Inside Story

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3662 words

Burma’s quiet reformers

13 June 2011

An independent and increasingly vibrant civil society movement is developing in Burma, writes our correspondent in Rangoon


Above: Volunteers perform for children at a monastery donation ceremony in Thanlyin, near Rangoon, during a visit organised by the Bayda Institute.
Photo: Christopher Davy

Above: Volunteers perform for children at a monastery donation ceremony in Thanlyin, near Rangoon, during a visit organised by the Bayda Institute.
Photo: Christopher Davy

I’M ALMOST at the top of a flight of dingy steps in a typical apartment building in Rangoon’s Tarmwe township. Strewn outside the door of the Bayda Institute are about forty pairs of well-worn sandals, or “slippers” as they are known here in Burma. Inside the small room about the same number of adults sits patiently, occasionally breaking into applause as a young man or woman steps forward to accept a certificate. The presenter calls out the names of the graduates and, invariably, their organisations: the Human Action Group, the Mingalar Foundation, the Kachin Women’s Action Group and others.

“To a society of conscience” is the institute’s slogan, and its emblem, mounted on the wall, is a photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi. Sitting directly under the photo is the vice-chairman of her National League for Democracy, former general U Tin Oo. “These young people are the future of our movement,” he tells me after all the students of the introductory course in social studies have received their certificates.

A guitar appears and everyone begins singing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a poignant moment; just hours earlier the leader of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, U Thein Sein, had been selected as Burma’s first post-military president following a widely criticised election that the National League for Democracy chose not to contest.

Dismissed by many in the West as a sham, this return to democracy has been carefully stage-managed, with the military retaining most of the power afforded to the new “democratic” institutions. But the political transition is taking place against a backdrop of subtle yet potentially significant changes in some sections of Burmese society.

A military regime renowned for its oppression has tacitly allowed an independent and increasingly vibrant civil society movement to develop. The most prominent members of this movement are small humanitarian organisations, often run by volunteers, many of which are beginning to link up with international donors keen to empower those working outside the government apparatus. In the process, small and airless urban apartments and classrooms like those at the Bayda Institute have become ground zero for a new phase in the struggle for meaningful political change.

The shift has partly resulted from a recognition that economic, governmental and societal changes will not emerge from national-level politics alone. The military regime and the National League for Democracy have essentially been engaged in a twenty-year standoff, with the latter seemingly unable to move on from the victory it achieved in the 1990 poll and the former unwilling to engage in dialogue.

International condemnation, travel bans, aid cuts and economic sanctions have only made the military – in power since 1962 – more determined to manage political change on its own terms. This leaves an impression of a Burmese populace lacking any ability to act as agents of change. Yet Burma, as the few people who visit would know, is no North Korea, and many opportunities exist to carve out space independent of the government.

“We’re tired of being represented in your newspapers as cowering in fear and barefoot, scrabbling in the mud. It’s just insulting,” says one activist quoted in a recent Asia Times Online article. The local founder of a small private school in Rangoon told me recently, “From the outside, it appears that you can’t do anything independently of the government. But that’s simply not true anymore.”

In the prevailing narrative, the only meaningful form of dissent is direct confrontation, usually in street protests like those in September 2007 when the military is thought to have killed as many as a hundred people. But if this thinking was ever accurate, it is certainly outdated now. The crackdown that followed has convinced many activists that a different approach is required to bring about change.

“The more we focus on the politics at the centre, the more we will reach for the easy condemnation or economic sanction and hope that somehow things will change,” wrote the historian and former UN official, Thant Myint-U, in The River of Lost Footsteps, his highly acclaimed 2006 history of Burma. “If change comes it will not be through the front door but through the back, as part of a changing economy and changing society.”

THE BAYDA Institute was set up late last year to provide young people with skills and political and historical knowledge. Its founder, thirty-seven-year-old Myo Yan Naung Thein, is passionate and politically minded and, like most of his peers, has spent considerable time in prison. Jailed for seven years after leading student protests in the mid 1990s, he spent a further two years behind bars following the September 2007 uprising.

