CSOs Urge Thein Sein to Open Up Political Space in Burma

By Zarni Mann 2 December 2013

RANGOON — Activists from several civil society organizations in Burma blasted President Thein Sein over the weekend, accusing the reformist leader and governments all the way down to the township level of failing to grant them political space to affect change.

At the invitation of Thein Sein, the activists sat down with the president on Saturday to air their grievances—namely, that a lack of freedom of expression, transparency and rule of law were hampering their ability to work with the government as Burma moves toward democratic governance after more than 50 years of oppressive military rule.

“The peace demonstrations, and in talking to the media, we are indirectly working toward peace and stability in the country. If the government understands freedom of expression and looks on the positive side, there will be no misunderstanding,” said Kyaw Thu from the Paung Ku consortium, after his organization and several others met Thein Sein in Rangoon.

Civil society leaders on Saturday were allowed to publicly explain their organizations’ missions to the president and express the difficulties they still faced despite more than two-and-a-half years of democratic reforms under Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government. Activists and lawyers working on environmental issues, education, women’s empowerment, humanitarian assistance, and labor and land rights, were present at the event.

Describing the government as oftentimes antagonistic, activists pointed out the recent penalties handed down to two activists who helped organize an International Day of Peace march last year in Rangoon. Last week, Kachin Peace Network coordinators Maran Jaw Gun and May Sabe Phyu were fined 20,000 kyats ($US20) each for leading the unauthorized protest, and the pair face more charges for the same Peaceful Assembly Law violation in four other Rangoon townships.

The ethnic Kachin activists are just the latest example among scores of similar cases brought by prosecutors against activists protesting issues ranging from land rights to ethnic conflict to electricity rates.

“Peace does not only apply to armed forces,” Kyaw Thu told The Irrawaddy. “When we talk about foreign or local investments, many citizens fear that their lands will be confiscated or their homes will be moved forcibly and they will get nothing from those investing projects. Peace and stability in those project areas is being threatened by economic development.”

Thein Sein said in a speech to the civil society groups that he understood the importance of their role in the development and stability of Burma. The president said he welcomed the civil society organizations’ input, but warned against an overly argumentative approach.

“Because the country is at a very fragile state, please do not use the way of confrontation when we work together. Please use discussion and negotiation, rather than opposing each other,” Thein Sein said in a 15-minute speech. “We will work toward our shared ambitions and will negotiate on the divergent issues.”

The activists said that despite Thein Sein’s conciliatory words, a systemically repressive attitude by authorities ran deep in Burma.

“We are facing many difficulties down to the state, division and township levels,” said Arkar Bo, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. “The opportunity to work together with the government is only happening in a few areas in Rangoon and Mandalay.”

May Sabai Phyu, a women’s rights activist from the Gender Equality Network, also lamented the difficulties her organization faced, such as constantly struggling to obtain required permits and finding available venues for group gatherings.

“We would like to suggest the granting of permission without delay, free access to locations and the appointment of women to consult with the government, especially on women’s issues, in order to create effective cooperation,” she said.

Environmentalists at Saturday’s meeting also complained that a lack of transparency and cooperation from governmental departments had created a trust gap.

“We have to question whether the government will consider civil society organizations as enemies and control us or take us as friends with whom to work together,” said Myint Zaw, an environmentalist from EcoDev, reading out a speech from the group’s director.

“Although the president talked about cooperation, positive results are not forthcoming,” he added. “Now is the time to know whether the government really trusts civil society or not. There will be positive relations only if we can build an enabling environment.”

After representatives from 11 civil society groups presented their works and challenges, Thein Sein gave nearly 20 minutes of feedback to each organization. Thein Sein said he would consider the issues presented to him on Saturday, but gave no guarantee that action to address the groups’ grievances would be taken.