The Elders

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Listening to the people transforming Myanmar

During the first Elders delegation to Myanmar in September 2013, Jimmy Carter, Martti Ahtisaari and Gro Harlem Brundtland heard a range of perspectives on the country's political transition, from President Thein Sein to the leaders of the 1988 democracy movement.

President Thein Sein welcomed The Elders’ involvement in Myanmar, particularly their experience in conflict resolution. He described building peace with the ethnic armed groups as his most challenging and daunting task. Fully aware that the ceasefires being signed are not a guarantee of sustainable peace, Thein Sein told the Elders that a political dialogue would be essential.

Jimmy Carter commented later:

“We had constructive discussions with President U Thein Sein and members of his government, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in Nay Pyi Taw. We were impressed by the pace with which reforms are proceeding. Myanmar is becoming a more open society. The release of political prisoners is particularly encouraging. We trust there will be no political prisoners by the end of the year, as the President has pledged.”

The Elders were received by the Commander-in-Chief at his headquarters on the outskirts of Nay Pyi Taw. This was the second time that President Carter had met him in the past six months; his previous meeting, in April, had been in his own capacity as head of The Carter Center. This was a first meeting for the two other Elders present with one of the most powerful figures in Myanmar today.

They discussed the military’s security responsibilities and its changing role as Myanmar moves towards democracy. They also raised the role of women in politics and the armed forces (Tatmadaw), as well as the need for the military to increase its cooperation and training with foreign militaries.

As speaker of the Union Assembly (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) Thura Shwe Mann was travelling abroad during the Elders’ visit, they met one of his deputies, U Nanda Kwar Swar, to discuss the constitutional changes that Myanmar’s parliament is currently considering. A Constitution Joint Review Committee is due to present its report by the end of December.

The Elders spoke about the high level of attention being paid inside and outside Myanmar to the task of amending the current 2008 Constitution, which gives the military a prominent role in national affairs. The parliamentarians acknowledged their limited experience in handling their assigned task but assured the Elders that constitutional change would be an inclusive process, based on common goals.

The Elders met with Minister U Aung Min, who is responsible for the peace process and political reform. They praised efforts to bring about a national ceasefire between the government and Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, which the government hopes to achieve later in 2013.

Following the meeting, Martti Ahtisaari commented:

“I always say that building peace only begins once hostilities cease. This is the start, not the end, of a process. For Myanmar to reap the benefits of peace, careful attention will need to be given to how the factors underlying conflict are managed, in particular the contest for land and other natural resources.”

The Elders met with Min Ko Naing, one of the most celebrated figures in the 88 Generation protest movement. He spent many years in prison and was only released in January 2012. Today he remains independent, unaffiliated to any party.

Min Ko Naing told the Elders that some people, particularly those from ethnic minorities affected by conflict with the army, have doubts about the ceasefires that are being signed with different armed groups. He recommended that the Elders focus on ethnic groups’ demands for federalism and self-government.

A well-known writer, human rights activist, member of the 1988 democracy movement and former political prisoner, Dr Ma Thida gave the Elders another independent view of the complex reform process in Myanmar.

Speaking as a member of the country’s increasingly vibrant civil society, she was strongly in favour of bringing together all concerned groups in society – outside parliament – to discuss with the government what constitutional changes were needed. She did not want to leave the task to parliament alone.

Jimmy Carter later commented: “We have also been struck by the growing contribution and leadership of women in civil society, and yet they are under-represented in the political process. A truly vibrant democratic society cannot thrive without women’s equal status in all aspects of life.”

The Elders met with several Rohingya representatives and spoke out about the need to end impunity for the perpetrators of violence against the Muslim community. Everyone in Myanmar, they stressed, should enjoy the right to freedom of religion.

Gro Harlem Brundtland said: “The targeted violence against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state should also be halted as a priority. All people in Rakhine state, regardless of their religion, should see their basic rights to food, education and security fulfilled. No one can afford to ignore these senseless, destructive, repeated acts of brutality.”

In this photo, Martti Ahtisaari hears from Wai Wai Nu from the Women’s Peace Network – Arakan, and Rohingya politician Abu Tahay.

Deeply concerned about the periodic eruptions of anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine state and elsewhere, the Elders brought together Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim leaders and encouraged them to promote understanding and dialogue between their followers. The Elders asked the senior Buddhists in particular to denounce violence and hate speech.

In this photo, Elders Jimmy Carter and Martti Ahtisaari greet the Buddhist leader Sitagu Sayadaw.

In this photo, Jimmy Carter and Gro Harlem Brundtland hear from Muslim leader Al-Haj U Aye Lwin and Charles Bo, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Yangon.

Commenting after the meeting with faith leaders, Gro Harlem Brundtland said: “A lot of attention has been given to the tensions between people of different faiths in Myanmar, but we have also been struck by the extent of the divisions within religious groups. We have encouraged the religious leaders to work for compassion and tolerance. It could take decades to overcome the ingrained prejudices promoted by extremist voices in parts of the country. This will require far-reaching cultural changes in all parts of society, including through changes in the education curriculum.”

The Elders met Aung San Suu Kyi for tea at her home in Yangon on the last day of their visit.

They had a warm and informal exchange about the major challenges facing Myanmar today, including the need for constitutional changes, the peace process with the ethnic armed groups, the recent inter-communal violence, and her own role as an international symbol of democracy and freedom.

She welcomed the involvement of The Elders in trying to help address the country’s problems.

Photos: Kaung Htet

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