Watering the Banyan Tree: Supporting Myanmar Peacebuilders since the Coup
Traditionally, the Banyan tree provides shelter and a space for gathering. In that spirit, the Watering the Banyan Tree project builds on our previous Karuna Myosae (Seeds of Compassion) initiative—using public arts, advocacy, and dialogue to promote interfaith respect and inclusion of minorities.
After months of planning in late 2020 and early 2021, our project team was poised to host the first training in early February. But on February 1, Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) overthrew the democratically elected government, throwing the country into chaos.
The coup put our partner organizations and our two Myanmar-based staff at risk of being targeted for their peacebuilding activism. Since February, the people of Myanmar have endured a brutally violent crackdown by the military that has included mass shootings of protesters, political imprisonment, heightened surveillance, curfews, restrictions on personal movement and gatherings, and increased violence following the deposed civilian government’s September declaration of war against the Tatmadaw.
Despite these many challenges, the strength of the people’s movement against the coup has created hope for a new, more inclusive and democratic Myanmar, and our colleagues and partners have persisted in their work for peace.
“The February coup has created divisions even within ethnic and religious groups, but it has also prompted unity across traditional divides. I am proud to be a part of the Watering the Banyan Tree project team because the project is still here to support the partners and our communities while raising the voices of our people amidst these numerous challenges.”
– Peacebuilder and Karuna staff member in Myanmar
At first, the project team carefully monitored and analyzed the evolving context while maintaining a reduced profile to keep partners and staff safe. Through a number of recent strategic planning sessions, the project partners have adapted the project to meet the current needs of the country while protecting the safety of all those involved. Beginning in early October 2021, the project moved fully into the implementation stage.
Even in this difficult context, people throughout the country are motivated to connect with one another and to learn dialogue skills so that their conversations can be more meaningful and productive. There is an increasing need to create safe spaces for people to talk as well as to listen, and an increasing hope for inclusion as the voices of minority groups are heard. Watering the Banyan Tree is creating these spaces and equipping individuals with the capacities needed to dialogue with one another across divides.
Owing to both COVID and the military government, the project team has developed innovative new virtual approaches to deliver training and to host dialogue events.
Simultaneously, the project is engaging with people both inside the country and outside to teach them creative ways to conduct advocacy using art. Through the project, individuals will get the training and support they need to lead advocacy campaigns, including mentorship from experienced artists. These efforts will drive change at local, national, and international levels to better meet community needs for security and development.
In this time of crisis, it is important to recognize and celebrate the resilience and creativity of Myanmar’s people, including a civil society which is adapting and responding in this moment to continue building peace.
“When a soldier who’s been indoctrinated through propaganda and coercion chooses to defect rather than kill another human being, that says something important about the human spirit and the possibility of change. We need to create an environment where people willingly choose non-violence—in Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, and in the world.”