Myanmar: Civil society too weak to effect change
BANGKOK/BRUSSELS, 6 December 2001: A new ICG report published today, Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, examines the extent to which organisations independent of government can influence the country’s two key political struggles: the restoration of democracy and the resolution of ethnic minority rights. It analyses the role of political parties, students, religious groups, intellectuals and artists, media, business associations, trade unions and NGOs.
The findings are gloomy. Civil society in Myanmar is at its weakest state in decades. ICG President Gareth Evans said: “The military regime has worked systematically to prevent these groups from emerging and those that it tolerates are tightly controlled, repressed or coopted. Civil society as it exists today in Myanmar appears to offer very little threat to the regime and therefore holds out little prospect of playing a big role in fostering eventual democratisation.”
Because of harsh repression, most people leave it to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to resolve the political crisis. However with weak civil society backing, it has little leverage. At the same time few independents in the centre of Myanmar have thought seriously about the demands of ethnic minorities, even though they make up 30 per cent of the population and many groups have been waging armed struggles for autonomy or independence for the best part of 40 years. Low levels of education and decades of military rule also means that even independent organisations tend to replicate the hierarchical structures and lack of tolerance for dissent which characterise the regime.
ICG Asia Program Director Robert Templer said: “Myanmar’s political parties and civil society organisations should encourage respect for diversity of opinions. Open minds and willingness to compromise must be redefined as positive attributes, not signs of weakness.”
Despite this discouraging picture, more can and should be done to support the expansion of civil society. The international community should not overlook independent groups in neighbouring Asian states in providing proxy aid. And if the regime’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the NLD reach an agreement on new political structures, civil society will play a vital role in gaining support for the deal. The military will need to be convinced that a political agreement will not bring instability – while NLD supporters will have to be persuaded to accept the inevitable political role of the military.
While civil society organisations will therefore be important in creating the backing for any solution, and in consolidating the democratisation process once it begins, they are not likely to be crucial players in achieving a momentum for change.