The Promise and Challenge of Multireligious
Peacebuilding in the 21st Century: A Myanmar
Anna S. King * and Mark Owen
Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester, Winchester SO22 4NR, UK;
Received: 7 January 2020; Accepted: 24 February 2020; Published: 11 March 2020
This article explores whether a relational approach to peacebuilding, shared multireligious
perspectives and widening networks can bring sources of strength which enable positive peacebuilding
and create grassroots, cross-community peace. While religious peacebuilding organizations have
become the object of a burgeoning literature, the role of multireligious organisations in peacebuilding
has received far less attention. The purpose of this paper is to redress this lack. By examining
the inﬂuence, challenges and beneﬁts of multireligious approaches to transnational peacebuilding,
we hope to develop a sharper and more critically nuanced understanding of the potential role of
multireligious organisations in global peacebuilding, and consider what, if anything, distinguishes
them from secular and other faith-based organisations. We do so by analysing the impact of a project
carried out in Myanmar by Religions for Peace. The project provides three case studies which oﬀer
unique opportunities to consider the limits and potential of multireligious grassroots interventions in
conﬂict contexts with very diﬀerent histories and cultural conﬁgurations.
Keywords: religion; multireligious, peacebuilding; Religions for Peace; Myanmar; justpeace
Peacebuilding scholars and practitioners have in recent decades advocated a more central role for
religious peacebuilding, stressing religion’s institutional capacity and spiritual resources for peace
(Johnston and Sampson 1994;Sampson and Lederach 2000;Appleby 2000,2015;Appleby et al. 2015;
Gopin 2000,2002;Johnston 2003;Smock 2006). Today, there is far greater recognition of the potential
contribution of faiths to peacebuilding, and of the ways in which they can be instrumentalised and
mobilised. Increasingly, organizations and governments promote religion as a means to build global
peace and security, while sectors that previously marginalised religion, regarding it primarily as a
driver of conﬂict, now accept that it has an essential role to play in any integrated, multi-layered
approach to peacebuilding.
Religious leaders are increasingly perceived as inﬂuential cultural brokers
and interpretivists who can eﬀectively promote humanitarian law and human rights (Cismas 2014).
There is a growing body of scholarly literature on religion and peacebuilding, but a huge
diversity of ideas and approaches about what religious peacebuilding means. Religious non-proﬁt
organisations (NGOs) are a heterogeneous group of conservatives and progressives, international
and regional, small and big, old and young, and religious peacebuilding occurs in many forms,
E.g., (Lederach 1997;Appleby 2000;Gopin 2000;Abu-Nimer 2003;Little 2007;Lederach 2010;
Lederach and Appleby 2010
See also UNHCR 2014 Partnership note on faith-based organizations, local faith communities and faith leaders.
Religions 2020,11, 121; doi:10.3390/rel11030121 www.mdpi.com/journal/religions
Religions 2020,11, 121 2 of 19
from shared humanitarian activities and peace and reconciliation eﬀorts at the community level to
long-term eﬀorts to address structural injustice (Petersen 2010). This article focuses on transnational
multireligious approaches, seeking to understand the ways, if any, in which their impact diﬀers from
those of monofaith or secular organisations which also work across cultural and religious boundaries
and engage in interreligious dialogue and action as a mechanism for peacebuilding. Based on case
studies from Myanmar, it analyses the implications and potential added value of multifaith-based
peacebuilding for religious peacebuilding as a ﬁeld of practice and contextualises research ﬁndings
within current theoretical debates.
‘Interdependence is built on relationships and relationships are the heart and bloodlines of
peacebuilding’ (Lederach n.d.). Relationship is at the heart of all peacebuilding and NGOs dedicated to
peacebuilding, whether secular or faith-based, try to bring about social healing and interreligious or
interethnic reconciliation. A few adopt a multireligious approach to peacebuilding, an approach explicitly
founded on relational strategies, shared perspectives and widening networks. Such organisations have
received little scholarly attention—dueperhaps to the fact that they make up only a small percentage of all
religious NGOs (Petersen 2010). We hypothesise that in some contexts, they offer unique advantages. They
are intentionally and necessarily relational and pluralist, both institutionally and in their relations with the
outside world, and may therefore avoid to some extent the dominant, Western Christian use of language
about religion, and the ‘significant ideological baggage, including Eurocentrism, technocentrism and
historic connections with Empire’
(Richmond and Ginty 2015)
. By examining the influence, challenges
and benefits of multireligious approaches, we hope to develop a sharper and more critically nuanced
understanding of their potential role in global peacebuilding. We do so by analysing the impact of a
project carried out in Myanmar by Religions for Peace International (RfP-I), in partnership with Religions
for Peace Myanmar (RfP-M).
2. Religions for Peace: Diﬀerent Religions, Shared Values
Religions for Peace describes itself as the world’s largest and most representative multireligious
coalition advancing common action among the world’s religious communities for peace.
The organisation comprises the World Council of senior religious leaders, six regional interreligious
bodies, and more than eighty national ones, as well as the Global Women of Faith Network (WoFN)
and Global Interfaith Youth Network (IFYN). Religions for Peace’s approach is explicitly founded on
relational strategies, shared perspectives and widening networks. Although RfP often uses the terms
multireligious, interreligious and interfaith synonymously, its preference for the term ‘multireligious’
indicates that its central function is purposive collaborative humanitarian action. ‘It works to transform
violent conﬂict, advance human development, promote just and harmonious societies, and protect
the earth.’ [https://rfp.org/about/]. RfP’s interpretation of ‘religion’ drives its goals, motivation and
methods. A Religions for Peace Assembly Theme Paper (n.d.) states:
Each religious tradition represented in RfP has its own positive vision of Peace, which
includes its understanding of human dignity, individual and communal ﬂourishing, the
obligation to be in harmony with others and the natural world, and its notion of ultimate
fulﬁlment. In RfP, each religion’s positive vision of Peace is respected as being sincerely
held by the believers of that religion. While great care is taken to avoid a “syncretistic”
blending of the beliefs of diverse religions, RfP recognizes that diverse religious visions of
Peace do provide the bases for carefully discerning elements of a positive, multi-religious
vision of Peace. From its beginning, RfP has labored to discern and express elements of
a shared positive vision of Peace. This is done by discerning and expressing consensus
through shared values, rather than in terms of the diﬀering doctrines that are unique to each
RfP’s public statements conceptualise all major or world religions as bounded and discrete with
distinctive histories, heritages and cultures, but as sharing common values and deserving equal respect.
Religions 2020,11, 121 3 of 19
Key assumptions are that all world religions share common values of peace, justice and compassion,
that religions and religious leaders possess vast untapped resources to contribute to peaceful solutions
to the world’s crises, and that interreligious dialogue and multireligious action promote the reframing
of attitudes towards ‘the other.’ Simultaneously, RfP perceives itself as developing a consciously chosen
universal ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. This combination of ethical universality and
religious particularity is believed to enable aﬃliated religious leaders and communities to retain a sense
of their own separate identities but to co-operate for the greater good. RfP claims that multireligious
peacebuilding brings an added dimension to global peacebuilding and politics which emphasises
relationship-building, concepts of justice, compassion and human ﬂourishing. For the individual
member, these values are aﬃrmed through private prayer and the use of religious doctrine, storytelling
and symbolism (Singh 2015). RfP tends to employ moments of silence in meetings, and relegate
deep theological engagement, interritual participation, prayer, and symbolic content to the private
devotional sphere (see Schwarz 2018, pp. 159–69 for an alternative view).