It was after being released in September 2009 that he says he noticed cultural and behavioural change. “Much to my surprise, I found there were many CSOs” – civil society organisations – “operating here,” the smartly dressed activist says, his voice echoing off the bare walls of the Bayda Institute. “We could talk openly about politics, community mobilisation, civic education – things we couldn’t discuss openly two years ago.”

He contrasts this with his time as a student activist constantly under the surveillance of Military Intelligence, which was largely dismantled after a military purge in 2004. “There was no Egress then,” he says, referring to Myanmar Egress, perhaps the country’s most well-known training organisation. “No politics, no discussions, no photos of Aung San [independence leader and father of Aung San Suu Kyi]. We would whisper in groups of five or six, then we’d get a spark and fifty or sixty of us would protest.”

Just how and why these opportunities have arisen – and even whether they exist at all – is hotly debated. Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008 and caused unprecedented damage and loss of life, is often considered a pivotal moment. When the government was slow to help stricken communities in the Ayeyarwady delta region and to allow international relief workers into the country, thousands of ordinary Burmese leapt to action, forming groups to raise funds and distribute aid.

The cyclone, which killed more than 138,000 people, led to greater interaction between local organisations and the aid community: the larger organisations gained direct access to international support, while many smaller groups assisted international NGOs with the distribution of relief items. Some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in relief funding went to programs run by local NGOs.

Three years on, with Nargis-related programs over or winding down, many have turned their attention to alleviating other needs, particularly through community-based health and education programs. Community organisations have played an important role in the response to subsequent disasters, including Cyclone Giri in October 2010 and a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Burma’s eastern Shan State in March this year. Their participation will be crucial if Burma is to meet the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals by the 2015 deadline.

When Nargis hit, Burma was preparing for a referendum to endorse a new constitution that would usher in the country’s most significant period of political change in at least a generation. This much-criticised process also opened a door of sorts to activists. Many top generals left the military to enter the country’s new parliaments and previously dormant politicians returned to the scene. Millions voted for the first time, and political discussion – essentially banned for two decades – returned to teashops, markets and workplaces. While the Union Solidarity and Development Party won an overwhelming majority, ethnic political parties still fared quite well and some opposition candidates from the majority Bamar ethnic group were elected.

Bayda’s Myo Yan Naung Thein says he is far from satisfied with the transition process the military foisted on the people but he also sees the possibilities. One of the institute’s longer-term aims is to train potential candidates for elections in 2015 and 2020. “The 2008 constitution has the potential to cause the military some headaches,” he says. “We now have a form of democracy, with some institutions, but we need to turn it into a participatory democracy. That will require clever politicians and strong CSOs working together.”

The path that the Bayda Institute is treading has been well worn by Myanmar Egress, a Rangoon-based training centre established by a group of businesspeople and academics in 2006. Offering courses with titles such as Social Entrepreneurship, Mass Communications, and Enterprising Leadership for State Building, Myanmar Egress has also conducted political education programs – attended by candidates from many opposition political parties – and distributed DVDs explaining the 2008 constitution and parliamentary system before last year’s poll.

Because of its political focus, Egress is accepted neither by the military government nor by activists in exile, as illustrated in a response to a recent article in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Journalist Mark McKinnon had quoted Egress founder Nay Win Maung, causing the executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma, Tin Maung Htoo, to respond: “Not only did MacKinnon fail to inform his readers that Nay Win Maung owns and publishes two pro-government newspapers, he described Nay Win Maung as being from ‘an independent civil-society organisation.’ One look at Nay Win Maung’s background suggests that his claims to be part of Burmese civil society are questionable at best. The Washington Post described Nay Win Maung as ‘a son of a military officer brought up among Burma’s military elites, giving him good connections to military insiders.’”

But the distinction between “good” and “bad” in Burma has never been clear-cut. Like Nay Win Maung, many of those establishing community organisations, which generally receive little or no donor support, have benefited in some way from the opening up of the economy in the 1990s after a disastrous decades-long experiment with socialism. Indeed, the emergence of civil society would not have been possible without a degree of economic liberalisation.

