongside the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy (Yangon), co-hosted the first ever international multi-faith dialogue in Myanmar. The conference was attended by more than 200 observers with over 80 participants from 12 different countries. Ambassadors and Deputy Chiefs of Missions from 10 foreign Embassies with residence in Yangon attended. Also in attendance, professors, lecturers and students from six Buddhist universities in Myanmar, Islamic, Christian and Hindu religious leaders from Yangon and Mandalay, and correspondents from 15 daily newspapers, weekly journals, and television stations.

Much occurred at this conference that is newsworthy, but what struck me most was the fact that this was the first time that so many religious leaders from all over Myanmar gathered together. Moreover, in addition to religious officials, there were also many senior government officials, scholars, and civil society leaders present.  Additionally, young people were amply represented, which is of critical importance when we consider how to make change sustainable: younger generations must be trained such that they can continue the conversation. While not everyone shared the same theological background or ethnicity, there was unanimous agreement that peace, security and coexistence is necessary to help advance Myanmar towards the next stage of development such that all ethnicities, religions and social groups will prosper.

On the first day of the conference violent conflicts flared up between Myanmar’s Buddhists and Muslim populations in the Thandwe township, Rakhine (Arakan) State in the westernpart of the country. While the ongoing religious and ethnic violence is horrible, what occurred at the conference, as a direct result of the “safe space” for diverse groups to meet, is miraculous and gives hope for Myanmar’s future: conference participants challenged Muslim and Buddhist leaders present to take action in addressing the causes of the violence. Five days after the conference concluded, Al Haj U Aye Lwin, Chief Convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar, and Sitagu Sayadaw, founder of the Sitagu International Buddhist Association, traveled together to Rakhine State to survey the damage in Thandwe and speak with the local population, together. This was not a government-led trip but rather a trip urged by civil society where religious leaders, from two differing perspectives, put aside their differences and, united under the common interest to see their country prosper, worked together for the safety and prosperity of their religious communities as well as Myanmar as a whole.


IGE President Chris Seiple (fourth from left) and Lindsay Kuntz  (third from right) along with Myanmar business and religious leaders. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Kuntz. 

Furthermore, a multi-faith joint statement was signed upon conclusion of the conference. In order to accomplish the outlined objectives, it will “take a village” i.e., it will take civil society, religious leaders, businessmen, women, youth, and everyone else. It will take all sectors working together for the betterment of the entire country. If sustained changed necessitates everyone, why not give them a seat at the table from the beginning?

In our increasingly globalized world we must work together and engage in Track 1.5 diplomacy in order to effect change. Policies and partnerships with sustainable reach only occur at this nexus where government “track 1” and grassroots “track 2”  work together, “track 1.5,” to tackle our common global challenges.Furthermore, to effect change it is important to work with the majority faith because if any change is to occur, it must come from within with the majority’s support.

When different groups from different backgrounds, vocations and locations meet, change occurs. If each sector continues to operate in their own bubble without stopping to think about how their issue might overlap and have implications towards someone else, we will duplicate work for ourselves and prolong the amount of time it takes to implement necessary changes. 

I challenge you to analyze your life and the organizations or work you are involved in; where might you or your organization benefit from having more seats at the table, voices from different religions, ethnicities, and sectors, such that you can collaborate and effect the change that you want to see? 

-Lindsay Kuntz is the Special Assistant for Administration and Outreach at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). Prior to joining IGE she interned at the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning (CAOCL). She is a 2011 graduate from Texas A&M University with a focus on international politics & diplomacy, history, and spanish. Lindsay tweets on behalf of IGE via @engageyourworld.