We all need to be peacemakers, says Myanmar politician

Catholic statesman Mahn Johnny calls for unified national effort for sake of future generations
We all need to be peacemakers, says Myanmar politician

Mahn Johnny, an ethnic Karen and Catholic Chief Minister of Irrawaddy Division at a cartoon exhibition during the 21st Century Panglong conference in Naypyidaw on Sept. 2. (ucanews.com photo)

Catholic statesman Mahn Johnny believes Myanmar now has a rare opportunity to end six decades of internal conflict.

"It is not enough to just talk peace, we all need to be peacemakers," said Mahn Johnny, Chief Minister of the Irrawaddy Division.

Mahn Johnny is one of three Christians appointed by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party as regional chief ministers in the predominately Buddhist country.

The 75-year-old ethnic Karen politician stressed all people in Myanmar, regardless of race or religion, need to work hard together for the development of the country.

Ethnic civil wars in Myanmar's resource-rich regions have occurred ever since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. There are four separate conflicts currently being waged in the Southeast Asian nation.

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"We need unity to build peace; it must be our legacy for future generations and we must avoid the ego-centric traps of race and religion and make a pilgrimage of peace," Mahn Johnny said, speaking in the country's capital Naypyidaw.

"Working together despite differences is a great strength and all stakeholders must build up peace through mutual understanding and respect beyond just signing the agreement on papers," said the father of five.

Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has prioritized peace and recently convened the 21st Century Panglong Conference to begin a process aimed at ending decades of internal conflict.

Mahn Johnny said that the government clearly values "diversity and reconciliation" by inviting the ethnic groups to talks. "I am proud to be a Catholic and serve as chief minister and will set a good example by standing up for justice and helping the needs of the people," said the veteran politician.

Mahn Johnny started his political journey after joining a student strike in 1962 and the student-led 1988 uprising against General Ne Win's rule. He won the parliamentary seat for Kyonepyaw Township in last November's general election.

He had served as a Lower House lawmaker after winning a seat in a 2012 by-election and claimed he won a victory in the election of 1990, the results of which were nullified by the then military regime.

Mahn Johnny is among a handful of core NLD members who won contested elections in 1990, 2012 and 2015. For two years, he was also a member of Suu Kyi's security detail at her Yangon's residence when she was under house arrest.

Inspired by the Bible story of the Good Samaritan, Mahn Johnny jumped to help people affected by the 1993 flood without waiting for permission from local authorities. "The next day, I was arrested and charged with defaming local officials. But I was proud of what I did and I didn't break any rules," he said.

It wasn't the first time his political activism got him in trouble. In his 27 years as a politician and activist he has experienced oppression — including five stints in prison — while his family were discriminated against.

His wife, who worked as a teacher at a government school, was forced to transfer to a far-flung area of Shan State from the Irrawaddy Division in 2002. "That was not a justified decision and it was part of [a campaign] to put pressure on my family," Mahn Johnny said.

"I can't bear it when someone or a group is suffering injustice which is why I always fight against that," he added.  

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