While much of this newfound wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the families of regime members and their cronies, it has also created something akin to a middle class, primarily in urban areas, which is painfully aware of the failings of the military regime and eager to do something about it. Importantly, these Burmese have access to communication technologies – mobile phones and the internet – that were not available here just a decade ago.

“Those belonging to the new middle class became economically empowered and some became socially engaged,” says Marie Lall from the University of London, who has been visiting Burma since 2005 for her research. Over a cup of sweet tea in a Rangoon teashop, the energetic Lall – whose twin focuses are education and Burma–India relations – describes to me how it would have been much more difficult for civil society to develop during the socialist era, as people would not have had the means to run an organisation. “Two things play a vital role in a country’s political development – the middle classes and civil society organisations,” says Lall. “Usually they are linked, as it is only the middle classes who are able to set up and run such organisations.”

Activists have targeted Marie Lall and historian Thant Myint-U for their views, trotting out the all-too-familiar “junta apologists” tag. In one recent example, a Burmese defector wrote an article arguing that the government was using Thant Myint-U – the grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant – to improve its international image. Claiming that U Thant and his family had been recruited to spruik for the regime, the writer, a former deputy head of mission at the Burmese embassy in Washington, DC, said they had virtually “become its overseas representatives.”

The article – and countless others like it – is indicative of the massive divisions that exist between those inside and those outside the country. For Lall, the lack of recognition many civil society organisations receive from exiled activists is another factor hindering their growth.

Inside the country the debate is less acrimonious. Since it was deregistered last year, the National League for Democracy has sought to link up with and organise community-based organisations. In a recent interview, Aung San Suu Kyi disputed the premise that a larger middle class would move the country towards democracy but was generally supportive of the civil society movement that developed during her most recent period of house arrest between 2003 and 2010. “More people, especially young people, are realising that if they want change, they’ve got to go about it themselves – they can’t depend on a particular person,” she told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Most local non-government organisations and community groups are less overtly political than Bayda and Egress and usually describe themselves as apolitical. But many of their employees and volunteers participated in political activities during last year’s election, according to Ko Kyaw (not his real name), who works for a well-known local NGO that provides training support to community-based organisations.

“In our network of about 300 people, I would say about half were actively involved in the election in various ways. Some became like citizen journalists, others joined political parties,” Ko Kyaw tells me. “Unlike their parents, these young people are not afraid [of politics]… Many were excited about the election, in the sense that they could finally become involved in politics.”

Many humanitarian programs also have the potential to impart important democratic concepts such as transparency and accountability in communities where party politics is largely absent. In the Ayeyarwady delta, for example, one NGO established village-level committees to manage agricultural equipment it had provided following Cyclone Nargis.

“If the village head” – who is appointed by the military government – “was not respected, he wouldn’t be included or might be given an ‘advisory’ role,” said a staff member from the organisation, who asked not to be named. “The communities were able to see in just a few months how consensus decision-making worked and what the benefits were.”

EXAMPLES like these have caught the attention of international donors and analysts looking for solutions to Burma’s political stasis. “A strong civil society is something we should seek and encourage in Burma,” a diplomat based at the US embassy in Rangoon wrote in a July 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. “It will make any democratic transition in Burma more likely to succeed.”

When the Australian government announced in early 2010 that its aid to Burma would increase from A$29 million to A$50 million, the program was expanded to include a “capacity-building” element. In announcing the increase, former foreign minister Stephen Smith said that while “decades of military rule have eroded civil society and civilian institutions… Burma’s capacity cannot be allowed to completely atrophy to the ultimate disadvantage and cost of its people.”

More recently, when the British government announced it too would significantly boost aid to Burma over the next four years, supporting civil society groups was a major priority. Paul Whittingham, head of the Rangoon office of Britain’s Department for International Development, told me that some of the £46 million (A$75 million) a year will be “targeted directly at civil society, trying to strengthen civil society, capacity building and to help [organisations] grow,” which would in turn “lay the foundations for a more democratic society.”