Religions for Peace International sponsors many peacebuilding initiatives which are then
implemented by its national and regional aﬃliates. Religions for Peace Myanmar (RfP-M), one such
aﬃliate, was founded in 2012, and claims to be the country’s ‘ﬁrst representative and action-oriented
interreligious body for reconciliation, peace and development.’ It brought together members and
organisations from Myanmar’s historic ‘four major religions,’ Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and
Hinduism, and included the Buddhist Sitagu Sayadaw community, the Ratana Metta Buddhist
Organization, the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), the Catholic Church, the Hindu Community
in Myanmar, and the Islamic Center of Myanmar. Dr. William F. Vendley, the then Secretary General,
stated at its foundation that ‘Communal harmony must be the bedrock of authentic development for
Myanmar. The shared moral and spiritual values of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism
advanced by Religions for Peace Myanmar will provide a basis for communal harmony, while its
grassroots multi-religious projects will translate these values into needed action.’2
3. ‘Multi-Religious Networks Promoting Religious Diversity and Tolerance’
3.1. Aims and Objectives
The RfP project, ‘Multi-Religious Networks Promoting Religious Diversity and Tolerance,’ is the
main source of the data that inform this article. Its objectives were to build multireligious capacity to
support peacebuilding by training religious leaders on conﬂict resolution and enhancing the capacity
of local women of faith groups for conﬂict prevention and mediation; to promote social cohesion and
reconciliation; to facilitate the conditions for the smooth return/resettlement of IDPs; and to strengthen
RfP-M’s national organisation and support the community of practice on multireligious peacebuilding.
The project proposal emphasised collective action and bridge-building. The councils (IC, WoFN
and IYN) would be trained in contemporary peacebuilding and reconciliation skills by a process of
cascading from international to national and then local level. Also central to the project was RfP’s global
campaign ‘Welcoming the Other’
which promotes mutual respect, diversity, tolerance, understanding
and acceptance. The local groups were to collaborate in civic activities which contributed to the
common good as well as interfaith/interreligious dialogue. Diﬀerent religious communities were
twinned (‘Place of Worship Pairing’) to encourage religious and community leaders to build trusting
and respectful interreligious relationships in preparation for ‘welcoming the other.’ ‘Congregations’
would then be introduced through social interactions such as community dinners, exchange visits,
open houses and sessions where each group ‘shared’ about their faith and customs. Religious leaders
The 9th World Assembly of Religions held in 2013 inaugurated this campaign, recommending ways in which ‘Welcoming
the Other,’ would guide future actions. religionsforpeace.org/sites/default/ﬁles/publications/22 November Newsletter Day
Religions 2020,11, 121 4 of 19
might be asked to give a spiritual talk on peace preceded by prayer as a way of familiarising guests
with their religious practices or as a way of building bridges. At the national level, religious leaders
were tasked with writing booklets setting out the peaceful teachings of each of Myanmar’s major
religions and engaging the media in alternative narratives challenging religious or nationalist hate
speech. This proved critical because social media—and especially Facebook—played a key role in
exacerbating fear and tensions in all three conﬂict areas (Kinseth 2018).
3.2. The Evolving Data Collection and Evaluation Process
Evaluation, predominantly qualitative, was incorporated into the project from the beginning
and contributed to programme design and planning. RfP-M facilitated the authors’ access to project
staﬀand beneﬁciaries during the period 2015–2018. Their reports analysed the experiences of the
multifaith peacebuilding groups and beneﬁciaries and explored the project’s impact in motivating
change. The 2015 initial conﬂict assessments seek to establish participants’ ownership of the project
and perceptions of the drivers of conﬂict. The mid-term evaluation (2017) focuses on the project’s
promotion of pluralism but also its limitations. The ﬁnal report (2018) measures progress against the
objectives and indicators deﬁned in the funding proposal and analyses longitudinal levels of impact.
Data, both qualitative and quantitative, were collected through workshops, focus groups,
interviews and participant observation. The authors interviewed staﬀ, religious actors and project
beneﬁciaries, and also held wider consultations with religious communities, administrative oﬃcials,
aid workers, IDP camp organisers, military personnel, armed militias, ecological advocacy CSOs, etc.
They also drew upon the reports compiled by staﬀas part of their own monitoring and evaluation
schedule. These provided quantitative information about the project’s reach, age, gender and religion
of participants, the number of activities completed as well as qualitative observations and self-reports
of attitudinal and behavioural change.
Peacebuilding is a complex, multifaceted process of change. On paper, a faith-based peacebuilding
project can signify to its donors, beneﬁciaries, and stakeholders its aims and objectives, planned
timelines, baseline studies, intended outcomes and outputs. The funding document imagined a linear
process of reconciliation, requiring quantitative and qualitative measures of change. Participants and
staﬀalso imagined incremental progress towards social healing. However, as Lederach and Lederach
point out (Lederach and Lederach 2010, p. 43), there are tensions between the experience-based
perspective and the analytic metaphor structures found in the literature. In volatile situations
where renewed cycles of violence and human rights violations are possible, reconciliation is always
multifaceted and complex and depends on a mass of interacting and dynamic forces. It requires the
building of relationships and trust which cannot always be measured in quantiﬁable ways.
The evolving and ﬂuid nature of the peacebuilding dynamics was evident in the evaluation
and data collection process which revealed the multitude of factors operating. During the early and
mid-term evaluations staﬀand participants were focused on both the potential and limitations of the
project design and implementation. However, by the time of the ﬁnal evaluation, staﬀknew that future
funding might well rest upon the outcome. Beneﬁciaries also wanted the project and funding to extend
and were aware that the jobs of ﬁeld monitors and Yangon staﬀwere at risk. There was therefore a
concerted eﬀort to understand and reﬂect upon the project’s positive achievements.
4. The Project Context
Myanmar was at the time of research (2015–2019) in the process of transitioning from decades of
military rule and oppression, with the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD)
achieving a landslide victory in the 2015 national elections. The NLD’s victory was generally welcomed
as heralding further progress towards democracy and economic development, based on a strategy of
non-violence and national reconciliation. However, Ang San Suu Kyi’s triumph was regarded with
caution in several ethnic states because she had been silent about their rights, and because, in the
2015 elections, the NLD did not put forward a single Muslim candidate. Renewed cycles of violence
Religions 2020,11, 121 5 of 19
began to damage the new government’s international reputation, threaten external investment and
highlight continuing military control.
Since the constitution reserves 25 percent of all parliamentary
seats and control of three important ministries—Defence, Border Aﬀairs and Home Aﬀairs—to
military appointees, the country’s military retained considerable political and economic power.
Equally signiﬁcant factors in the conﬂicts were the failure of the NLD government to address the
structural injustices in ethnic minority areas and the lack of political will to work with minority parties
Myanmar is a religiously and ethnically diverse country, with close and complex relationships
between religion and ethnicity. It has a Bamar/Burman and Buddhist majority, with a large Muslim
minority and members of other religious traditions and ethnic groups (Walton and Hayward 2014).
