Supporting the Changing State of Social Cohesion in Myanmar

by Agnes Chen

on March 18, 2017

It was at a program in Nay Pyi Taw, the state capital in central Myanmar, when Dr. Nem Nei Lhing first heard the term “social cohesion.”

Dr. Nem Nei Lhing, an ethnic Chin, was formerly a government officer in agriculture before she joined the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs (MOEA) of the Union Government of Myanmar–a new Ministry that came into being after Myanmar’s transition to a new democratically elected government at the start of 2017. In her new found role, and for the first time, she is working with people from different ethnicities, both within the Ministry and in the states and divisions that the MOEA oversees – a number of which face deep divisions and armed conflict.

Acknowledging the challenges ahead and that social cohesion is crucial–not only for supporting the larger democratic and peace processes in Myanmar, but also in the daily functions of governmental institutions–the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs (MOEA) and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement (MSW), requested Search for Common Ground (Search) to help build their government officials’ understanding and competency in social cohesion.

This was a familiar terrain for Search, which had just successfully implemented social cohesion trainings at the township level for 1167 government officials, civil society organizations and members of ethnic armed organizations across six states in Myanmar. These trainings were implemented together with six local partners as part of a project supported by the United Nations Development Programme. Prior to bringing the stakeholder groups together, it explored, through an eight month long consultative process, a Myanmar-owned definition of social cohesion and culminated in the design of a six-week foundational course available in Myanmar and ethnic languages, and a training of ethnic resource trainers.

This time, with funding support from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, Search is engaging 46 of the highest level officials of MOEA and MSW by providing two rounds of three-day social cohesion trainings from February to May 2017. Search’s partnership with the Ministries represents a significant breakthrough, as this capacity development program is the first of its kind at the Union (national) level.

Adapted to the needs and priorities of the Ministries, the program deals with issues such as understanding social cohesion, identifying prejudice and stereotypes, distinguishing conflict from violence, and learning conflict-handling styles. Specifically, the first round in February focused on how to transform conflict on the personal and relational level. The sessions went beyond conventional lectures, too. In a roleplay session, volunteers assumed fictional identities and negotiated their way to obtain the same goal: a highly coveted orange. Along the way, participants learned about their positions and interests in relation to conflict. “This workshop is different from other workshops that I attended,” U Chit Zaw Lin commented, “When I took part in other workshops, they taught in a formal style and made us take notes. That’s all. But this workshop initiates and improves on our thinking skills. Before [the trainers] introduced the theory behind the different topics, they conducted activities that got us thinking about social cohesion and its connection with our administrative roles.”

What worked? Daw Khin Su Hlaing noted three unique strengths of the trainings: the energy and cohesiveness of the training team, the trainers’ creative teaching methods, and the cultural sensitivity with which the trainers applied the training for the Myanmar context. Thanks to these qualities, participants were able to gain deep insights into how to transform personal conflicts in their daily work and to practice taking into account other people’s perspectives.

While the program is still underway – with the second round focusing on mainstreaming social cohesion into the Ministries’ work – it is already demonstrating success and potential impact beyond the first three days. Some government workers are planning to share the lessons of the social cohesion program to other colleagues. Dr. Lhing commented, “Before the program, I had only agriculture in my head and heart. Now I’ve learned about social cohesion. It would be perfect if I can integrate these two things. I expect that I’ll be able to serve the development of ethnic societies much better by integrating my competency in agriculture and my social cohesion skills.”

By supporting high-level decision-makers, Search is helping to institutionalize the values and tools for cooperation and understanding across divided communities in Myanmar – another step towards building sustainable peace in a country still fraught with inter-communal conflict.

Agnes Chen is an Asia Program Intern with Search for Common Ground.