How faith can help forge Myanmar’s future

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy
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Despite Myanmar’s most recent conflicts being attributed to religious differences, the country’s deep spiritual roots may be instrumental in its current economic, political and social transformation. With over 100 different nationalities, 90% of its people follow Buddhism, 4% are Christian and 4% are Muslim, with others practicing forms of Animism and Shamanism.

In advance of the World Economic Forum on East Asia, a group of Young Global Leaders took part in an Impact Journey aiming to explore the country’s diversity of religious thought as well as shared spiritual values. We first experienced Vipassana Meditation at the Mahasi Meditation Centre in Yangon. From that Buddhist introduction, we went to the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), which is a predominantly Christian institution offering a liberal arts education to students of all faiths. We led an experiential workshop with students, encouraging them to create images for Myanmar’s future based on spiritual qualities that transcend any one particular religious tradition. We ended our day at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy and a panel discussion with both Muslim and Buddhist leaders.

What we observed was that spirituality has been an anchor in Myanmar’s culture for centuries and can continue to contribute to the country’s development in very specific ways:

  • Use the principles of mindfulness to set the tone for inclusive growth. Buddhism teaches that “the intention precedes the act” and that “we should be mindful of every step”. If there is a sincere intention for inclusive growth, then the process of transformation should be collaborative from the start, including the voices of government, academia, civil society, private industry, youth and spiritual leaders from various faiths.
  • Leverage spiritual leaders as trusted sources to play a role in public health education. Monastic institutions have acted as a de facto social safety net, offering food, shelter, education and health services when needed. As the government begins to fill that void, spiritual leaders can still play an important role in delivering health education messages around prevention.
  • Focus on shared prosperity as a path to peace. The leaders we spoke to noted that some of the conflict we hear about may not be religious but economic, with too many people pursuing too few resources. Therefore, economic progress at all levels of society is one path to peace. Religious leaders from different faiths have a history of working together for disaster relief. They can use this experience to come together around national reconciliation and economic empowerment.
  • Harness the energy of young spiritual leaders to foster cooperation. In our workshop with the students, words like “compassion”, “connection”, “humility”, “forgiveness” and “unity” came up as being fundamental shared values. It was clear that these young leaders understood the importance of interfaith, intersector and intergenerational dialogue.
  • Tap into shared values for sustainable development. Religious leaders in Myanmar, regardless of their faith, seem to share a deep respect for the environment. Perhaps the concept of “a sharing economy” can be embraced by an interfaith coalition as a way to avoid extreme consumerism and preserve the native environment and culture as development progresses.

The common ground that brings together all of the faiths in Myanmar is the focus on “loving affection”. If the country’s leaders can use that as the foundation for truthful and inclusive dialogue, then the Golden Land will be well on its way to a shining future.

Co-authors: Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is President of Power Living Enterprises, Inc. and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. Caroline Watson, Vice-Chair of the Arts in Society Global Agenda Council and Founder of Hua Dan.

Image: People light candles at the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon REUTERS/Minzayar

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