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South Asia Union | Isla Glaister: Support emerging leaders, connect changemakers to build peace in Asia

Peacebuilder and CEO of UK nonprofit The Business Plan for Peace, Isla Glaister offers solutions for peace in South Asia using lessons learnt from her experiences in Myanmar.

April 30, 2021 / 12:27 PM IST

By connecting people and changemakers from across cultures and countries through shared platforms, new economic opportunities can be catalysed in South Asia, says Isla Glaister, the new CEO of The Business Plan for Peace, a UK-based nonprofit that supports societies and governments to develop infrastructures to mitigate and prevent destructive conflict.

She suggests two ways to support this peacebuilding process in the region: “Firstly, supporting emerging leaders from across sectors – whether it be business, government, or media – with the skills and tools to transform conflict collaboratively. Secondly, finding opportunities to connect leaders from different sectors and from across the region to identify shared issues of concern and visions for the future, and create new funding opportunities, platforms, or initiatives to find solutions.”

Glaister, who has worked extensively in Southeast Asia, primarily Myanmar, as a peacebuilder and in the development space, says that, globally, conflicts are transnational in nature and impact.

aketa-logo-south-asia-union2-258x258“We’re in a new era. Power is shifting. People and movements are rising up, connected globally and through the internet, around shared challenges and injustices. It’s time for a new type of leadership. One that listens, empathises, sees the whole human, and works for models of collaboration that contribute to equity and sustainability,” says Glaister, who returned from Myanmar to the UK in January to helm The Business Plan for Peace.

The NGO was founded by three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Scilla Elworthy and is based on her book by the same name. Their model is inspired by the first Architecture for Peace developed by Nelson Mandela to prevent civil war in South Africa after he was released from prison after 27 years, in 1989.

Architectures for Peace are countrywide processes that enable the building of a sustainable structure at national, regional, city, town and village levels through which all relevant stakeholders cooperate in systematically building peace and preventing violent conflict.

“There is such beauty, richness and diversity across the Asian region; this needs to be celebrated, not in tokenistic forms, but by supporting people from different backgrounds to feel seen and heard by representing their own cultures,” says Glaister, who is the former Myanmar country director for Search for Common Ground, a US-based nonprofit, where she led the growth of the country office and development of the country strategy through a multi-stakeholder participatory engagement process.

The Myanmar experience

Though born and raised in the UK, Glaister has spent most of her adult life living in Asia. “My peacebuilding journey, unknowingly at that time, began when I started working with refugees from diverse ethnic groups from Myanmar in Thailand,” she says. She then spent the next 17 years living and working with people and civil-society organisations connected to Myanmar.

“Divide-and-rule military tactics have been used for decades in Burma, now Myanmar. Yet despite the deep divisions and deep mistrust between populations, I noticed that the people had similar hopes and visions for the future - the need for development, peace and security for future generations,” she says.

When Glaister arrived in Yangon in 2010, people had rarely had the opportunity to travel within their own country and were mostly cut off from the rest of the world. “I lived in Myanmar during a time of incredible progress and development, where people across the country, after coming out of six decades of military rule, were building a democratic path and a new future based on their hopes and dreams,” says Glaister, who also learnt to speak Burmese during her time in the Southeast Asian nation.

Deeply intractable conflicts in Myanmar have never gone away and have escalated in parts of the country during these years of the country opening up to international markets, says Glaister, who during these years began her inner and outer journey in understanding conflict.

“I keep coming back to key questions – why does conflict happen? How can we prevent conflict from ending in destruction and violence? How can we transform conflict to support better outcomes for all involved? How can we do the inner work addressing internal conflict that sits within our bodies and minds? And how can we show up in the world to transform conflict through inner transformation and outer action?” she asks.

What Glaister found is that peace is not necessarily about feeling ‘peaceful’. “We need to be comfortable with conflict, have the courage to challenge the status quo when it is unjust, and take a stand on the issues that matter to us and that call us. To do this, though, requires meeting people where they are at, stepping into their shoes, understanding their needs and why they see the issue or the world in the way they do,” she says.

Protesters wearing masks depicting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, flash three-finger salutes as they take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. (Image: Reuters) Protesters wearing masks depicting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi flash three-finger salutes in March 2021, during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. (Image: Reuters)

Myanmar and South Asia

Glaister is acutely aware of the fact that conflicts impact across borders. “If the elected government in Myanmar is not recognised, if the majority of the population of Myanmar are not heard, it is highly likely that the country will descend into civil war. This will have an enormous impact on the whole South Asian and Southeast Asian region in terms of refugee flows, transnational crime, and will destroy stability and the potential for economic growth for the whole region,” she warns.