The challenge remains of fully reconciling Myanmar’s diverse peoples and including them in one
political system (Farrelly 2014). Since independence, non-Bamar ethnic groups have demanded equal
rights, equal opportunities and self-determination. Many resent the political and cultural dominance
of the Bamar and have little conﬁdence in the NLD or its national reconciliation process. Whilst global
attention has been ﬁxed on the Rohingya crisis, the decades-long oﬀensives waged against non-Burman
nationalities by the Burmese military continue to create major humanitarian crises. Under the NLD,
two more ethnic armed groups have signed the Nationwide Ceaseﬁre Agreement (NCA), which now
has ten signatories.
However, the government has so far failed to bring peace, not only in western
Rakhine but also in the northern Kachin and northeastern Shan states. Numerous other ethnic conﬂicts
have fuelled claims of widespread and systematic human rights violations by the Burmese military
and ethnic militias.7
The project was designed to respond to these political, religious and social tensions by nurturing
grassroots peacebuilding, combining reliance on international and national leadership with an ethos
focused on local empowerment. It emphasised the importance of multilevel processes and the value
of identifying, drawing upon and building up existing networks and connections. It was directed
by two senior members from the RfP international secretariat which oversees the organisation and
works closely with various UN agencies and other religious and secular NGOs.
The project was based
in Yangon, a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, multireligious city,
and the headquarters of RfP-M. It was
steered by a Core Group of senior national religious leaders.
and implemented by a paid program
manager, project co-ordinator and local ﬁeld monitors. The project was intended to ameliorate ethnic
and religious tensions in situations where identities, particularly minority identities, matter, and where
people who do not share the majority identity or had outsider status could be physically displaced,
expelled, ‘resettled’ or socially marginalised.
Report of the independent international fact-ﬁnding mission on Myanmar 12 September 2018. https://www.ohchr.org/
This was documented by a UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar which exposed military business ties, calls for
targeted sanctions and arms embargoes. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=
See the reports of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference sessions. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/date-set-
On 11 December 2019, before the International Court of Justice, the Hague, Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar against
accusation of genocidal intent against the Rohingya and stated that there would be no tolerance of human rights violations in
the Rakhine, or elsewhere in Myanmar. She argued that international law only gives international courts power to intervene
when a country fails to prosecute crimes itself. https://www.statecounsellor.gov.mm/en/.
8See (Schwarz 2018, pp. 142–44)) for details of how RfP draws on the language and agenda of the United Nations.
Even here religious tensions arose in the course of research, most notably perhaps in the murder of Ko Ni, a prominent
Muslim lawyer in Yangon International Airport in 2017. In May 2019 a nationalist mob shut down Ramadan prayers.
https://www.myanmar- now.org/en/news/nationalist-mob-shuts-down- ramadan-prayers-in-yangon.
They included Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon; U Myint Swe, President, Ratana Metta Organization; Al Haj
U Aye Lwin, Chief Convener, the Islamic Center of Myanmar; and Rev. Father Joseph Maung Win, Head of the Oﬃce of
Yangon Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith.
Religions 2020,11, 121 6 of 19
5. The Project Centres
It is beyond the remit of this paper to oﬀer a full analysis of the conﬂict dynamics in each area,
but extensive conﬂict analyses were conducted with partners in Myanmar to situate the research,
map conﬂict issues, key stakeholders and peacebuilding resources. In all areas, respondents identiﬁed
multiple competing forms of conﬂict, trauma and oppression. The Core Group were deeply mindful
of security and the dangers to staﬀand participants. It was only after prolonged deliberation that
Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, Meiktila, a city in the central Mandalay Region, and
Kyaukpyu, a major town in Rakhine State were selected as project bases. The original decision to set
up a multireligious centre in Sittwe, the capital of Kachin State, was abandoned when orchestrated
anti-Muslim violence made it too dangerous. In Meiktila and Myitkyina the interfaith councils were
already established and many of the participating religious and civic leaders were known to each
other and to the local ﬁeld monitors who were solidly anchored in the local population with strong
connections to established religious communities.
The conﬂict in Kachin has its roots in the unilateral abrogation of the Union of Burma constitution by
the Ne Win regime in 1962 and is ostensibly an ethnic armed insurgency, with the Kachin Independence
Army ﬁghting the Bamar controlled military for the right to self-determination and independence.
The Kachin, the dominant group, were evangelised in the early 20th century by American Baptist
missionaries, and their modern identity is deeply interwoven with Christianity. Predominantly Baptist,
they include a distinct Catholic minority.
In Meiktila religious tension has played a signiﬁcant role in recent intercommunal violence and
violations and is linked to the broader issue of Buddhist–Muslim relations in Myanmar. Meiktila is
situated in the Mandalay/Sagaing region which has strong associations with Buddhist nationalism and
the minority of extremist monks who have emerged as a political force becoming ﬁerce defenders of
Buddhist culture and way of life (Walton 2015, p. 17; 2017). In 2013, a dispute in a gold shop between
the Muslim owner and two elderly Buddhist clients triggered a riot which spread to towns across
Myanmar’s central plains. Many people were killed, injured, or left homeless after widespread burning
Rakhine is one of the poorest of Myanmar states and many local Rakhine feel that they have an
ongoing struggle to maintain Arakanese/Rakhine culture against both the Rohingya and the Central
‘Bamar’ Government. Unlike the Muslim Rohingya, the majority Buddhist Rakhine (or Arakanese) are
oﬃcially recognized by the central government as an ethnic minority but feel marginalised in a country
historically dominated by the Bamar. Rakhine ethnic minorities have fought for self-determination
in Rakhine State since the early 1950s, and insurgent groups, such as the Arakan Army (AA),
continue hostilities against the government. Indeed, many Rakhine believe that the Rohingya issue is
instrumentalised by the national Government and army to control Rakhine, and anger is often directed
as much against the Government and Tatmadaw as the Rohingya. While Rakhine Buddhists may be
privileged in relation to non-Rakhine, they see themselves as equally subject to government repression,
and, like other non-Bamar minorities, they demand autonomy under a federal set-up (Walton 2013).
Having suﬀered decades of oppression and neglect, they are particularly receptive to political and
religious propaganda, and tend to support the oﬃcial line that the security forces are responding to
a serious threat from Rohingya terrorists led by foreign Islamists. The complexity of the Rohingya
crisis lies in the fact that Rohingya are not considered citizens of Myanmar, a fact that makes their
case highly inﬂammatory (Kipgen 2013). In Kyaukpyu intercommunal violence erupted in June 2012;
147,000 people, including approximately 138,000 Rohingya, were internally displaced and an entire
Muslim neighbourhood burnt to the ground.
During the entire duration of the project, the Kyaukpyu
The Myanmar military response to the ARSA attacks of 2017 led to one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century.
An estimated 25,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed and over 700,000 have ﬂed to neighbouring Bangladesh. The UN
Religions 2020,11, 121 7 of 19
councils remained ‘tri-faith’ only (Buddhist, Christian and Hindu), partly because Kyaukpyu Muslims
were interned in camps. This was a limitation with profound consequences.
