14 May Day 3: UNHCR, National Democracy and the famous Shwedagon Pagoda
The day started with a visit to the UNHCR – United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. We had booked a meeting with Andrew Dusek at 10 am in the morning and the staff of UNHCR provided drinks and sweets to our content surprise.
Andrew, the Associate Communications Officer, introduced himself and the local administration. He kindly asked us not to spread the information that was to be shared in the meeting due to the sensitive nature of some issues and the political situation in the country. Therefore, this text will only be a recount of the topics that were discussed.
Andrew started by giving a general overview of the work of UNHCR and the current situation of refugees in the world. “Wherever you find refugees, UNHCR is there”. The general aim of their work is to provide life-saving support, safe-guarding fundamental human rights, and finding solutions for a better future. In 2016 there were 21.3 million refugees and 65.3 million displaced people worldwide.
Then he went on focusing on the issues specific to the South East Asian region. Several of the states in Myanmar are currently plagued by internal armed conflicts leaving many people displaced. Currently, there are 1.29 internally displaced and stateless people in Myanmar, thus rendering it one of the countries with the highest rates of stateless people in the world. The situation in the different states were then discussed. UNHCR is committed to helping all people, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.
Afterwards, we had a traditional Burmese noodle lunch at 999 noodle. A delicious lunch to the modest price of 15 SEK.
Our afternoon meeting was with a political party called Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS). DPNS is a sister party to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) who currently hold 75 percent of the seats in the Parliament. They identify themselves as central-left on the left-right continuum and are thus a bit left of the NLD. They are also a sister party of the Swedish Social Democrats and the party leadership had been to several trips to Sweden. Zaw Zaw Htun had even studied at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University!
We met with the party leader Aung Moe Zaw as well as the leader of the youth party, along with other representatives of the party leadership. Several members of the party leadership were in exile in Thailand during the years of military rule, some for as long as 25 years. In 2013, many of them returned to Myanmar. Many of the members of DPNS cannot yet run for political office since they do not meet the requirement that one must have been in the country for the 10 years preceding the election day. DPNS therefore offered their support to the NLD in the previous election in 2015. Today the party has approximately 15 000 members.
The party leader emphasized that they do not yet consider Myanmar a full democracy, there is still much work to be done. Two of the areas that DPNS highlights as key factors for the continued development of a democratic Myanmar is education reform and workers rights, since many workers have to work 6 days a week and often 10 hours a day.
The current political leadership of the country is considered to be dual headed, the civilian rule and Aung San Suu Kyi on the one hand (75 percent of the seats) and the military leadership on the other (25 percent of the seats). Further, DPNS stressed the role of the military in the continued polarization between the Buddhist and Muslim parts of the population and states that the solution to the many of the current issues would be the abolishment of the military involvement in politics.
On the topic of the perception of contemporary politics by the general public DPNS said that it has become more common that political topics are discussed on the streets, but that the awareness of the different available political options is generally low.
When we asked what they think of the development since Aung San Suu Kyi was elected and came to power, they said that there has been a huge change in terms of openness in the society. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for them to even have an office in central Yangon and even more so to accept a meeting proposal from an international student association like ours.
The sunset was spent at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most well known Pagoda in Yangon. According to legend the Pagoda was constructed more than 2600 years ago, but it was completed in the sixth century. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present Kalpa (Buddhist time period).
Before arriving to the Pagoda we were instructed to find out on which weekday and at what time we were born. The Pagoda was surrounded by the Buddhist weekly calendar, where each day has a designated animal and lucky number. We were then instructed to go to the section devoted to the weekday we were born to pour cups of water on a statue representing our spirit animal.
The Pagoda was surrounded by an harmonious atmosphere with local people deeply focused on their prayer. The air was filled with the scent of incense and the glimmers from the big Pagoda, the surrounding temples as well as the Buddha icons. It was amazing to experience the scenery in the sunset, walking around barefoot on the marble floor heated by the sun.
The evening was devoted to having some great food at the Rangoon Teahouse. By now, most of us have found out the awesomeness of the taiwanese Bao they serve at the Teahouse, amongst other delicious curries and grilled food. A couple of tireless people continued the night at the rooftop party of Yangon Yangon, where a Burmese live band played a mix of tunes.
By Caroline Kölegård & Lovisa Asklöf