Because they’re closer to the community, local groups are more likely than international NGOs to instigate long-term change, particularly given the country’s decades-long ethnic conflict. “We believe that building the capacity of civil society is important, especially here where it is less developed than in other countries,” Whittingham says, as a flash of lightning lights up the bare conference room where we are meeting in the embassy’s colonial-era building on Strand Road. “But our principal focus is how we can promote the way [groups] engage with each other. A key part of our work to reduce conflict is to get groups used to talking to each other to resolve difficulties through non-violent means.”

While a part of Britain’s aid policy is not to provide any funding to or through the government, Whittingham says Britain will be watching for any opportunities “to work in new ways in a new political environment” that may appear. “I’m extremely cautious about imagining there’s going to be any significant change in that regard but we have to be ready to respond and we’ve always said that we will judge the new government on its actions on the ground.” But Whittingham, who has been in Burma for almost three years, cautioned that aid alone was not likely to present a long-term solution to Burma’s myriad problems. “The fact remains that while big policy remains so problematic and so poor, significant change is going to be difficult to achieve.”

This approach acknowledges that immediate change – in the form of an overthrow of the regime – is extremely unlikely in Burma. Building an independent civil society through existing political structures appears a better bet for sustainable long-term change. “As Burma’s military leaders are drawn out of their shell and activities on the ground expand and accumulate across sectors,” according to Morten Pedersen, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of New South Wales, “it is certainly possible to imagine international programs becoming catalysts for broader internally driven reforms.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of local organisations has mushroomed in recent years, but hard data is difficult to come by. One recent UN report suggested that – in addition to possibly thousands of community groups – there were about 300 local NGOs in Burma, of which only one-in-ten was formally registered. Even for purely humanitarian organisations, the registration process can take several years.

In February, when an opposition legislator observed in parliament that associations, NGOs and unions “are sine qua non for a democratic society” and asked whether the government had any plan to simplify the registration process, he was stonewalled by former general U Maung Oo, home affairs minister at the time. “So far a total of 218 organisations have been formed under the agreement of the respective ministries,” U Maung Oo said. “Therefore organisations and associations are allowed to register their organisations in accordance with the prescribed rules and regulations.”

As the opposition legislator noted, the registration difficulties mean many groups are essentially “unlawful associations.” This presents major headaches not only for the organisations themselves but also for donors and international partners. For example, those groups with larger ambitions need registration to get a bank account so they can manage funds from donors.

Marie Lall says that without training, local organisations may not be in a position to benefit from the expected increase in humanitarian aid to Burma. While the country received just US$7 per capita in official development assistance in 2009 – the lowest among least-developed countries – that figure is expected to rise significantly over the next few years. “I anticipate that just growing will pose challenges to many organisations. Demand for their work will grow faster than they can keep up with.”

There is cautious optimism that the government will take a more inclusive approach towards both local and international NGOs. In his inaugural speech on 30 March, less than three years after the military initially refused to allow aid workers into the delta following Cyclone Nargis, President U Thein Sein made an uncharacteristic pledge to “work more closely” with the United Nations and local and international NGOs on health and education projects.

BACK at the Bayda Institute there’s evidence of the precarious situation many civil society organisations find themselves in. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, local officials pressured the landlord of the institute’s rented apartment to cancel the lease.

“She came to us in tears,” says Myo Yan Naung Thein. “She didn’t want to make us leave but felt she had little choice. They told her we were conducting political activities and she would get in trouble if we stayed.” It would have been easy for the institute’s members to walk away, but they persevered and found a new home in nearby Sanchaung township. On 5 April, Bayda held another graduation ceremony, this time for its one-month Capacity Building (Political Science) course.

When I saw Myo Yan Naung Thein recently, Bayda had moved to its third location in as many months, this time in a leafy quarter of Thingangyun township. Despite already falling foul of the authorities on more than one occasion, the institute’s founder was confident he would be able to successfully navigate the country’s “very complicated political situation” and help nurture a more politically engaged and better educated citizenry.

“They are watching us, of course. But whether I’m arrested or not depends on what I do. It’s important that they don’t feel threatened,” he said, before adding: “I do not believe any more that we can win by confrontation. We need to stop focusing on the top guys [in the military] and instead think about what we can do to change and improve our society.” •

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Milovan Djilas in 1950. Stevan Kragujević/Wikimedia

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