6. Principal Findings: ‘From Negative to Positive Mind’
The dynamics, complexities and interconnectedness of conﬂict requires an ongoing focus on
building and strengthening the capacities of individuals, communities and organisations at grassroots
level, and the opportunity to create cross-cutting linkages and relationships between practitioners
throughout the world The ﬁndings showed that the Project’s structural framework, religious and
spiritual resources and local knowledge combined with a values-led, relational approach resulted in
recognisable and sustained transformational change. In the following section the positive themes that
emerged clearly and consistently from the mass of data collected are analysed.
The project facilitated international, national and regional communication and support.
of RfP’s guiding principles is to link national, regional and international networks and structures.
Communication and decision-making between and across the various levels was sometimes slow
and diﬃcult but enabled the International Project Directors and the Core Group to remain fully
informed of what was going on at the local level. Simultaneously, international approaches to conﬂict
transformation, peacebuilding and dialogue were disseminated down to the local groups, increasing the
pool of trained peacebuilders able to conduct conﬂict prevention, mitigation and resolution activities
within their own communities.
The project enabled new relationships and friendships across religious and ethnic divides
modelled positive interreligious relationships for the wider society. Responses in questionnaires and
interviews indicate that the activities and trainings helped to transform attitudes from ‘negative’ to
‘positive’ mind, a phrase used by RfP members to describe on the one hand expanding empathy
and communication across cultural, ethnic, religious and social divides and, on the other hand, the
transformation of problematic senses of community identity, based on fear, exclusion, superiority
over and demonization of the other. Typical remarks are: ‘RfP is a model for Myanmar.’ ‘It brings
people with diﬀerent perspectives together.’
The IC and WoFN members report feeling more able
to challenge Facebook rumours and hate speech.
Interview and questionnaire ﬁndings indicate
that participants felt less threatened, fearful and suspicious, and that meeting people of diﬀerent
religions had made them feel more informed and more open-minded. ‘We have become accustomed to
visiting diﬀerent religious centres and eating and drinking with people we previously passed by in the
The project enhanced the capacity building of the Women of Faith Network.
This was possibly
its most signiﬁcant outcome. RfP meetings provided a unique opportunity for women from diﬀerent
religious, ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds to ﬁnd a new collective power. The religious
dimension gave women a legitimacy that other peacebuilding initiatives could not. While the
importance of the role of women in peacebuilding is increasingly recognised (Hayward 2015;
Hayward and Marshall 2015), RfP from its foundation has always sought to empower women
through the women’s interfaith networks and its training programmes and support. Women involved
in peacebuilding tend to gravitate to eﬀorts that entail sustained interfaith and intrafaith relationship
building, particularly in traditionally patriarchal and deeply religious societies like Myanmar where
religious leaders are still venerated and inﬂuential as a source of ethical guidance. In this project women
consistently report feeling empowered by engaging in social action and the training for leadership.
report of August 2018 accused Myanmar’s military of genocide. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/MyanmarFFM/
12 Notes of meeting of Myitkyina IC and WoF, April 2017.
Since the outbreak of the Rohingya refugee crisis in August 2017, U.N. investigators and human rights groups have criticized
Facebook harshly over alleged lack of action against accounts that used its platform to encourage violence against the
disfranchised Rohingya Muslims.
14 Notes from interviews with Kyaukpyu councils in January, February and March 2018.
Religions 2020,11, 121 8 of 19
They comment that they drew inspiration and support from religious sources, teachings and interfaith
dialogues, but also from the RfP national (female) mentors. The women’s groups, more than the
men’s, were vibrant, enthusiastic, and keen to develop their respective networks, knowledge and
skills. IC (male) leaders were often heads of local religious communities (monastics, priests, imams) or
professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.), who led busy lives outside the family. Women seized
the opportunity to go beyond the conﬁnes of family and community, giving many illustrations of
ways in which they had beneﬁtted from the trainings on conﬂict resolution, dialogue facilitation
and ‘Welcoming the Other.’ They reported that they had gained greater respect within their own
communities, and that some had developed strong leadership roles within the wider society. A response
by a Kyaukpyu Christian young woman is typical, ‘I enjoyed pairing with Buddhists. I made new
relationships and friends. I can dare talk in society and am more conﬁdent.’15
The project helped participants ignore power imbalances and elevated the status of minority
In Kyaukpyu, for example, Hindu respondents reported that while previously
they were made to feel inferior, they were now given greater respect. The Hindu priest remarked
happily that now members from other faiths gave him their phone numbers and visited the temple.
‘They became very close. Their mindset changed.’
Individual Rakhine Buddhists also admitted
to feeling more positive about the Hindu community. One young man stated that whereas before
he had no desire to mix with ‘Kalar’ [an insulting term], he now had Hindu friends. The Rohingya
continued to be spoken of as illegal migrants, landgrabbers and potential terrorists,
but the seeds of
reconciliation were sown.18
The project created awareness of shared values and religious diﬀerence.
Participation in dialogue
sessions and interreligious celebrations and ceremonies was regarded as a positive development
leading to explicit recognition of an essential shared humanity and greater understanding of ethnic
and religious diﬀerences. The President of the All Burma Sikh Religious Council, a Myitkyina member
of IC, commented that the project had promoted greater intercommunity cooperation and awareness
of Sikh identity and teachings, while the dynamic president of the Gorka-Hindu Hindu Women’s
Association (a member of WoFN) became accepted by all religious communities as a respected mediator
and facilitator. Members of all faiths attended the Interfaith Community Prayer Service in Myitkyina
for assassinated NLD Legal Adviser Lawyer U Ko Ni and taxi driver U Nay Win. Non-Muslims
reported that they would never have dreamt of going but for the attitudinal changes wrought by RfP.
In Meiktila, there were small but telling acts of kindness. A Muslim woman who had stopped selling
her halal chickens in the market after the riots restarted her business with the support of RfP Buddhist
leaders. In Kyaukpyu, young people explained that they had not studied religion at school and that
RfP activities had brought them understanding of diﬀerent religious traditions, more friends and
greater conﬁdence in exploring religious themes.
The project challenged stereotypes and power structures.
Feedback analysis showed that
participants believed that increased knowledge and dialogue were eﬀective in deconstructing
stereotypes, and that their new understandings were transferred to families and communities. Among
Kyaukpyu members there was increasing recognition that some of the concerns about the Rohingya
15 Interview with the Christian community, April 2017.
16 Interview with the pujari and members of the Hindu community, May 2017.
Fear often drives hostility. Remarks by a Rakhine Buddhist IDP woman were typical. ‘I am frightened of Muslims.
