The Richardson Center is supporting local organizations to build bridges using story in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Peace is a sensitive word in Rakhine State where the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities are both negatively impacted by communal violence. In 2012, violent clashes erupted and changed many communities into divisive and difficult places to live. Hundreds of lives were lost, villages burned to the ground, people sent to IDP camps and communities lost the will to communicate with each other. Hostilities still remain between the two communities and physical and imagined walls still remain between them. The government is looking for solutions. Community organizations are looking for solutions. And the people who live there are looking for solutions. The barriers, however, seem insurmountable.

So when the Richardson Center asked what we could do to help, the options were limited. After talking to both communities about various projects we were working on in Myanmar, they thought a good step forward would be to use art to bridge communities. The Richardson Center has supported small community programs that promote storytelling and literacy in the country and who do incredible work to bring lessons of peace to children around the country. So, with a small budget, dedicated trainers and connections in the communities, we set off to build a bridge. It may be a small bridge but one that has impact on many young leaders who can hopefully change the discourse.

In 2016, the Richardson Center has so far supported two trainings in Rakhine State: one in a Rohingya IDP camp and one with young leaders from both communities. We worked with local organizations to recruit participants and arrange training rooms that would allow for lots of action.

The first training at an IDP camp focused on how to tell a story and why stories are important to preserve culture. It also provided a safe space to share feelings and discuss the need to have more tolerance. The goal of the training was to not transfer hate to the next generation and foster peace through stories. The impact of allowing free expression was very noticeable and will be a tool they can use in the future.

The second beautiful and powerful 3-day storytelling training involved 22 youth– 12 from the Muslim Rohingya community and 10 from the Buddhist Rakhine community in a majority Rohingya township. Before this training the Richardson Center sponsored a student from the local organization to come to Yangon for a 5-day storyteller training. The young woman then helped to organize and assist when the trainers came to her community. She will be an effective voice for her generation for years to come and she is committed to using storytelling as a way to talk about difficult issues and encourage people to express themselves in more constructive ways.

At first, the participants were reluctant to be active and open up but at the end of the first day they began to realize the benefits. They became more open to expression and showing feeling with physicality. After some basic acting skills training and use of movement for expression on the first day, the students created their own class story with the help of the trainers on the second day. The story they created together is a beautiful example of the power of art to transform. The class was then divided into mixed groups to create their own stories. They practiced performing the stories using the techniques they had learned the previous day and performed for each other in class. On the final day, the participants performed three plays in schools in the two communities. In addition to the participants, all the staff participated and they are excited to cascade the training in the future.

The trainers are experienced in this kind of training in conflict areas but this is the first time either had been in this type of setting. They were shocked by the palpable divisions in the community but they were also heartened by how they were accepted into both communities. They were moved to see how their storytelling resulted in a beautiful connection between the participants as well as between the communities and participants. Using storytelling as an educational tool in the community is a way to build relationships in a safe and effective way.

The participants are interested in having more storyteller trainings and the Richardson Center is exploring ways in which to continue to have an impact in the community in cooperation with local groups. Working in this area is complicated and will take more education to continue. While the first two trainings were very successful and appreciated by the community, many barriers exist. Mistrust is pervasive, fear is palpable and more bridges need to be built. We hope to continue building those bridges so the next generation will trust each other and fear is eliminated.