Burma’s quest: balancing ethnic diversity and democracy

Ambassador Mark McDowell and participants at the workshop in Yangon.

With 135 ethnic minorities throughout the country, Burma, like Canada, is a country of many beliefs, worldviews and viewpoints.

Burma is undergoing an unprecedented transition of its political, economic, and social structure, as various ethnic groups and reform minded Burmese seek ideas for permanent peace, stability and inclusion. Integrating the various Burmese ethnic groups’ visions of a peaceful democracy is necessary for genuine political development.

The Embassy of Canada to Burma recently hosted workshops in Yangon and Bago to encourage discussions on ethnic minority rights in Burma. Facilitators from the University of Toronto along with 35 ethnic civil society organisations brainstormed strategies on preserving Burma’s ethnic diversity and visions for a peaceful democracy.

Workshop participants dressed in Ethnic traditional clothing.

Workshop participants engaging in dialogue during workshops.

Meaningful Dialogue
The first workshop in Bago focused on the Karen ethnic group, who make up a large portion of the population in Bago and the eastern part of Burma. The Karen enjoys relative autonomy in their own state compared to other ethnic groups in the country. The facilitators used Canada’s experience of promoting the rights of the Canadian francophone population and other linguistic minorities to discuss ethnic and cultural preservation.

The second workshop in Yangon encompassed larger themes of ethnic nationalities such as cultural education, natural resources, armed groups’ relations, federalism, and the means of ethnic preservation. In every session, participants showed deep engagement to the discussions and provided key insights to the themes.

Connecting experts and leaders

The workshops were a resounding success thanks in part to the knowledge and contributions of Professor Jacques Bertrand, University of Toronto expert on federal arrangements in Canada and Indonesia, and Professor Ardeth Thawnghmung, University of Massachusetts expert on rural development and Karen issues.

The workshop not only succeeded in sharing international approaches to preserving ethnic minority rights, but also in connecting many of Burma’s ethnic representatives under a common goal.  

This successful political dialogue is one of many steps to further ensure that the rights of ethnic minorities are better represented in this country” stated Bertrand.

The Embassy of Canada to Burma played a leading role to the discussions in coordinating speakers from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Toronto whom also received invaluable primary data of the political climate in Burma.

Through these workshops, the Embassy of Canada to Burma demonstrated Canada’s leadership in promoting productive dialogue as it gathered international experts and local ethnic minorities’ representatives together. As ethnic minorities develop realistic and constructive ideas about maintaining peace and stability, Canada will continue to foster the spirit of respect and diversity within Burma.