Bangladesh is a small country. It can’t support its people. Muslims come over the border. Three people go on a ﬁshing trip
and six return. They [Muslims] have villages on the border. Rakhine people are frightened to live there. They [Muslims]
demand land from the Government. The NGOs and INGOs are sympathetic only to Rohingya.’ Buddhist IDP Camp,
Some made the journey from opponent to advocate. Ma Soe Aung was among those Buddhists who lost everything in the
Kyaukpyu riots and forced to live in an IDP Camp for almost ﬁve years. When IC members came to the camp to identify
concerns and discuss plans for resettlement, she listened to the interfaith discussions and eventually joined WoFN, becoming
a strong advocate for the civic rights and beneﬁts of all people, including the Rohingya. Her name has been changed for
Religions 2020,11, 121 9 of 19
were distorted and that ‘Bengalis’ had come to be deﬁned by their ‘otherness.’ Interfaith discussions
and settings reminded people of the time before the riots when they lived in peace with their neighbours,
‘before Rohingya began to make demands for citizenship.’ Discussions became notably more searching
and less emotional and incendiary. Young people challenged hostile, demeaning and dehumanising
stereotypes, remembering past friendships with Rohingya schoolfellows and neighbours. Local people
began to greet Rohingya IDPs when they saw them shopping in the market and some volunteered to
attend dialogues in the ‘Muslim’ camp. In the ﬁnal dialogue sessions in 2018, IC and WoFN members
spoke movingly and prayerfully of their desire for peace and the possibility of future coexistence.
The project trained local people from all religious/ethnic backgrounds in contemporary
Members were sensitised to the complexity of religious identities, providing
them with basic skills enabling them to promote conﬂict transformation and peacebuilding within
their own communities and in multireligious settings. They were also trained to assess rumours and
deconstruct the fake news and propaganda which dehumanises neighbours as enemies.
observable results. When Meiktila communities felt the eﬀects of the worsening situation in Rakhine
and fears of religious violence spread, local RfP councils began to share accurate updates with each
other and with their religious institutions and networks, while the IYN started a social media campaign
to combat sensational rumours and promote positive messages.
The project participants contributed to the wellbeing of IDPs.
Decisions over the return/resettlement
of IDPs/refugees were made by central or state governments. However, RfP councils liaised with local
government officials and initiated dialogues with IDPs in order to facilitate their smooth return. Myitkyina
is ringed with IDP camps—with shelter ranging from permanent woven bamboo huts to makeshift
tarpaulin tents. Here, RfP councils helped to ensure the efficient running of the camps, mediated
between the camps and host communities and supported female heads of families, widows, children
and the elderly. In Meiktila, they gave substantive practical help to resettled Muslim and Buddhist
families, while in Kyaukpyu, staff encouraged support and donations to IDPs in both the ‘Buddhist’ and
7. The Challenges and Limitations of Multireligious Peacebuilding
While these positive themes are clearly shown in the data, there were simultaneous and circular
themes that did not ﬁt a strictly linear metaphor of progression and transformation. In each locality
there were stories of displacement and experience of violence. Lived experience for many was often of
structural violence or decades of armed conﬂict. In Kachin, many communities had family members
who had been killed, drug addiction was rampant and unemployment high. Fighting was never far
away. In Meiktila, individual Muslim RfP members conﬁded privately that they felt like second-class
citizens and feared further attacks. In Kyaukpyu, both the Rohingya and Rakhine faced uncertainty
and the possibility of renewed violence.
International universalism versus local experience
. RfP’s global message that all religions are
essentially religions of peace, assumes a culture of peace, dialogue and forgiveness. Whilst this
can inspire hope, it can also lead to the avoidance of complex, diﬃcult topics. For example, RfP
international and national support for the UN’s investigation and report into atrocities in Rakhine,
contrasted with its angry rejection at local level. It is particularly signiﬁcant then that one of RfP-M’s
founder members, Al Haj U Aye Lwin, became a member of the UN’s Advisory Commission on
Rakhine State chaired by Koﬁ Annan. Rakhine Buddhists, on the other hand, felt misunderstood,
ignored and demonised by the scale of international support for the victimised Rohingya, and angry
about illegal migration, encroachment on Rakhine land, the high birth rate among Muslim families and
the threat to Rakhine and Buddhist culture. They were also afraid of revenge attacks should Rohingya
refugees return. There is therefore among many Rakhine deep-seated frustration, anxiety and sense of
19 (Owen and King 2018).
Religions 2020,11, 121 10 of 19
injustice (Leider 2017). Meanwhile, the Rohingya IDPs in the Kyaukpyu camp, concerned about their
children’s future, repeatedly spoke of their desire to go home. The crisis encapsulated a complex set
of humanitarian issues—notably questions of internal displacement and resettlement, the contested
status of citizenship of a large part of the Muslim population, deep political mistrust that divides the
Buddhist and Muslim communities, and ongoing communal tensions that threaten peacebuilding
‘Othering’ the out-group: societal, religious and ‘nationalist’ pressures to conform.
often heightens conformity to group identity, and it requires great personal courage to defy social
pressures and norms. Individuals and societies form their identities through complex and enduring
processes of diﬀerentiating (‘othering’) and integration (Tajfel and Turner 1986). In Kyaukpyu RfP
meetings, there was a danger that RfP meetings could bring unity by creating a common enemy,
and that the minority Christian and Hindu communities would make common cause with Rakhine
Buddhists by ‘othering’ the Rohingya. Christians felt that open support or sympathy for Rohingya
would make them a target not only of their own more hard-line community, but of Buddhist extremists.
The Hindu community spoke of double jeopardy.
They believed that ARSA terrorists had already
killed 300 Hindus because they identiﬁed them as Buddhist sympathisers,
but they also felt at risk
from widely shared anti-Muslim, anti-‘Bengali’ sentiments. Rakhine Buddhists feared the reactions of
the wider Bamar community and Arakan nationalists if they appeared sympathetic to the Rohingya.
A Buddhist teenager remarked, ‘If I speak out in favour of the Rohingya I will be mocked as a
Multireligious peacebuilding and development
. RfP staﬀwith professional experience of
development projects reported that religious peacebuilding was far more demanding in that it
could not appeal directly to the communities’ primary interests which were economic.
out that poverty, poor education, unemployment, and the culture of drugs all fuel religious violence
and ethnic tensions, and that the project, albeit unintentionally, often excluded the poorest and those at
most risk from violence. RfP councils tried to remedy this by urging that the project budget should
include costs for travel to and from meetings and suggesting that multireligious vocational courses or
co-operative business ventures would attract a wider range of participants. Such proposals fell outside
the funding remit. The young people interviewed also found many of the activities irrelevant to their
future lives and prospects. RfP-M later responded to these challenges in policy statements, stating that
the provision of interreligious vocational training or mentoring, together with facilities for study and
IT, would be a more strategic and eﬀective way to bring religious communities together.25
Religious leaders and inﬂuencers.
Staﬀoften found the recruitment and retention of local religious
or civic leaders a major challenge. Core members who are often Yangon-based have little time for
local involvement, while at grassroots level, some religious/civic leaders were deterred from engaging
practically and ideologically with a multireligious project. Much of this complexity is because religion
is not only about faith, values and spirituality, but a marker of social, ethnic and national identity,
shaped by shared history, mythology, culture, and sense of destiny. As a marker of individual and
cultural identity, religion in Myanmar can be as much about power and privilege as doctrine or
The Hindu community was said to number 250 people and to have good relations with the Rakhine Buddhists. Interviewees
said that Indians came in the time of the British—some were soldiers, many were from Bengal. Some have citizenship
papers, others do not. Most leave school at the age of 14 or so and take up work as carpenters, tailors and motorbike taxi
drivers (interviews in Kyaukpyu, November 2015).
