Humans are always looking for a model —sometimes consciously, usually unconsciously. In conflict situations, it is easy to fall into narratives of violent heroism and the alluring simplicity of good versus bad. I recently spoke with a scholar and activist in the Balkans who lamented that there are two museums dedicated to war in her country, one using sensory immersion to introduce a new generation to the fear of others that led to war. “Where,” she asks, “is the museum of peace” that tells the stories of those whose quiet acts pushed against dehumanization of the other? Where are the records of these powerful stories of peace?
How can such powerful stories be heard and amplified? This is the work of unRival.
UnRival’s fundamental posture is one of listening and learning. We do not go about our work by theorizing solutions to the world’s problems. Instead, we connect, accompany, and amplify the work of those who are building lasting peace in their communities, trying to discern patterns within their successes. Over the past few weeks, we have spoken with peacebuilders and nonviolent activists around the world. Some are reflecting on conflicts in the past, discerning the often unheralded peace efforts that made a difference. Others are engaged in the very real conflicts of the present, doing the quick-footed work that these ever-evolving crises require.
Our team speaks daily with people who are fundamentally disquiet with the status quo. There’s a deep pessimism at work: things are badly broken, and getting worse. Inequity, social divisions, concentrations of wealth, environmental degradation, and corruption are epidemic. Religion is too often aligning with the problems rather than the solutions, undermining the value of faith in the process. Everyone—left and right—seeks to accumulate enough power to push back on those they disagree with. These political tensions are ripping at social fabrics all around the globe.
Yet amidst the profound and realistic pessimism lies a profound hope. We see this hope among activists against gender-based violence in Congo, or those quietly undermining LGBTQ discrimination in East Africa, and in those pushing against narratives sustaining ethnic civil war in Ethiopia. We see it in Latin Americans, both Catholic and Protestant, who see the alignment of their churches with oppressive powers and challenge those connections, relentlessly and hopefully. These folks all believe that the world can be a better place, and they all see that the problem somehow lies in how we see the other — the failure to see those who differ from us as human, and that the other is as mighty and as fragile as we are.
These stories of peace, rather than the narratives of war, are worthy of imitation.
The timeliness and importance of this work is on full display in recent events in Myanmar. I’ve been fortunate to spend time in this Southeast Asian nation three times over the past decade and have seen, in a limited way, the nation’s slow emergence from hermetic military dictatorship. Ethnic conflict was a central strategy to dictatorship, as the armed forces told the population (especially the majority Burmese population) that only they could protect from the chaos of conflicts with ethnic minorities in various parts of the country. These conflicts have raged for decades, cutting off possibilities for young people and driving immigration to the United States and elsewhere. At its heart, the dictatorship weaponized fear of the other, as do many other leaders around the world.
The slow and brittle emergence of democracy and openness to the world since 2016 has transformed Myanmar, especially its major cities. It has encouraged me to see young, educated professionals hopeful about opportunities within their nation, rather than abroad. I have been even more excited to see these young people often working across ethnic lines for broader social good. The military coup in early February 2021 threw all of that into question.
The opposition to the coup has been stronger than the military and many others expected. Protests have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, and many have joined people across ethnic lines. The protests in Myanmar follow a familiar map of nonviolent protest, one that is chronicled by Erica Chenoweth, who demonstrates that for decades, non-violence has been far more successful than violent revolution:
Among the 565 campaigns that have both begun and ended over the past 120 years, about 51 percent of the nonviolent campaigns have succeeded outright, while only about 26 percent of the violent ones have. Nonviolent resistance thus outperforms violence by a 2-to-1 margin… Moreover, in countries where civil-resistance campaigns took place, chances of democratic consolidation, periods of relative postconflict stability, and various quality-of-life indicators were higher after the conflict than in the countries that experienced civil war.
In a recent piece in Waging Nonviolence, Maria J. Stephan looks at both the hope and the perils of the nonviolent movements in Myanmar, while at the same time being honest about the allure of armed violence to those resisting the military coup. The possibility of anti-coup violence joining the contagion of long-simmering ethnic conflict in the country was further discussed in a recent article in the New York Times.
Stephan argues that the road ahead is going to be a long one, with considerable setbacks and suffering. She encourages the movement, however, with assurance that the path of nonviolence is more likely to succeed and create a sustainable peace:
On average, major nonviolent campaigns against dictatorial regimes have taken three years to run their course. Violent campaigns, by comparison, have lasted an average of nine years. The idea that picking up arms will hasten the pathway to victory is not born out by research. As difficult as it might be, particularly at a time when security forces are using live fire against unarmed protesters, Burmese pro-democracy organizers should prepare mentally, strategically, organizationally and tactically to wage a sustained campaign of civil resistance against the junta.
What is happening in Myanmar resonates deeply with what we at unRival hear from our partners and friends in places like Colombia, Guatemala, Ukraine, Bosnia, Uganda, and South Africa. From them, we learn that the work of building lasting peace is grueling, lonely, and often thankless.
UnRival exists to build meaningful connections among those doing this work of peacebuilding and nonviolence. We are seeking the best ways to accompany them in their work and amplify their successes by telling their stories. We are moving slowly. We are listening carefully. We believe that it is better that we go slow and go together with unheralded peacebuilders around the globe. And yet we are, like them, hopeful. We see so many stories of lasting change and peace and look forward to seeing these movements connect, flourish, and lead to deeper change.