Books

One Country, Many Voices: Jostling for a New Burma

By Dr. Reshmi Banerjee 19 December 2016

Constructing Civil Society in Myanmar: Struggles for Local Change and Global Recognition by Maaike Matelski, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2016.

Social activism and innovative initiatives by local activists in Myanmar have been gaining recognition recently. However, it has not always been easy to assess or evaluate the role or credibility of civil society in representing the population and in bringing socio-political change.

The country under its two repressive military regimes (from 1962 to 2010) witnessed turbulent times marked by the lack of democratic political structures and non-recognition of the rights of ethnic minority groups, displacement and forced labor, ecological exploitation, suppression of civil rights (especially women’s rights) and violent use of the coercive apparatus of the state in putting down opposition.

In this environment of fear and uncertainty, non-state actors continued to organize themselves both within and outside the country (in exile). The ethnic ceasefires in the 1990s, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the elections in 2010 further increased international interest in Myanmar’s civil society organizations.

Maaike Matelski showcases in her book the influence that the political liberalization process exerted on the functioning of civil society organizations in Myanmar. Her in-depth interviews and skilled observation provides an insight into the strengths and limitations of the three important actors in Myanmar: the government, the democracy movement and foreign donors.

Fault Lines

This book interestingly not only looks at the everyday activities and practices of civil society and the agency exercized by intermediary actors (connecting local communities with foreign supporters) but also the images and portrayals of civil society that received international attention. Field work conducted by the author during the political transitional period (between 2010 and 2012) asks the crucial question of how agendas have been framed by civil society actors and to what extent they have been impacted by foreign supporters.

The book delves into complex social networks comprising of multiple stakeholders with socio-political goals. The author also analyzes the trans-national activities of civil society from a local perspective, thus giving priority to local realities over foreign perspectives.

The book looks at various interesting aspects: the fault lines that create tension in Burmese society, the sowing of the idea of civil society under western influences, the extent of operational space allowed to civil society actors under restrictive military conditions, the benefits from the political transition process, the framing of the situation by civil society actors (inside and outside the country) for an international audience and civil society reaction to foreign donor policies with maneuvers arising out of the lack of adequate financial assistance.

Before Colonialism

Maaike Matelski begins the book’s narrative from the pre-colonial period when personalized political power was complemented by an active Buddhist Sangha at the village level, and informal civil society functioned in the form of community organizations led by the village headmen.

British colonial rule replaced the traditional institutions with a bureaucratic administration, foreign army, western capitalist conceptions of law and economic rationality, repression and politicized violence along ethnic lines.

The author stresses the religious and political movements that emerged in response to British colonialism with political elites, Buddhist monks and student activists constantly challenging power-holders during the colonial and later military rule. Thus the colonial period saw the practice of ‘satuditha’ (associations created to collect food for the poor and provide Buddhist social services), establishment of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, the rise of Wunthanu Athins and ‘tats’ (volunteer corps) in a Burmese society, mobilized under the garb of nationalism. The ethnic minorities were also forming their own groups to promote their socio-cultural and political interests.

The author takes us through the different phases of associational life in the country after independence, starting with the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) period when Prime Minister U Nu encouraged the formation of social and business associations and labor, peasant, youth and women organizations were started.

However, one witnesses the blurring of lines between political organizations and independent civil society. The first period of military rule (from 1962 to 1988) adversely impacted both the economy and the civil society, evident from the rise in inflation, rice prices, poverty and the passing of the controversial 1982 Citizenship Act.

Under the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), labor unions were dismantled and restrictions were imposed on the press and the Buddhist Sangha. The YMCA and YWCA were allowed to exist (they were seen as non-political) and there was an absence of peasant revolts and rebellions. This period saw the simultaneous birth of the Lanzin Youth Organization (expected to report on suspicious activities) along with the rise in student activism, where the latter made use of the western media (BBC and Voice of America) and foreign supporters.

The second period of military rule (under the SLORC/SPDC era – 1988 to 2010) further aggravated this trend of ‘dismantling the dynamism’ of civil society: arrests of many dissidents were accompanied by the use of informal networks to share views with a critical role for the ‘exile media’ organizations like The Irrawaddy, Mizzima and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

Although civil society was united in its opposition towards the military government and its repressive tactics, it did not enjoy a united identity nor did it have common socio-political goals. Many fled abroad where they used trans-national advocacy strategies to get international support.

The 1990s saw the rise of many international NGOs seeking local partners to bring changes in public health, education, and humanitarian aid and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 further expanded the scope and spirit of community participation.

The author takes us through changing times brought about by the 2010 elections and the Thein Sein government; a phase which was marked by positive action like re-engagement with the western countries, the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project and the ending of pre-publication media censorship. However, it also saw the slow functioning of the National Human Rights Commission and violent communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.

