examines social and political transition in
The tentative re-emergence of civil society networks within and between ethnic nationality/ minority communities over the past decade is one of the most significant - but under-examined - aspects of the social and political situation in Myanmar. ‘Development from below’, and efforts to build local democracy from the ‘bottom-up’, using local capacities and social capital, are underway in government-controlled areas, and in some ethnic nationality-populated ceasefire and war zones (including insurgent-controlled areas), as well as in neighbouring countries. However, the sector is still under-developed, and changes coming from civil society will be gradual, and need to be supported.
This article examines the strategic
challenges facing ethnic nationalist leaders and communities at this key
Ashley South is
an independent consultant and analyst, specialising in ethnic politics,
displacement and humanitarian issues in
Despite appearances to the contrary, the outlook for political
The past year has seen a flurry of political activity in and on the country, including the government’s ‘road-map’ to democracy (see below). However, the openings for change that have emerged are quite limited. Given the oppositions’ lack of leverage, and the ineffectiveness of sanctions, the military junta will probably continue to determine the course of events. Strategies for democratisation have generally responded to the regime’s initiatives in one of two ways: either by seeking some room for manoeuvre within government-controlled forums (such as current National Convention), or by boycotting these - and reinforcing a polarisation of Myanmar politics which began in the 1960s, and has served the entrenched military government better than it has the increasingly marginalised opposition forces.
Opposition groups have focused on elite-level regime change, and the
need to install a more accountable government in
This notion ignores the role of civil society - which will be essential to any process of sustained democratisation. While change at the national level - whether revolutionary or gradual - is urgently required, sustained democratic transition can only be achieved if accompanied by local participation.
In the current political climate, with only limited options available
for national-level transition, re-emergent civil society networks represent an
important vehicle for long-term, ‘bottom-up’ democratisation in
Although Myanmar-watchers (particularly overseas-based activists) often
assume that there is no civil society in the country, this far from true. The
tentative re-emergence of civil society networks within and between ethnic
nationality communities has been one of the most significant - but under-examined
- aspects of the social and political situation in
This article argues that a combination of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’
strategies for democratisation are necessary, but that neither is sufficient.
It examines the strategic challenges facing political leaders and communities,
and particularly the ethnic nationalities, who constitute 30-40 % of the
population. It also addresses the role that foreign aid can play in supporting
the re-emergence of civil society in
The promotion of civil society in
Unless otherwise indicated, data comes from the
author’s research in
Few would deny
the urgent need for change in
There are three potential parties to political transition in
Since its refusal to recognise the results of the May 1990 general
election, the military government has resisted all options but a managed (by
the military) transition to some type of ‘disciplined’ or ‘guided’ (by the military)
democracy. On 30th August 2003 Myanmar’s newly-appointed prime
minister (and Military Intelligence chief), General Khin Nyunt, announced the
resumption of a National Convention to draft a new constitution - part of a
seven-stage ‘road map to democracy’.
(The original NC was convened in 1993, and suspended in 1996). The military government was clearly
positioning itself to control a transitional process, the success and
legitimacy of which depends on who participates in the NC, under what
conditions. Endorsed by
after much back-room plotting and brinkmanship, the prospects of the
government-controlled NC producing significant change currently seem quite
limited. Three days before the NC re-opened, on
most of the 1,076 delegates to the NC have been hand-picked by the government,
they include over one hundred representatives from armed ethnic nationality
groups, which have ceasefires with
With both the SPDC and NLD sticking to their principles, it might appear
to some observers that the urban-based (predominantly Burman) political elites
are not really trying to find solutions to
The stakes are high, and some analysts suggest that Khin Nyunt (the ‘good cop’) has been set-up to fail - while protecting Senior General Than Shwe (the ‘bad cop’ and junta chairman) from the need to reform. However, Khin Nyunt is clever and ambitious, mindful of his place in history - and therefore motivated to make his road-map work. In this, he may gain some support from army officers who oppose Than Shwe’s increasingly personalised style of rule, and diversion of resources from the military to the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA - a mass movement established in September 1993 under the SPDC Chairman’s patronage). Nevertheless, Than Shwe still calls the shots, and has seemingly suppressed open discussion of key issues within the NC.