Amnesty International reports that, ‘A Rohingya armed group brandishing guns and swords killed around 100 Hindu
people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, ahead of the violent ethnic cleansing carried out by Myanmar ’s security forces last
year.’ https://www.amnesty.org.uk/myanmar-crisis- rohingya-armed-groups-massacred-hindus.
For this reason, RfP staﬀdecided in 2019 to take local Rakhine leaders to Yangon, where they were able to talk more freely
(conversation with Patrick Aung, the Program Manager, 22 June 2019, Singapore).
23 Interview with IYN, Kyaukpyu, February 2018.
24 Interview with project co-ordinator, Yangon, April 2018.
25 Reports of the RfP Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and Peace in Myanmar for November 2018 and May 2019.
Religions 2020,11, 121 11 of 19
In all three conﬂict areas, there were assertive inﬂuencers who claimed to protect their
religious heritage, and whose aggressive use of religious symbols in public crystallised a kind of
xenophobia. We interviewed Baptist KIO leaders in Kachin who were convinced that Jesus was on their
side ﬁghting for justice, and Buddhist political activists who argued that the Tatmadaw’s campaign
against the Rohingya protected Myanmar against regional Islamicisation and the kind of Islamist
terrorism experienced internationally. And while multireligious organisations attract ‘liberal’ leaders
sympathetic to multifaith peacebuilding and dialogue, in times of intercommunal tension feelings of
fear and insecurity operate to silence many.
The politics of identity.
Religious, ethnic and political identities are often blurred, and whilst
religious leaders should by their nature ‘lead,’ their role is also to represent their community
). In Myanmar, anxiety about the fragility of Buddhist culture is intensiﬁed by globalised
imaginaries of endangered identities (Gravers 2015). RfP leaders often wrestle with conﬂicting and
ambivalent desires to serve and protect their own community while engaging in interfaith mutuality
and relationship building. Even unintentionally religious values and language may be used by the
same leaders both to justify violence and exclusion, and to oﬀer an ethical and spiritual critique of
violence and the depersonalisation of the other. The relation between the state and the Buddhist
sangha is confused and controversial. Some local monks interviewed lamented the decline of the moral
authority of the Sangha in peacebuilding. Others believed that monastics are principally charged with
guarding their own tradition and its privileges, or that monks should not be involved in political,
religious or social activism. Buddhist religious leaders are often reluctant to criticise militant monks
like Ashin Wirathu,
and may perceive multireligious co-operation and advocacy as diluting and
relativizing the national cultural heritage. Even non-partisan engagement can be misunderstood.
In Meiktila, Buddhist monastics felt constrained to avoid interfaith events after a local newspaper
published a picture showing them sitting as equals among leaders from other religious communities.
This created a wave of popular protest, particularly on social media—from then on, Buddhist monks
either sat apart or did not attend.
International projects versus local contexts.
RfP is action driven, and the project-based approach
to complex change, the urgency of the timescale and short-term funding meant that sometimes
the instrumental need to satisfy donors took precedence over the goal of producing self-sustaining
communities of religious activists and the construction of a free civil society. This became particularly
apparent when key staﬀresigned and there was an interim before new (excellent) staﬀwere recruited.
There was then great pressure to complete the backlog of required activities before the project’s
closing deadline. Activities were often generic or shaped by RfP’s international policies. For example,
tree planting, a popular activity, ﬁtted in with RfP-I’s global advocacy to reduce climate change.
RfP councils’ suggestions for activities of fundamental concern to local communities frequently fell
outside the project’s funding criteria; they included interfaith peace education in schools and colleges,
multireligious co-operatives, support for orphanages, HIV/AIDS help centres, out of school children,
campaigns against women and drug traﬃcking and support for the elderly.
8. National Impact
One of the main goals of the project was to strengthen the national faith-based organisation
(FBO) and to enhance its national proﬁle. There was strong media coverage of the concluding
conference in Yangon in 2018 which shared lessons learnt and good practice. It not only attracted
RfP’s international, national and regional religious/civic leaders and stakeholders but government
oﬃcials, intergovernmental bodies, diplomats, civil society organizations, human rights activists and
(Grant 2004, p. 272)) argues similarly that in the Irish context, these sets of meaning are often blurred, confused or even at
odds, and the slippage between them gives rise to a kaleidoscopic variety of nuanced meanings.
The leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar who is accused of inciting riots and of using racism and rumours to
Religions 2020,11, 121 12 of 19
religious communities. And while the authors presented a careful overview of the main research
ﬁndings, the project’s success was also celebrated through personal narratives, music, poetry and the
sharing of food.28
Religions for Peace-M began to engage politically at the national level, informed by its regional
initiatives and supported by its international connections. A Letter to the Peoples of Myanmar:
Multi-religious Vision of Peace and Development was drawn up by an RfP-M delegation convened
in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw between 22 and 25 May 2018. This open letter presents a vision of peace
based upon Myanmar’s great religious traditions and a vision of development built upon the notion
of human dignity, human rights and shared well-being. It calls for an international conference with
the participation of concerned States, United Nations, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other relevant actors to address
the critical humanitarian issues facing Myanmar. On 25 May 2018, the Letter was delivered to Ang
San Suu Kyi. She welcomed the delegation and emphasised the critical role of religious leaders in
reminding their faithful of peace and loving kindness and leading them to action and working together.
She also praised the future steps planned for continuing dialogue and multireligious cooperation.
The RfP delegation then travelled to Sittwe and Maungdaw in the north of Rakhine State.
the NLD government has continued to deny access to Rakhine to international investigators, and
Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to contextualise the violence in Rakhine state as a civil war between
the Burmese military and armed militia groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the
delegates were able to see from the air hundreds of burned and destroyed Muslim villages and to
listen to ﬁrst-hand accounts of mass murder and rape perpetrated by Myanmar’s military. They urged
the Union Government to take full responsibilities for a thorough and transparent investigation into
multiple crimes perpetrated in Rakhine State, and encouraged a process to establish facts, restore rights
of victims, and support social and political change.31
The inaugural RfP Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and Peace in Myanmar took
place in Nay Pyi Taw, on 21–22 November 2018, bringing together representatives of the Myanmar
government, the military, parliamentarians from ruling and opposition parties, UN agencies, ASEAN,
ICRC, international NGOs, national NGOs, religious leaders, and experts. It was intended to create
“open space” for all sectors in Myanmar— ‘to earnestly seek together a common path for peace.’
In the opening ceremony, Aung San Suu Kyi praised the role of Myanmar’s religious communities
in convening the Forum, and said that ‘placing emphasis on interfaith dialogue as a path to peace
underscores the vital and indispensable role that the religious leaders play in shaping a peaceful
The Forum called for an immediate cessation of hostilities nationwide, urged the government
to seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation of atrocities and
human rights violations and supported a planned voluntary and safe return of veriﬁed refugees from
Bangladesh with proper protection and accompaniment by international agencies such as UNHCR, the
UN Refugee Agency. RfP-M also strengthened its collaborative eﬀorts not only with the international
body but other RfP aﬃliates. In particular, it liaised with RfP Bangladesh to provide humanitarian
assistance to Rohingya Muslim and Hindu refugees.