The author brings out the multiple fault lines along which various civil society organizations have been classified in Myanmar. These are of ethnicity and religion, generation and gender, government organized (GONGOs) and independent NGOs, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ Myanmar, and elites and grassroots.

These divisions have the potential to create inefficiency and in-fighting, thus converting civil society into a ‘site of contestation’. The role of Buddhism in contemporary associational life has been subject to debate with a thin distinction existing between religious and secular organizations. Buddhist monks have been active and have been further politicized (since the Saffron Revolution in 2007). They have involved themselves in both political uprisings and humanitarian work with their moral position in society garnering them attention.

Similar to religion, ethnicity is another marker around which civil society groups are organizing themselves (especially in the ethnic minority states). Tensions exist not only between various ethnic and religious minority groups but also amongst homogenous groups. The country also seems to be divided by generations (the ‘88 generation’, the ‘96 generation’, the ‘post Nargis generation’) with young civil society actors not only talking about their differences with the older generation but also charting out their own unique group identity.

Women too have continued to struggle for equal rights and have competed not only with men but also with older women (who question the younger generation’s move away from traditional norms). Government-led social welfare organizations have competed with independent organizations over differences in ideology, strategy and knowledge.

Often the need to bring ‘change from below’ has been challenged with non-governmental organizations (which operate beyond the local level) being charged with the negative labels of elitism and power cum financial seekers.

The author also discusses a wide range of capacity building training programs (set up with the support of international actors), each focusing on specific areas like community development, environmental activism and foreign advocacy. These training programs have also been subjected to criticism as they are often seen as creating skills for the donors rather than the local communities.

Grassroots and Brain Drains

Challenges remain: the continuous ambiguity regarding who constitutes the ‘grassroots’ along with the lack of clarity in determining an organization’s membership and support base. Moreover the ‘brain drain’ wherein personnel are attracted to international organizations with better working conditions and profitable opportunities plagues community-based organizations at the local level. Dividing time between local activities and advocacy trips abroad poses a challenge.

Moreover civil society actors have to constantly operate in a social terrain where their right to political participation and judicial remedy can be constantly denied. Thus, the skills of social navigation and the use of humor become relevant to express criticism. Clientelism and building of trust by ethnic minorities with cross-border activist groups also assumes importance. The registration process for civil society organizations is neither fast nor transparent, with religious institutions (Buddhist monasteries and church based organizations) often providing ‘alternative safe spaces’ for various activities.

Maaike Matelski also discusses the multiple frames that are created in order to garner maximum support from a cross-section of society, like the ‘injustice frames’ or the ‘return to democracy frames’ or the ‘alternative rights frames’ (indigenous rights or women’s rights). The author discusses the perennial conflict between foreign, outside, academic and Burman voices versus the native, inside, activist and ethnic minority voices.

Moreover the availability of financial support for civil society has been limited, forcing many organizations to turn to western donors for assistance and capacity building. The impact of it has however been between fostering an independent civil society and creating new forms of dependency.

The book goes into the changing donor landscape with local restrictions, fear of politics and poverty – all playing their part in limiting the opportunities for contributing towards public causes. Various challenges have impacted development assistance such as politicization, tensions within ethnic groups, violence towards western aid workers, inter-group and inter-organizational divisions. The trickle down–effect of foreign investment is yet to be fully analyzed and the problems of building trust and coordination among CSOs, political parties, army and the government sector remain unresolved.

The author does a commendable job in chalking out the difficult journey of civil society in the transitional period by applying a ‘context specific’ approach to research. Her analysis shows the manner in which social welfare organizations have strategically adapted their activities to suit the changing circumstances in the country. The book also importantly discusses the ‘processes of contestation’ when it comes to defining the ‘true’ representative of civil society.

While some felt under-represented, others took this as a golden opportunity to voice their concerns (even improve their socio-economic position) by connecting with the international movements/foreign supporters. Also the pitfalls of imposing western models without factoring in local knowledge are highlighted and emphasis is laid on strengthening local capacities and consultation mechanisms.

Unfolding Trends

The book comes out at an interesting time when one is witnessing two simultaneous trends unfolding in Myanmar: Firstly, multiple civil society players are constantly jostling to create their own unique space within the country as well as negotiating with forces outside. Secondly, the country has seen the passing of laws which have imposed restrictions on civil society like the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law of 2011 and the Race and Religion Laws of 2015.

Thus the critical relevance of civil society needs to be strongly reiterated. Maaike Matelski’s book addresses both the above issues well by successfully combining the country’s unsteady political narrative with its steadfast social chronicle – a resilient civil society which has endured all odds to survive, reconstruct and redefine itself for promoting bottom-up change.

Raising issues on relevant concerns that deal with people’s daily experiences (rather than overt participatory political action) is rightly considered by the author to be an important hallmark of the presence of civil society. Societal change need not always come through violent and revolutionary ways. Pragmatic and consistent efforts by civil society actors can create durable ‘pathways of progress.’

This article originally appeared on the website of Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar/

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