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Land of the Golden Pagodas: Checking in on Myanmar’s Peace Process
April 14, 2016
Monica Paniagua reports on her recent trip to Myanmar to support the ongoing peace process. In this article, she also reflects on the still-troubling human rights situation in the country and the recent economic and political changes that continue to be a source of cautious optimism.
Whatever you read or study before coming to Myanmar, you can never be fully prepared for the complexities of life here after five decades of dictatorship. Myanmar (formerly Burma) was one of the richest countries in Asia (if not the richest) before its independence in 1948, is one of the countries with the highest record of human rights violations, and is home to one of the oldest ongoing conflicts in the region. Although it is famous for its scenic beauty and its natural resources (precious gems, gold, water resources) as well as its strategic location between Thailand, India and China, the country has been under the yoke of the military for over 50 years. However, it has been opening to development for the past 5 years and this has led to seeking "peace" and "democracy."
Myanmar has about 21 ethnic armed groups, which have fought against the Tatmadaw (military) for years, seeking the freedom of their states and respect for their human rights. Over time, they have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, though all of them have been violated in one way or another. Four years ago, the military and ethnic groups decided to begin negotiations towards a national ceasefire agreement (NCA).
This agreement was signed on October 15, 2015, amid serious criticism by several ethnic group leaders and by many communities. Only 8 groups, out of the 17 invited to negotiate, signed the agreement; three groups were excluded from the negotiations and the rest decided not to sign it because of continued fighting in the states of Kachin and Shan. 
It was important for the government to sign the NCA before the first democratic elections scheduled for November 8 2015. Many irregularities and violations were suffered before the election, for example, prisoners or religious leaders were not able to vote, in many communities voting was not allowed due to "security reasons" and voting was restricted for many Muslims.
Despite everything mentioned above, Myanmar held peaceful elections on 8 November and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party, NLD, won the majority (more than 80%) of the seats in Parliament. Once the number of seats each party won in Parliament is confirmed, it chooses the new President of Myanmar. 
I was amazed to watch these elections. On 1st September 2015 I traveled from Costa Rica to follow up on a project of monitoring of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement(NCA) and peace process in Myanmar. I stayed for 4 months, traveling to Kayin and Mon States in order to deliver training workshops and gather information from the monitoring teams. This project was part of the effort of an international organization -- with which I had worked in South Sudan as a protection officer 2 years ago -- to support the beginning of the peace process in Myanmar.
The culture, the atmosphere, the conflict and the work in Myanmar was completely different from South Sudan. A week after my arrival I was sent to Hpa-an (the capital of Kayin State) to familiarize myself with the project and the context of Myanmar; it was not easy to gain trust, because of the control the military have in the country, and to learn the names of each ethnic armed group, each conflict in different states and the process that started five years ago together with the 60 years of history of repression and violation of human rights. Still, I did my best to absorb everything in a few weeks.
After my arrival, I realized working “in the field” was not going to be possible, because the control over the territory and the international community is very important for the military and in order to travel to other locations one require permission from the Township Administrator. However, the organization managed to work with national gender organizations and other local NGOs (such as Karen Women Empowerment Group (KWEG)) to develop and implement monitoring ceasefire mechanism in different villages.
That Sunday, November 8th, in the streets of Yangon (where I lived) I could see long lines to vote and eyes full of excitement and hope; it was (and still is) clear that the population expects the new government to resolve the issues of peace, democracy and years of economic blockage. My experience tell me that the pressure is very high; the international community is also expecting to see results on the NCA and donors are trying to enter Myanmar with thousands of dollars to support this process.
Many organizations (including the one I worked with for 4 months) are getting involved in ceasefire monitoring and the competition is very high. National organizations are trying to get the recognition during this development to establish themselves in the country and international community; the establishment of monitoring mechanism by organizations with no experience is worrying and the amount of money that donors are giving to projects that support the “peace process” is enormous. The success of some of the projects is debatable, not only because of the lack of experience in the subject but because of the obstruction the last government impose to gain access to conflict areas.
Analysis and comparison with the peace process in The Philippines are constantly made, where a conflict of 47 years resulted of a peace process of more than 15 years of negotiation with different factions in the country. By comparison, this process is highly organized and includes many different actors from government to armed groups and international community. But, in order to achieve such organization of the peace agreement, The Philippines had long years of trial and error, and even today they face many complications.
Each country is unique and the process in Myanmar is in its very initial stages; the international community is desperate to be part of the monitoring teams. In the Philippines, there were no international monitors until recent years and Myanmar is just starting the process giving a reduce space for international community to participate.
It is not a secret that in Myanmar one needs to be very careful of what one says and does, the military had intelligence spread all over the nation and continues to follow up with “radical ideas.” During my time in the country, I read a couple of news reports about young people being put in prison because they posted a satirical comment on Facebook about the military or government, or because they expressed their opinion against the human rights violations.
However, and despite all odds, Aung San Suu Kyi's party was named the new government of the country and the election of a new president this March 10 represents a turning point in the nations politics. The responsibility is high and the expectations, apparently, higher but the courage of the people of Myanmar is indisputable, and that helps me look at the situation with optimism.
 More information can be found in Karen News a newspaper from Kayin State that are a voice for the “revels’ and ethnic armed groups, http://karennews.org/2015/11/ceasefire-broken-before-it-began html /).
 Newspapers in Myanmar can be used to criticize the military and government. In a very careful way newspapers like Karen News are opening a space to tell what is going on in their States and the country.
 This religion has been used by the Tatmadaw as an enemy after the monk revolution in 2007, for more information go to the documentary on this issue by Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/exclusive-strong-evidence-genocide-myanmar-151024190547465.html Aside from this, the military was already ensured 25% of the seats in parliament before the elections, according to the constitution.