The popular Burmese reggae singer Saw Pho Khwar sang peace songs, while moving stories of brave activists were told to
loud applause. Stories like that of Ma Hto Hto Mar who ﬂed her home during the violence in Meiktila in 2013 and lived in an
IDP camp for two years. On leaving the camp, she joined RfP-M’s Meiktila WoFN and became involved in intercommunal
initiatives to rebuild relationships between Muslims and Buddhists. She was the ﬁrst Buddhist woman to ﬁght against Ma
Ba Ta on behalf of a Muslim family.
https://rfp.org/religions-for-peace- multi-religious-delegation-meets-with- daw-aung-san-suu-kyi-to-deliver-the-letter-
Areas where ARSA attacks in August 2017 had triggered massive operations by security personnel on Muslim communities.
(Religions for Peace 2018). Press Release: Religions for Peace Multi-religious Delegation’s Visit to Rakhine State. Available
online: https://rfp.org/press-release-religions-for-peace-%E2%80%8B- multi-religious-delegations-visit-to- rakhine-state/.
(accessed on 5 June 2018).
32 https://rfp.org/press-release-religions-for-peace-advisory- forum-provides-open-space.
Religions 2020,11, 121 13 of 19
9. Cultural Imperialism, Multiple Frameworks and the World Religions Paradigm
Questions of cultural privilege and political power arise whenever faith-based organisations
work transculturally. In the introduction, we hypothesised that in some contexts multireligious
peacebuilding is less at risk than monofaith organisations of proselytism, Eurocentrism, technocentrism
and historical connections with colonialism and imperialism. However, questions remain about how
far multireligious theories and practices undermine, resist, or supplement the hegemonic domination
of certain forms of thought, understanding, and practice. RfP adopts a world religions paradigm
in which the integrity of each religion is taken for granted. This paradigm, originally designed to
emancipate the study of religion from its Christian conﬁnes, has been enthusiastically adopted in
public discourse globally. However, its critics argue that such a perspective is an expression of modern
Western hegemony which imposes a particular understanding of religion upon very diverse traditions
(Gregg and Scholeﬁeld 2015;Owen 2011;Masuzawa 2005); Orsi 1997,2002.
Others maintain that
such a perspective does conceptual violence to the nature of cultural worlds where a creedal or
institutional aﬃliation to only one tradition is not the norm. The concept of ‘religion’ is then shaped by
Christian expectations regarding religion, namely, creedal aﬃrmation, sacred-secular contrast, and
exclusive membership (Sharma 2011). This homogenises and essentialises religions and neglects the
uncomfortable facts that most religious traditions have complex and contradictory histories and have
at times been associated with institutions of oppression rather than peaceful co-existence, with their
leaders provoking as well as resolving conﬂicts.
Despite such critiques, the world religions model remains an established way for many faith-based
peacebuilders in increasingly plural and globalised societies to communicate, and while RfP public
statements may essentialise religion away from its lived reality, they also function to inspire and
encourage pluralist and humane visions of society and to create a new generation of reconciling leaders
from diverse and dynamic backgrounds. During the project, we observed that, at all levels, religious
leaders were routinely negotiating their way in the context of the embodied, relational, everyday lives of
actors and communities, mindful that their main task was to keep alive and functioning the networks of
relationships which create the goodwill, consent and voluntary participation of religious communities.
At the local level, staﬀadopted coping strategies of non-partisan religious engagement, emphasising
the project’s humanitarian and civic beneﬁts. Whilst from a sociological or anthropological perspective,
‘religions’ are far more ﬂuid, internally contested and mutually shaping than RfP’s global statements
suggest, the dynamic tensions between RfP’s global understandings and value commitments and its
focus on local autonomy and empowerment prepare people to be resilient in the face of change. They
can open up a range of opportunities for creativity and freedom that enable RfP to work towards
greater eﬀectiveness as a peacebuilding organisation (Schwarz 2018, p. 169).
10. Multireligious Peacebuilding, Justice and Human Rights
Any multireligious liberal approach focused on interreligious action and dialogue alone becomes
complicit with power if it ignores extreme forms of violence, exclusion, and suﬀering, or fails to get
to grips with the underlying problems of the broader conﬂicts—conﬂicts between state and central
government, and between and within, ethnic ‘nationalities’ and religious groups (see also Omer 2015;
Frewer 2017). Many international reports have highlighted the gross human rights violations in
Myanmar and the need to strengthen accountability mechanisms, particularly as regards the military,
Cotter and Robertson (2016); McGuire (2008); Ammerman (2007); Orsi (1997,2003); Hall (1997) question top–down authority
and prioritise the everyday, relational, embodied and living nature of religion as a category and of the identity construction
of religious actors and religious communities. Masuzawa (2005) argues that European Universalism has been preserved in
the language of pluralism. (Orsi 2003, p. 172)) sums up much contemporary thinking, ‘Religion is always religion-in-action,
religion in-relationships between people, between the ways the world is, and the way people imagine or want it to be.’
Religions 2020,11, 121 14 of 19
and to address racial and ethnic discrimination.
RfP-M is well placed to combat intolerance and
discrimination based on religion and ethnicity and to explore how religion relates to political, cultural
and structural forms of violence. However, local issues of injustice, violation of human rights and
long-term violence were confronted by RfP national leaders very cautiously given the sensitivities and
dangers involved. Field monitors had neither the training nor the inﬂuence to address or challenge
longstanding injustice. Yet the case studies’ ﬁndings were encouraging. They suggest that it is only by
attending carefully to the interpretations of all stakeholders that peacebuilding can begin to address
the fundamental structural and political issues that give rise to conﬂict, and which may necessitate
a systemic transformation of relationships in the region’s political, economic and social policies and
ethos. Therefore, if sustainable peace and coexistence in Myanmar is to be advanced, arguments for
religious pluralism must be complemented by a series of political, economic, and legal reforms to
address underlying insecurities and long-standing inequalities between communities.
It is tempting to argue that conﬂicts in Myanmar cannot be transformed without solving the
deep-rooted structural factors that drive violence such as poverty, discriminatory governance, lack of
education and employment. Yet Taylor (2015) remarks, ‘What Myanmar needs is less ethnicized
politics and more bottom-up integrative approaches towards the multiethnic complexity of the country.’
By working in local contexts and providing opportunities and incentives for civic peacebuilding, the
project encouraged communities concerned above all with their own economic, social, educational,
and political issues to engage together in active citizenship for the common good. Interrelational,
interpersonal multireligious projects commit participants to seeing that ‘the other’ has moral standing,
and that ‘the other’ is in fact one of ‘us.’ They can provide safe, welcoming, ungendered spaces in
which experiences of power and exclusion can gradually be healed and support collaborative notions
of citizenship that transcend diﬀerences of nationality, gender, ethnicity and religion.