The third set
of political actors in
Many ethnic nationality cadres are wary of the NLD
leadership, which is largely composed of ex-Myanmar Army officers, who share a
common political culture and conceptions of state-society relations based on a
strong, centralised state. However, most ethnic leaders have trusted Daw Aung
San Suu Kyi to demand their inclusion in any negotiations which may come out of
bipartite talks in
Following a half-century of (mostly)
low-intensity civil war, ethnic minority-populated areas of
The possibility of expanded participation in the National Convention created an opportunity to re-present the importance of the ‘ethnic question’ in Myanmar, and the roles the ethnic nationalities might play in breaking the political deadlock, and beginning to address the urgent humanitarian situation. To capitalise on this limited opportunity, the different ethnic nationalist blocs would have to agree on basic strategy, and develop common positions on the main issues to be included in tri-partite negotiations.
The ethnic nationalist community is composed of three elements:
1. The United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), representing sixty-five ethnic nationality candidates elected in 1990, which has always worked closely with the NLD;
2. Some twenty armed ethnic organisations
which have agreed ceasefires with
3. Those insurgent groups still at war with the government, most of which are members of the National Democratic Front (the NDF, established in 1976, several members of which have ceasefire agreements). Although the insurgents remain politically and symbolically important, their military strength has declined significantly in recent years.
The Ceasefire Movement: 1989-2004
The history of
insurgency and political failure in
Although much recent political science
literature has focused on the ‘opportunity motives’ for insurgency,
Until 1989, the Myanmar Army had been
fighting two inter-connected civil wars - one against the ethnic nationalist
insurgents and another against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). With the
collapse of the latter in early 1989,
The nature of the ceasefire agreements are not uniform, although in all cases the ex-insurgents have retained their arms, and still control sometimes extensive blocks of territory (in recognition of the military situation on the ground). The ceasefires are not peace treaties, and generally lack all but the most rudimentary accommodation of the ex-insurgents’ political and developmental demands. In some quarters, these agreements have been dismissed as benefiting vested interests in the military regime and insurgent hierarchies. However, they also represent opportunities to work towards the rehabilitation of deeply troubled communities.
However, ceasefires do not guarantee sustainable peace and development. Major displacements of civilian populations have occurred after ceasefires were agreed between the government and armed ethnic groups in Kachin (1994) and Mon (1995) States. Although armed conflict-induced displacement came to an end in these areas, families and communities continue to loose their land and become displaced, as a result of increased natural resource extraction (logging, and jade and gold mining) and infrastructure development. Another cause of post-ceasefire displacement is increased militarisation (despite the cessation of armed conflict) and the Myanmar Army’s expansion into previously contested areas.
A potentially significant
development occurred in December 2003, when the Karen National Union (KNU), the
last major insurgent group in
It is however, an open secret that the KNU is being pushed by the Thai
government into a hasty agreement with
The apparent end to armed conflict in
In their talks with the government, KNU negotiators have emphasised the
extent of the displacement crisis in
Any attempts to assist displaced Karen villagers must take account of
the on-going problems experienced by conflict-affected populations in other parts
There is a fairly high degree of coherence between the policies of the UNA parties and the rump NDF. More problematic are the positions of various ceasefire groups. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and New Mon State Party (NMSP) have taken the lead among a group six politically engaged ceasefire groups, most of which are ex-NDF members. The NMSP in particular plays an important role, with a foot in all three camps of the ethnic nationality community: it is the closest of the ceasefire groups to the rump NDF, and also enjoys good relations with the UNA leadership.
However, the positions of a number of ex-CPB and other
militias in northern
However, since late 2003 the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other northern Shan State ceasefire groups have adopted positions similar to the KIO-NMSP camp - i.e. that the ‘sixth objective’ of the NC, which guarantees “military participation in the future state” is unacceptable, and that amendments are necessary to some of the 104 articles of the proposed constitution, agreed between 1993-96.
Despite the military government’s longstanding policies of ‘divide and rule’ vis-à-vis the ethnic nationalities, in mid-2004 they seemed more united that at any time in recent years. However, it was still far from unclear whether their concerns would be addressed by the NC. Indeed, on May 11th the ceasefire groups were informed that their demands would not be met by the government. It seemed therefore that the National Convention would not be open to genuine political debate or social comment.
The issue of
federalism illustrates the gulf between the government and ethnic nationality
representatives. Although this is anathema to the generals in
Given the competing/ complementary ‘constructive engagement’ policies of ASEAN and China, and the limited impact of US, UN and EU fulminations against the SPDC, it is difficult to see how pressure can be brought to bear on Yangon, beyond indirect support for the ‘progressive’ Khin Nyunt faction. Furthermore, the opposition - and the ethnic nationalities in particular - have limited leverage vis-à-vis the government. Given its past record and recent pronouncements, it is therefore quite likely that the SPDC will refuse to discuss issues such as federalism and power-sharing, or even sensitive areas like human and group rights.
