Flying out of Myanmar and reflecting on interactions with a cross-section of people living in Myanmar I am reminded that: while there are so many sides to every story it does not make the challenges and pain – or our responsibility to uphold values we believe in, for the benefit of future generations – any less real for each of those sides.
As divided by ethnicity and religion as the people of Myanmar are, they appear to be collectively friendly and welcoming and, as open as they are about the challenges they face and the concerns they have, they collectively express a sense of hope for the future and a willingness to be patient to ensure not only a better life but a real and enduring peace in the country they love.
The newly elected government headed by the popular leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to be committed to a more democratic Myanmar and the understanding that the people of Myanmar have no future unless it is a ‘shared future’. She does not pretend the divisions and consequences of those divisions do not exist but has appealed to all to work with her toward a true and lasting peace that is not imposed but embraced by all.
The words ‘national reconciliation’ flow repeatedly from the mouths of, not only government officials and civil society groups but ordinary citizens.
The issues facing communities are complex and deeply embedded in the psyche of this diverse people of Myanmar who are in the majority Buddhist but also Christian, Moslem, Hindu and much more. As it is all over the world – within each group there are practicing and nominal believers, there are extremists and there are rational thinkers – there are men and women committed to peace and there are those prepared and agitating to fight for and/defend what they believe, where they perceive it to be under threat.
It takes a brave leader to do what seems right under intense global pressure – and what seems right to this leader is: going forward in a manner that does not alienate or create enemies of any sector of society especially the Military and Buddhist Monks whose way of life is severely threatened by democracy. Both of these sectors also have the potential to exert extreme pressure on and through the people of Myanmar.
My overall impression is that the greatest help for marginalized ethnic and religious groups will come through global support for the reconciliation process and education regarding the benefits of promoting and protecting ‘freedom’ especially freedom of religion and belief. Benefits that include an improved standard of living, a thriving economy and development – not to mention peace (or ‘harmony’ as the people of Myanmar like to say)!
As people begin to understand the importance of freedom of religion or belief there will be a need to review and amend laws that undermine these principles. Civil Society organizations will be invaluable in helping to identify and draft the necessary amendments and in mobilizing people to support the changes.
The Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief signed by the International Panel of Parliamentarians, IPPFoRB in Oslo, commits parliamentarians to support Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right of individuals to hold or not to hold any faith or belief, to change belief, to be free from coercion to adopt a different belief, and to peacefully practice the faith of their choice alone or in community with others.
As a member of Parliament in South Africa I would like to call on the global community to help strengthen the hands of those in Myanmar that are committed to a more democratic society, the protection of human rights and to a successful reconciliation process.
I would also like to call on the government of South Africa to strengthen diplomatic relations with Myanmar, with a view to sharing our experience in building and maintaining democratic institutions and our experiences regarding reconciliation.
As Adama Dieng, a UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide pointed out, Nelson Mandela, another Nobel peace prize laureate, understood and used the concept of group identity in building national unity. To help unite a society profoundly divided by racial segregation he used the Rugby World Cup in 1995 to “bridge the gap between two populations that had learned to fear and despise each other. Despite criticism from his own people, Mandela stood firm in his resolve that his presidency should be one of reconciliation and healing, rather than of hatred and a return to civil war.”
The experiences of ‘a people who were not yet one people’, who travelled – and are still on – this road of nation building, may well be valuable. South Africa, like other nations cannot speak from a position of having achieved perfect harmony but we have dared to try and in trying we have fallen short in some things and succeeded in others – our short-falls humble us but so too do our successes which are nothing short of miraculous. Before there can be any degree of success an effort must be made – there will always be those who work against unity and order, those who seem determined to ensure chaos reigns – but while there are others prepared and brave enough to try – success is a distinct possibility.
It was an honour to travel and work with Norwegian MP Abid Raja, Canadian MP David Anderson, Malaysian MP Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Panamanian MP Edison Augusto Broce Urriola and Thai MP Rachada Dhnadirek – thank you all so much for your passion and commitment to the protection and promotion of freedom of religion & belief.
The success of our mission was a direct result of the excellent work done by the IPPFoRB Secretariat: Charles Reed an advisor in the British House of Lords and Edward Brown and Veronika Vimberg – both advisors with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. I would also like to thank USCIRF – US Commission on International Religious Freedom – for the funding of this work and for the expertise of both Elizabeth Cassidy and Tina Mumford.
CHERYLLYN DUDLEY has been an African Christian Democratic Party Member of Parliament in the National Assembly since June 1999. She has been the ACDP Parliamentary Whip since September 2005 and was elected Chief Whip of smaller political parties during the 3rd and 5th democratic parliaments.
She is presently serving on the portfolio committees of International Relations and Co-operation and Social Development and has previously served on Health, Basic Education, Higher Education, Human Settlements, Ethics, Trade & Industry, Public Enterprises, Minerals & Energy, Agriculture & Land Affairs, Water & Forestry, Arts Culture, Science & Technology, Public Accounts (SCOPA) and Women in the Presidency.
Ms Dudley has travelled to many parts of Africa including Sudan, Algeria &’ Cote d’Ivoire – the Middle East including Israel, Palestine & Iran – and Europe including the EU Parliament – Chile & Brazil, the United States and Australia & New Zealand in her work on portfolio committees.
Hon. Dudley has been a member of the IPPFoRB – International Panel of Parliamentarians – since 2014 and a large part of her work at Parliament focuses on the protection of Freedom of Religion and Belief.
She is married to Demi Dudley, ACDP Councilor and they have four children between the ages of 42 and 22 years, and three grandchildren.