11. A Multireligious, ‘Secular’ and Values-led Model of Transcultural Peacebuilding
The project provided interesting material for one of the central questions in religious peacebuilding
today—the extent to which faith-based initiatives conform with, contradict and extend conventional
‘liberal peace’ wisdom. Many scholars and practitioners dealing with peacebuilding, development
and humanitarian aid speak of a ‘turn’ to the ‘local’, the religious and the elicitive, a move which
makes the liberal approach appear short term, top down and insensitive to local interpretations
Within the religious peacebuilding discipline, this has often translated into a
radical polarization of the secular liberal peace and religious justpeace (Philpott 2012). Our research
in Myanmar and elsewhere has led us to question this religious–secular dichotomy and analytical
n 2009;Clarke 2008). In this project, RfP
members worked to empower local ownership and participation but were also able to escalate problems
to the national and even global stage, utilising three forms of capital: local capital, religious capital
(institutional resources), and spiritual capital (ethical, theological, scriptural and spiritual values).
However, RfP values are also aligned with so-called enlightenment or liberal principles based on
an international order of rational, democratic, secular, free market and human rights abiding states.
RfP normative statements on religion, its links with the UN and employment of professional staﬀ,
training, guides and methodologies compares well to the professionalized work of secular CSOs.
At the international and national levels, the organisation cooperates with the UN, and governments
and partners in civil society on global challenges such as war and peace, sustainable development,
35 See (Philpott 2012;Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013;Mac Ginty 2018).
The General Secretary was at this time an advisor to several governments on matters related to religion and peace.
Religions 2020,11, 121 15 of 19
climate change, extreme poverty and interfaith dialogue. Critics might regard this multireligious
approach as simply an extension of the liberal peace. We found that, in practice, it seems to foster
civic consciousness by integrating the values, expertise and global reach of religious traditions with
the secular human rights agenda which guarantees equal treatment under the law, and supports
democracy, justice, universal education, environmentalism and gender equality.
While Religions for Peace’s model of peacebuilding may be hybridic, its core membership is
composed of religious activists from diverse religious and spiritual traditions who come together to
seek ways in which harmony and peace can be established, and suﬀering and loss healed. Although
this article is limited to a restricted examination of one organisation, our tentative and provisional
conclusion is that multireligious peacebuilding has distinctive characteristics which in certain contexts
support negotiation, reconciliation and resilience, and that facilitative transnational approaches to
peacebuilding and development can be energising and productive compared to top–down advisory
approaches or projects which take violent extremism as a central framework (Abu-Nimer 2003).
However, the challenges are immense. Multireligious peacebuilding in armed conﬂict involves an
attempt to build inclusive, resilient relationships at the local level, model non-violent debate on
sensitive ethnic and religious issues and forms of collaborative humanitarian values which can be
ﬁrmly embedded within local culture. Multireligious organisations must manage religious diversity,
particularly in countries where religion or ethnicity are among the drivers of conﬂict. They must
consider questions of appropriate forms of religious representation, and how far the spiritual resources
of each religion should be used in the process of peacebuilding. In civil wars or military controlled
states, its ethics often come into stark contrast with the pragmatic realities on the ground.
Nevertheless, the multireligious, international and multilevel nature of the project examined
here contributed to its success in inspiring confidence in people still subject to stringent military and
government control. It not only facilitated close engagement with key religious actors, but enabled funding,
support and resources tobe transferred across cultural and national boundaries. Such collaboration opens
many doors. Peacebuilding, which includes all sides of the conflict, supports the research requirement
not only to understand the uniqueness and multidimensionality of each conflict, but also the wider
webs of meaning in which it is enmeshed and the complexity of the cultural, religious, ethnic, economic
and historical layers of significance surrounding each. At times of heightened tension interreligious
peacebuilding may strengthen democratic culture by cultivating a dialogue of reasoned ethical challenge.
Multifaith peacebuilding as a structured, accountable attempt to connect and sustain groups of
people in creative, empowering and inspiring ways, has the potential to cut through and challenge
communal complexities and destructive interrelationships. A broader variety of social interactions is
more likely to create civic awareness and friendship than theological dialogue alone. The physical
practice of shared action, whether humanitarian in order to beneﬁt the community, or intercultural
in order to better understand the other, increases resilience and is productive of attitudinal change
over time. Multireligious organisations are less likely to be accused of evangelism, and enable
communities often deﬁned by religious and ethnic identities to come to together in solidarity on a
common platform of civic wellbeing and peacebuilding. The fact that local people then plan and
manage public humanitarian and religious activities may engage the suspicions of local Government,
police and army oﬃcials but is far less threatening than direct political action. Interfaith meetings
also increase religious literacy, introduce shared terms and concepts, and present an opportunity for
positive religious values like compassion, non-violence, forgiveness and hospitality to drive action.
The project was relatively small scale, yet it fulﬁlled its aim of strengthening peacebuilding
capacity at the local level and contributing to RfP-M’s political impact in national reconciliation and
peacebuilding initiatives. By building networks between the national and regional centres, the ﬂow of
information, training and communication acted to bring the inﬂuence of international and national
leaders to the regions and vice versa. These networks allowed participants to realise that they have an
Religions 2020,11, 121 16 of 19
active and reﬂexive role in shaping, negotiating and changing their own beliefs and practices. It is partly
the carefully gathered information on regional peacebuilding and conﬂict that allows Religions for
Peace Myanmar to engage as a critical partner in the national peace process, to collaborate with political
leaders and to present a liberal and progressive agenda based on preventing cycles of conﬂict, ensuring
the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities, supporting women’s leadership in promoting
peace, and empowering the younger generations.
The sustainability of this model of peacebuilding
is shown by the continuing presence of the regional councils and the national organisation’s success in
gaining funding to extend the project elsewhere.
In the national context, in Myanmar, RfP-M enables
discussion of how religions are utilised for ideological and political ends and provides a platform for
progressive leaders to support each other in confronting and challenging injustice and oppression.
Multireligious peacebuilding is therefore an approach which can oﬀer people a vision of a future
beyond the violent conﬂict in which they are caught up. Participants in the project expressed this as a
new way of seeing things, a change of heart and a renewal of hope.
Both A.S.K. and M.O. contributed to the writing of this article. The ﬁrst draft was written by
A.S.K. and received critical comment by M.O. Conceptualization, A.S.K.; methodology, A.S.K. and M.O.; software,
A.S.K. and M.O.; validation, A.S.K. and M.O.; formal analysis, A.S.K.; investigation, A.S.K. and M.O.; resources,
A.S.K. and M.O.; data curation, A.S.K. and M.O.; writing—original draft preparation, A.S.K.; writing—review
and editing, A.S.K. and M.O.; visualization, A.S.K.; supervision, A.S.K. and M.O.; project administration, A.S.K.
and M.O.; funding acquisition, A.S.K. and M.O. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of
Some data were collected as part of the evaluation of the Religions for Peace Project, ‘Multi-Religious
Networks Promoting Religious Diversity and Tolerance,’ a peacebuilding initiative funded by the US Government
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The authors received payment for the assessments carried out
for Religions for Peace International, but not for their own research.
Conﬂicts of Interest:
Anna S. King and Mark Owen declare a possible conﬂict of interests in that they supported
Religions for Peace’s peacebuilding project in Myanmar and acted as external evaluators. However, the funders
had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the
manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results. Owen is the Secretary General of the European Council of
Religious Leaders, a Religions for Peace aﬃliate in Europe. The work contributing to this article was undertaken in
his professional capacity as Director of the Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester,
and was as far as possible an objective and fair assessment of the project’s achievements measured against
pre-determined indicators and outcomes.
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Press of Florida.
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