While many powerful nations often opt to cut off diplomatic relations or enforce trade restrictions and embargoes on countries that do not agree with their world view or political position, Glaister believes that in cases like Myanmar – where an elected government has been overthrown by a rogue military regime – targeted sanctions on business and travel can place pressure to end the violence.

“Every conflict is unique, and needs to be analysed based on the political, economic, historical and social context it sits within. The question for Myanmar is, who are the countries considering cutting diplomatic relations with? The elected government, elected in a landslide victory by the people of Myanmar, formed now in exile as the National Unity Government (NUG)? Or, the Myanmar military, who seized power of the country by detaining the elected leaders and using brutal force against peaceful protestors?” she asks.

Glaister suggests that India and other South Asian nations should continue diplomatic relations with all parties until a solution that brings an end to the violence is sought, and ideally the will of the people is reinstated. “If Asian countries’ governments and business leaders form alliances, engage and recognise the NUG, and use all possible channels to mediate, negotiate, or place pressure on the military to take an alternate path from the destructive violent course that the country is currently set on, and if all countries stop doing business with the military and stop selling arms and weapons to the military, this could help solve the crisis,” she avers.

She also believes the internet can play an important role in building peace, solidarity and the economy. “We’re already seeing this happening. After the February coup in Myanmar, one of the first things Gen-Z did was to contact youth in Thailand and Hong Kong, to learn, connect and build alliances,” she says, adding that people are ever more connected now as a result of the pandemic.

The ordinary Burmese people – ruled for decades by the military junta except for brief periods of democracy – were late to log in to the world wide web in comparison with the rest of the world. They could access social-media only after internet censorship was reduced in September 2011 as part of democratic reforms undertaken by the then military-backed government, including the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after almost 15 years in house arrest, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, relaxation of press censorship, and other reforms.

Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, first came to power through by-elections held in 44 seats in 2012, and later won a landslide victory in the general elections of 2015. On February 1 this year, just after she won the general elections again, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar's military – staged a coup d'état and vested power in military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. Since then, the world has watched as pro-democracy protestors have been killed, wounded, arrested and silenced by the new stratocracy.

Disappointed about political leaderships using religious and historical rifts to sow divisiveness in order to gain power, Glaister asserts, “Hatred and conflict, fuelled, will only ever end in division, destruction, violence and loss for all concerned, creating further cycles of violence. But there are always people working for peace and standing up for what they believe to be right and just for the benefit of the common good. Often many of these may be part of a silent minority or even majority. These people need to be supported, connected and their efforts amplified.”

Plan for peace

Peace is an inner journey, says Glaister. “It is about doing the hard work of peeling off the layers of social conditioning to connect with our deepest humanity that naturally encourages empathy, understanding and collaboration.”

She quotes the Institute of Economics and Peace’s definition of Negative Peace, understood as ‘the absence of violence or fear of violence’. “On the surface, a community or society may seem ‘at peace’, yet deep grievances and trauma from cycles of violence can lie under the surface, and be triggered or mobilised at any time. And violence is not just physical, it is also psychological, structural and cultural as Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung has put forward through his peace research,” she says.

For these reasons, her organisation has designed ‘a plan for peace, where conflict transformation skills and tools need to be embedded across every sector’. ‘The Mighty Heart’ course designed by Dr Scilla Elworthy, scheduled for September this year, is at the ‘heart’ of the Business Plan for Peace’s work.

“We need to cultivate a cultural shift where conflict is seen as a natural part of everyday life and where we are equipped from a young age with the tools and skills to transform it. When conflict is not managed well, it leads to inefficiency, wasted resources and money, and in worst-case scenarios destroys relationships and leads to polarisation, violence, and loss of life,” she says.

Over the past decade, Glaister has played a supportive role in designing and facilitating inclusive processes in Myanmar that brought people together from across divides, to be seen and heard, and to reimagine a shared future. “People from Myanmar were my teachers, and I learnt so many lessons every day,” she says.

These are her key learnings:

  • Change needs to work at the speed of trust.

  • Peace is a process, it takes time, and cannot be achieved with short-term projects or funding.

  • Everyone needs to be seen and heard in any process or outcome, and all stakeholders need to be involved, especially and including the private sector.

  • Everyone can be a peacebuilder, if they choose to be. It is the everyday local heroes that are preventing and mitigating violence on the ground, and there are people working for peace across all sectors.

  • We need to balance imagining a new vision for the future while addressing the underlying power imbalances and grievances of the past within the current realities of the present.

  • Solutions come from within a country. Solutions will never be sustainable if they come from outside interventions.

  • We should never take peace for granted.

Aekta Kapoor is the founder of eShe magazine and the peacebuilding initiative South Asia Union.