Former UNE student and now lecturer in Peace Studies Dr Johanna Garnett works with young activists from agrarian communities in Myanmar to develop sustainable and just community development programs. It has brought her face-to-face with the plight of neighbouring Rohingya, for whom peace will be hard-won.

“Young Buddhist farmers in Myanmar are taking advantage of the new political space as their country transitions to democracy after 60 years of authoritarian rule,” Johanna said. “Since 2013, I have been working with young activists on alternative development models. I first visited Rakhine State in 2014 as part of this work and learnt of the Rohingya. This ethnic group has lived primarily in Rakhine State for generations but have been denied citizenship and have experienced waves of persecution by the military government in Myanmar.

“The latest pogrom, in late 2017, has resulted in more than 700,000 refugees crossing the border into Bangladesh, where they are stateless, with little hope of repatriation. This is one of the largest refugee crises the world has ever witnessed, has elements of genocide and has been labelled ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the United Nations.”

As the humanitarian crisis has unfolded in this troubled region, Johanna has sought to draw attention to the suffering, as well as the unsustainable development she believes is at the heart of the conflict.

“It’s time the international community shifted its focus to how these refugees can be safely repatriated, and to consider the bigger forces at play,” Johanna said. “A number of infrastructure projects and exploitation of Rakhine State’s natural resource riches – namely oil and gas – deserve international scrutiny. While religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading causes for the persecution of the Rohingya, I believe that resources and geo-politics have played a significant role.

“All peoples have the right to life, liberty and security, and to be treated with respect and dignity. They should also have the right to adequate shelter, healthy food and fresh water, employment and education. Everyone has the right to live peacefully.”

Like the Buddhists they live alongside, the majority of Rohingya reside in villages and work as paddy (rice) farmers, fishermen and small businessmen/traders. “They have co-existed relatively peacefully for generations, but have a shared ‘enemy’ in unregulated industrialised forms of development, agri-business in particular,” Johanna said. “This is resulting in land grabbing and unfair distribution of wealth and local resources. My work with the young Buddhist farmers in Myanmar aims to develop educational and environmental programs that can address these issues and, in Rakhine State, possibly bring together young people with shared problems, cutting across ethnic and cultural differences.”

However, peace in the region demands something more. “It requires international understanding of structural issues and responses from economic and development organisations,” Johanna said. “Meanwhile, grassroots environmental peace-building offers possibilities for peace on earth and it is fantastic that young people in Myanmar are working towards this.”