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Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society


Around the world, much hope has been placed in the prospect that civil society – the loose groupings of non-government actors in political processes – would act as a major force to change or remove undemocratic governments. This has particularly been the case in Myanmar where there has been an expectation that students or monks might force the military government from power. This has not been realised; indeed civil society is at its weakest state in decades.

When Burma was under democratic government from 1948 to 1962, a vibrant civil society existed in urban areas although paramilitary organisations and local politicians tended to repress dissenting views and independent organisations in rural areas. Since General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, however, successive regimes have sought to stamp out civil society and permit only state-controlled organisations that further the regime’s interests.

Civil society re-emerged during the nation-wide pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, with an explosion of student organisations, political parties, and independent media. After the military retook control in September of that year, however, it clamped down on most independent organisations, although it allowed political parties to form. Following the 1990 election, the results of which it did not honour, the regime declared most political parties illegal. Nevertheless, the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, and some ethnic minority political parties have struggled to restore democracy.

The military regime continues to restrain civil society in Myanmar severely today. Because the generals rule by decree and judges are under the influence of the authorities, legal challenges are virtually impossible. While individuals can complain about economic woes, they cannot publicly criticise the military, suggest that the NLD should be in power, or advocate federalism.

The generals maintain tight control over the media and are extremely reluctant to expand access to communication technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, because of their potential use in anti-government activities. The regime seeks to isolate and demoralise those who would speak out for political change by extending its intelligence network into all the institutions where frustrated individuals could organise and by imposing long prison sentences for even minor actions.

Certain students, monks, and writers have taken great personal risks to promote the restoration of democracy, but they have not been able to galvanise a mass movement since 1988. International NGOs and some local organisations have worked to start small-scale projects addressing local problems, but they must stay clear of politics. Many educated people have left the country rather than live under such constraints.

Today Myanmar is entangled in two political struggles: the restoration of democracy and the resolution of ethnic minority rights. To what extent can civil society play a role in solving these conflicts? Aung San Suu Kyi strongly promotes the idea that everyone must take part in the democracy struggle, but because of the harsh repression, most people leave it to the NLD leadership to resolve the political crisis itself. Yet because civil society is weak, and so many members have resigned under pressure, the NLD’s bargaining power is reduced.

At the same time, few independents in central Myanmar have thought seriously about ethnic minority political demands and how a process of understanding and cooperation between majority Burmans and minority groups can be achieved. While the NLD has reached out to the ethnic minority political parties, the regime has sought to limit such contact by imprisoning elected MPs from those parties and the NLD.

Because Myanmar has been under military rule for so long, few people today understand the role that civil society is meant to play in a democracy or that a healthy democracy requires broad-mindedness and a dispersion of power. Thus, even organisations outside the regime’s direct control tend to replicate the hierarchical organisational structures and lack of tolerance for dissent which characterise state-controlled organisations. Low levels of education and cultural factors mean many ordinary people in Myanmar lack confidence in their ability to effect change.

For all these reasons, civil society has had an extremely limited share in the political process in Myanmar in recent years. That said, independent organisations would surely proliferate if the space emerged for them to do so. With more openness, organisations would also be likely to expand the scope of their activities and develop more dynamic organisational structures.

Foreign radio broadcasts are currently one of the few sources of uncensored information but the domestic media would be likely to play a particularly significant role in a political transition. Independent journalism has a long tradition in Myanmar, and journalists and writers could serve both as watchdogs and educators while citizens come to terms with an altered political arena. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that a sensationalist media and organisations promoting narrow nationalism could emerge to disrupt the difficult process of resolving the country’s deep political crises.

The military regime’s resistance to devolution of power to the ethnic states and its determination to unify the country’s diverse population through cultural and religious assimilation have deepened the mistrust between many minority groups and Burmans. Turning Myanmar into a pluralist society in which power is decentralised and differences are respected is a challenging and long-term process.

However, more could be done to support this process and to develop the key civil society organisations that will be essential if any negotiated political transition is to be durable. With this in mind, expanded external support is needed to promote civil society in Myanmar, including in the areas controlled by ethnic opposition groups. New entry points for such international support do exist, especially in cooperation with Myanmar’s Asian neighbours.

Should the SPDC and the NLD reach an agreement on future political structures, they will both need to reassure their supporters about this deal. The SPDC will have to get the full backing of the military, which will be fearful that a deal could result in instability. The NLD will have to prepare its supporters for the compromise over the military’s political involvement that will be necessary for a deal.

Civil society organisations will be important in creating the backing for any solution, and in consolidating the democratisation process once it begins, but are not likely to be crucial players in achieving a momentum for change.

Bangkok/Brussels 6 December 2001

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