Remaining for a moment at the level of inter-elite negotiations, it is
worth considering whether -
in the event of continued deadlock - social
welfare and humanitarian issues could be used to facilitate processes of
dialogue, and eventually social and political transition. In addressing
subjects like displacement (refugees and Internally Displaced Persons),
education or HIV/AIDS in the first stage of any ‘confidence-building’ process,
stake-holders might be brought into needs
analysis, planning, implementation and monitoring-evaluation activities, which
could be used to foster models of collaboration. Cooperation in the
humanitarian sector might later be expanded, and developed into broader, more
explicitly political discussions of state-society and centre-periphery
relations. A focus on IDPs in particular,
would help to ensure ethnic nationality participation in such processes, as most of
For humanitarian issues to become vehicles for transformative dialogue and peace-building would require careful preparation, including consultation with affected communities, and local and international agencies. This is one example of how elite-level ‘blue-print’-style approaches - based on a policy of ‘coherence’ - can be complemented by more participatory approaches, which involve and empower a wider range of actors. Given the government’s lack of incentive to engage in dialogue, civil society-based ‘development from below’ approaches may be considered valuable in their own right, as well being as an alternative means to gradual democratisation.
Civil Society: a Vehicle for Democratisation
In this article, the term ‘civil society’ is derived from de Tocqueville, and denotes voluntary associations and networks which are intermediate between the state and the family. These include a broad range of community-based organisations (CBOs), media and social welfare organisations, as well as religious and cultural groups (traditional and modern), and more overtly political organisations. However, political parties seeking to assume state power are not part of civil society - although they may promote or inhibit its development.
Functioning civil society networks are essential
for sustained, ‘bottom-up’ social
and political transition in
Popular participation and
civil society networks are necessary,
whether change in
Myanmar Army ideologues have long viewed their task as the defence of a centralised, unitary state, which emerged from the struggle for independence. The military has sought to impose a model of state-society relations, in which the (ethnic minority) periphery was dominated by a strong (Burman-orientated) centre. As pluralism was suppressed, it was replaced with a state-sponsored nationalism. The process of ‘Burmanisation’ saw diverse (and according to the military, divisive) minority cultures, histories and aspirations subsumed under a homogenising ‘national’ identity, derived from the Burman historical tradition.
In the 1960s, as the state extended its control over previously autonomous aspects of social life, civil society networks could no longer operate independently. Opposition to the regime was either eliminated, driven underground, or forced into open revolt. The existence of renewed armed opposition to the military government provided a pretext for the further extension of state control, and suppression of diverse social groups deemed antipathetic to the modernizing state-socialist project.
Since 1988, state-society relations have been further centralised, and social control reinforced by the indoctrination of civil servants, reformation of local militias, and creation of new mass organisations, like the USDA. Beyond this highly circumscribed sector, the operation of independent political parties, such as the NLD and UNA, has been severely restricted, as have freedoms of expression and association, and access to information and independent media. Nevertheless, elements of civil society have survived, and are beginning to re-emerge.
Overseas-based activists and Myanmar-watchers sometimes assume that
there is no civil society in the country. This is far from true. Extensive civil society networks, building
on local capacities and social capital, exist
in and between the ceasefire and warzones of
Although, especially since 1988, most insurgent groups have claimed to
be fighting for democracy in
However, in recent years, civil society
networks have begun to expand in non-government controlled areas. As their
ex-cold war patrons,
In a parallel development, the refugee and other relief and welfare
organisations along the
A particularly dynamic sub-sector was composed of local relief and
development groups which continued to work cross-border, with displaced
For example, there is a network of some 400 Karen village schools inside
Like the new refugee-based organisations, IDP assistance groups have developed relatively independently of their ‘parent’ insurgent organisations - although they still rely on the latter for security, and share most of the same broad ethno-nationalist goals. In demonstrating transparency and accountability to donors and beneficiaries (their local communities), these civil society networks have emerged as important models of social mobilisation.
Ceasefire and Government-Controlled Areas
The tentative re-emergence of civil
society networks among and between local communities in
Villagers in many ceasefire and adjacent areas continue to have their rights abused by the Myanmar Army (and local militias). However, the ceasefire process has generally resulted in a decrease in the most extreme and arbitrary types of violence associated with the armed conflict, while increasing opportunities for travel and trade.
The ceasefires are not peace treaties, and generally lack all but the most rudimentary accommodation of the ex-insurgents’ political and developmental demands. Furthermore, ethnic nationalist cadres are generally more familiar with the ‘top-down’ approaches used in military and political campaigns, than with ‘bottom-up’ development and conflict resolution methods. As elsewhere in the country, local initiatives are frequently undermined by poor governance, parallel exploitative practices, and a lack of strategic planning and implementation capacities. Nevertheless, the ceasefires have created some opportunities for the reconstruction of war-torn communities.
