By: Seng Mai Aung – Institute for Global Engagement, Myanmar – firstname.lastname@example.org
Myanmar’s Challenges on Citizenship
Many nations in the world, especially countries that have diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds struggle with citizenship issues and are greatly divided by differences rather than embracing them. Myanmar is one of those nations that is still struggling with citizenship issues and its treatment of the situation has discouraged many neighboring and international communities. The discussions and suggestions in this essay will be focused mainly on lessons learned from the Myanmar Institute of Theology’s Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies Program (now known as Liberal Arts Program) in Yangon, Myanmar. In this essay, suggestions to consider solutions to citizenship issues with religious education and global citizenship education in the context of Myanmar will be discussed.
GCED from UNESCO-Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding
It is observed that many United Nations institutions such as UNESCO-APCEIU in Seoul are trying with their utmost efforts to provide training for educators across Asia-Pacific and Africa to educate their students to be more open-minded. Such organizations are well aware the need to nurture global citizens who will be solving global issues and in order to be able to do so, students/young leaders must learn not to just merely tolerate differences but embrace and accept the diversity to appreciate and understand the uniqueness of individuals and communities. The concept of Global Citizenship Education (GCED) according to UNESCO (2017) is that it is “a framing paradigm which encapsulates how education develops the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes learners need for securing a world which is more just, peaceful, tolerate, inclusive, secure and sustainable. It represents a conceptual shift in that it recognizes the relevance of education in understanding and resolving global issues in their social, political, cultural, economic and environmental dimensions.” In a country like Myanmar, with prejudice between different ethnic groups and religions, it is observed that GCED could be a tool that could enable learners to be more accepting of differences and to reduce prejudice among them. Educators from different ethnic and religious backgrounds should be closely working with United Nations institutions to receive training to better equip responsible individuals to nurture a more open-minded generation that will be ready to lead in a more than ever interconnected globe.
Religions’ role in today’s global problems
Today, we are in an era where religious problems become the focal point more than ever before. In the past, nations around the world tried to resolve political, economic and social issues with careful strategies and collaborations between nations that were involved or affected by those issues. Many countries in Southeast Asia have witnessed how religious issues have the ability to quickly destroy the image of “peaceful country” like Myanmar once was.
GCED is important, but GCED alone will not be enough when trying to solve global issues related to religious conflicts and problems. The efforts made to globalize the world through GCED can be easily broken and the world can be quickly divided as the world has experienced in the recent decades. A country like Myanmar where religion is deeply connected with the culture, ethnicity and identity of the people, religion can permanently damage the trusting relationship the people from different background have. Since the 2012 incident in Rakhine State, the country’s majority religion, “peaceful Buddhism”, is now perceived as a violent and oppressive one. It is proof that one incident can drag the whole nation’s image down and destroy the image of a religion. Therefore, Myanmar’s religious leaders feel the need to start working to build understanding among different religions. The incident made many people realize that now is the time to educate people to understand the essence of their religions to prevent further damage from religious conflicts across the country. Thus, community leaders started working closely with religious leaders to educate people to be more open-minded and understanding of different religions as well as one’s own religious teachings. Many organizations such as Institute for Global Engagement also provides people from leadership level and policy makers to grassroots leaders and religious leaders with Religion and Rule of Law trainings across Myanmar to address the religious issues in the country. Collaborations among participants from Religion and Rule of Law trainings (provided by the Institute for Global Engagement) who are from different backgrounds and religions help to prevent religious conflicts and encourage participants and their communities to continue peacebuilding in the country. Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement (2012) believes that if religion is part of the problem, it should be part of the solution.
Lessons learned from Religious Education at the Myanmar Institute of Theology
In Myanmar, one of the most successful programs that prepares young leaders to face this religious issue in the country is the Myanmar Institute of Theology’s (MIT) Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies Program (now known as Liberal Arts Program). The institute is located in Insein Township in Yangon and is well known as a graduate school of theology for protestant Christians. In the year 2000, the principal of MIT, Dr. Anna May Say Pa started an undergraduate program called “Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies Program” to provide young people in Myanmar with a higher education that encourages them to become responsible citizens who will bring positive and sustainable change to the society in Myanmar. The program is designed to challenge young people’s ability to think critically in issues happening around them and in all the subjects they are taught in classes.
The four year program provides curriculum that encourage young people to be well aware of what is happening around them and how they can contribute to bring about positive change in their community. The most unique subject in their curriculum is “world religions” and students are required to study it in their first year of university. The subject challenges the students to think outside of their religious teachings and to understand more of other religions around them and across the world. The class especially enables students to understand and appreciate different values that other religions have and then helps them to respect people who are coming from different backgrounds. The program is now considered one of the most prestigious in the country and is continuing to improve. The curriculum continues to better nurture liberal minded young people to be ready to face the challenges the country has as a nation and as part of the fast changing globe.
GCED and Religious Education in a religious based Higher Institution
Coming back to PPIM-CONVEY-UNDP Indonesia’s efforts of bringing experts and practitioners across Southeast Asia to discuss how to better religious education for countering terrorism, there are a few suggestions to share based on the lessons learned from UNESCO-APCEIU and MIT. First is to include GCED education in classes or the concept of GCED in classroom settings. With the experience UNESCO-APCEIU has working with educators in the past two decades, teachers and educators will be able to learn methods and pedagogies to nurture young learners to be more open-minded and to appreciate differences and diversity when teaching basic subjects that students learn in any classrooms.
Another suggestion is to connect GCED with religious education in classroom settings. For example, encouraging students to understand the concept of human rights with what one’s religious teaching say about human rights and respecting others, may help students embrace diversity and encourage students to be more responsible citizens in their own nations. In this matter, educators from different religious institutions across Southeast Asia and beyond should collaborate more in the future to share their best practices, curriculum, and pedagogy in teaching students to understand the value of their religion in a secular world. This should help the students accept and understand different values other religions have and how those values are integrated in their culture and help to connect people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. In order to prevent tensions and conflicts motivated by small-mindedness, false teachings and misinterpretation of religious teachings, it takes the whole village. Collaboration among educators and different religious based institutions is essential and their role in nurturing global citizens who will be ready to come up with solutions to global problems should be taken seriously. Thus, countering extremism is a long process that needs a long term effort, commitment, careful planning, and thoughtful collaborations among institutions across nations.
Toh, S. H, Shaw, G., Padilla, D. (2017). Global Citizenship Education: A Guide for Policy Makers, Publisher UNESCO-APCEIU
Seiple, C. (2012). Building Religious Freedom: A Theory of Change. The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 10(3), 97-102.