Patterns of development - and stagnation - are mixed. Over the past ten
years, extensive community networks within the clan-based Kachin
society have re-emerged in the space created by the relatively stable Kachin ceasefires. Meanwhile, further to the South, since
the 1995 NMSP-SLORC ceasefire, the Mon Women’s Organisation (MWO) has succeeded
in extending its community development, income generation and adult literacy
activities beyond the NMSP-controlled zones, to Mon communities across lower
Like the KIO and other armed ethnic groups, the NMSP administers
education and health systems,
, which rely on community support. Despite some serious setbacks, during the 2002-03
school year the party managed to run 187 Mon National Schools and 186 ‘mixed’
schools (shared with the state system), attended by more than 50,000 pupils, 70%
of whom live in government-controlled areas. (Strictly speaking, as it is
implemented by the NMSP Education Department, this is a para-state
- or local authority - system, rather than a civil society initiative.)
Although the NMSP and other ceasefire groups have provided the
political and military ‘space’ within which civil society may re-emerge, the
key players over the past decade have often been members of religious and
social welfare networks. Many of these were established in the 1950s, only to be
suppressed after 1962. In recent years, the Karen,
Mon, PaO, Shan and other Literature and Culture
Committees have been among the few specifically ethnic organisations tolerated
by the government. As the state education system has deteriorated, such groups
have pioneered alternative community education approaches,
in 2003 about
the Summer Mon Literature and Buddhist Teachings Trainings across
The motivation for such local initiatives is usually welfare- or development-oriented, rather than explicitly political. Whatever their individual views, the initiators of ‘development from below’ are primarily religious or community workers.
have been allowed to register legally with the authorities , both
of which have been established
since the KIO ceasefire. The Shalom
Foundation was founded in 2001 by the Reverend Saboi Jum, a key figure in the ceasefire process. It employs 12
full-time staff, and works on mediation and conflict resolution issues,
building capacity in these key sectors.
established in 1998,
Metta Development Foundation’s budget
200 2 was $ 230,000,
and by 2003 the foundation had 13
full-time staff and a rapidly-expanding donor base.
Although its importance to the broader scale of development initiatives in
However, Metta Director Daw Seng Raw, has complained that:
“many ethnic groups feel extremely
disappointed that in general foreign governments are not responding to the
progress of these ceasefire or indeed even understand their significance or
context. Rather, it seems that certain sectors of the international community
have the fixed idea that none of the country’s deep problems, including ethnic
minority issues, can be addressed until there is an over-arching political
solution based upon developments in
New organisations like Metta
and Shalom are not countrywide institutions or membership groups, but often act
as facilitators and innovators for longer-established associations. In many
cases these are religious bodies - among the few non-government controlled institutions allowed to exist in
The Anglican, Baptist, Catholic and other churches in
Although emergent civil society networks in
However, Buddhist and other traditional networks tend to be localised, and cantered on individual monks, who may not conceptualise or present their aims in a manner readily intelligible to western agencies. Such non-formal approaches are therefore often ‘invisible’ to western (and western-trained) staff.
In June 2001 the heads of mission of eight UN agencies in
International humanitarian agencies have developed
a language of partnership with affected communities, and generally try to
elicit local participation in their programs (as codified for the
emergency sector in the SPHERE Project, initiated in 1997). On the
Meanwhile, a number of Myanmar-specific NGOs and donors have been rather
uncritical in sustaining organisations and individuals within the
International agencies based in
Unlike most UN agencies, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) engages directly with ceasefire groups. In partnership with the government and UWSA, the UNODC has built schools, dams and other facilities in the Wa sub-state, and has had some success in reducing opium cultivation in Kokang and UWSA-controlled areas. However, according to a recent assessment, “community development concepts … sometimes conflicted with the top-down (Wa) Authority approach. When efforts were made to involve the villagers … the Authority felt threatened.” Although the UNODC has responded to UWSA calls for more infrastructure and agricultural assistance, efforts to promote community development and the emergence of CBOs have been largely unsuccessful. However, the UN has recently negotiated an agreement with the UWSA, under which community-based development methods will be tolerated by the Wa authorities.
Another area where the UN may address humanitarian needs, while
developing the roles and capacities of local civil society, is HIV/AIDS programing. International
Like the UN agencies, most INGOs
, and are able to do
exceptional work to alleviate sufferinge.g. SCF-UK,
World Concern and World Vision)implement a broad range
of programs in
border areas , and engag e with
both local communities and national-level issues. While many international agencies would like to
develop deeper partnerships with civil society groups in
Limited coordination between
INGOs replicating indigenous NGO programs, ,undermining
local initiative in the process. For example, in 2003
at the jade mining centre of Hpakant (
As noted above, INGOs should endeavour to employ local staff in decision-making positions - but this can create problems. As has been the case along the Thailand border, international agencies in Myanmar have sometimes recruited staff from CBOs and local NGOs, contributing towards a 'brain drain' of individuals away from indigenous to international organisations, which offer higher salaries and more opportunities for skills development.
Only one Yangon-based INGO
works exclusively though local partners. It receives project proposals
or four from CBOs and local NGOs a week, of these which
often demonstrate a lack of strategic planning. In an effort to address such
concerns, many national INGO staff - and some from local NGOs - have received
training at specialised institutes outside
Although the role of foreign aid is
limited, it can contribute towards the creation of an enabling environment,
strengthening local efforts to achieve peace and development. It is vital that
donors and international agencies entering
Donors should not just concentrate on a narrow set of professionalised (western) NGOs. Rather, by fostering the development of local NGOs and civil society, a ‘nexus’ between development and democracy may gradually emerge.
Conflict resolution must go beyond the necessary first stage of
ceasefire negotiation. Given that displacement may not come to an end with the
cessation of armed conflict, any negotiated settlement to
Many of the problems faced in armed
conflict-affected areas are common across
International organisations do not
have direct access to most armed conflict-affected zones in
In the meantime, local NGOs operating on both sides of the ‘front line’
are implementing important humanitarian and community development projects, in
areas of current or recent armed conflict, such as
Local, national and (to a very limited degree) international
organisations did helped to re-settle IDPs and
refugees, and reconstruct displaced communities, in the Kachin
Critics of a civil society-based approach to democratisation in
However, local NGOs and CBOs have limited capacities, and it is important to re-state that most are focussed on welfare initiatives (including - but usually implicitly - social change), rather than political goals. Many (especially non-Christian) local associations are unfamiliar with the rational-bureaucratic frameworks employed by donors, which may lead to non-formal CBOs ‘falling beneath the radar’ of international observers. Furthermore, the civil society sector is not immune to rivalries, opportunism, ‘rent-seeking’ or corruption.
substantial constraint on the growth of civil society in
empower civil society and support ‘bottom-up’ democratisation in
Having it Both Ways: Towards a Hybrid Strategy
The re-emergence of civil society networks is not in itself sufficient to bring about national-level political transition. This will require concerted, explicitly political actions by political elites. In the meantime, civil society networks can prepare the way for democratic participation, and are worthy of support in their own right - regardless of national-level politics.
In the current political climate, with
only limited options available for national-level transition, re-emergent civil
society networks represent an important vehicle for long-term, ‘bottom-up’
The voluntary sector in
Different actors can play different roles, based on a shared vision of a
 Although some opposition activists may
wish it so,
 This process would recall the historic Panglong Agreement of February 1947, under which leaders of some ethnic nationalities agreed to join the future Union of Burma.
 See International Crisis Group,
 See Ashley South, Mon Nationalism and
Civil War in
 Ibid. pp. 293-99.
 UNHCR already works with these government-organised NGOs in its programmes with repatriated Rohingya refugees in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
 These are reflected in a Roadmap for Rebuilding
the Union of Burma, announced in
 The Standpoint of the
Cease-fire Groups in Relation to the National Convention (
 In Burma Centre
 South (2003), Chapter 20.
 In Robert Taylor (ed), Burma: Political Economy Under Military Rule (Hurst 2001), pp. 161-62.
 UN Office of the Resident Coordinator (
 UNDP Governing Council decision no. 92/21 (June 1993).
 Joint Kokang-Wa Humanitarian Needs Assessment Team (2003; unpublished report).
 As Ottaway
and Carothers note, “professionalized NGOs … have, or
can be trained to have, the administrative capabilities donors need for their
own bureaucratic requirements. They can produce grant proposals (usually in
English) … and all the other documents donors ask of beneficiaries. In
contrast, many … especially informal
associations, social movements,
and other types of social networks, are not set up to be
administratively responsive to donor needs.” However, donor support in “the
areas of public health, population control, agriculture, poverty reduction, and
small business development – through NGOs in the recipient countries … clearly
have effects on the development of civil society in those countries…. According
to this argument, all NGOs promote participation, and thus empowerment, and
this is the basis on which democracy is built”: Marina Ottaway
and Thomas Carothers (eds), Funding Virtue: Civil
Society Aid and Democracy Promotion (