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Can Burma’s Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?

Can Burma’s Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?

The Burmese military is staging a comeback. Since the government launched its tentative liberalization process four years ago, the armed forces, the notorious Tatmadaw, have taken a backseat. Though it has members in key roles in all government institutions, it has refrained from fully exercising its coercive and all-encompassing constitutional prerogatives. But now the generals are signaling that they’re no longer willing to keep a low profile, and instead hope to exercise the full extent of their power in the country’s ethnic regions and in its parliament, in which 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military representatives. The army’s Nov. 19 attack on a training facility of the Kachin ethnic rebel group — which killed 23 cadets — is a clear case in point. (In the photo above, an activist lights candles at a memorial to the attack’s victims on Nov. 24.) At a moment when many Burmese are expressing growing dissatisfaction about the undemocratic nature of the military-imposed constitution, the generals are determined to show that they won’t brook any further challenges to their authority. If things continue as they are, it’s only a matter of time until the Tatmadaw decides to suppress public protests. The question thus becomes whether Burmese civil society is capable of pushing back.

Unfortunately, Burmese civil society is in limbo. The country’s diverse constellation of student unions, human rights organizations, and other citizen-led groups were once known for their resilience in the face of oppression and for their creative ability to connect with each other, with their fellows in exile, and with the international community. These groups rallied behind democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her drive for national reconciliation. Her stunning return to active political life in 2012 with a sweeping electoral victory was possible in part due to the support she received from the grassroots. And earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi called on civil society groups to rally behind her during her constitutional reform campaign — which eventually lost steam with its ambiguous endgame, weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context.

Since the Lady’s political return, the groups that once rallied behind her have found themselves marginalized and unable to play a meaningful role in the country’s ongoing political transition, which has assumed a marked top-down nature. Burmese civil society appears to have lost its voice.

There are three cases that clearly demonstrate this demobilization. The first was in November 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi chaired a parliamentary inquiry into police violence against a protesters’ camp outside a mining project in northwestern Burma. She failed to hold any officials accountable for that bloody crackdown. Instead, she allowed the project to continue, triggering intense protests from locals and victims. She has refused to criticize the government’s renewal of the war in the Kachin region in 2011, which has led to massive human rights abuses, including the rape of displaced Kachin women. The Lady’s silence on this matter has alienated her Kachin supporters. Perhaps best known to the international community is Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence about rampant anti-Muslim violence which first took place in the west and has since spread throughout the country.

In all of these cases, Burma’s civil society groups looked to the Lady — their one-time icon and hero — for ideological, political, and strategic guidance. Unfortunately, she failed them. Perhaps naïvely, she put her trust in the ruling elites and failed to sustain her grassroots bases either at home or abroad. As a result, the partial integration of the opposition into mainstream politics has remained largely symbolic. Civil society groups work hard and make headway on their own individual projects, but few feel that they have been able to make a difference in the country’s overall direction.

It wasn’t always this way. Burma’s civil society organizations were once known for their tenacity and effectiveness. After the military launched a massive crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988, large numbers of these groups were forced into clandestine politics. With basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly severely curtailed, they continued to operate underground. They were often able to combine their covert activity with whatever mainstream political participation was allowed. This led to some impressive results.

A 2007 protest led by Buddhist monks soon attracted youth groups and many other formerly clandestine organizations, soon evolving into a full-scale uprising known as the "Saffron Revolution." Though suffering a harsh government crackdown, these groups did not wither away. When the devastating Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008, costing over 130,000 lives in the delta region, civic groups made an indispensable comeback to deliver humanitarian support to disaster victims. New volunteer groups proliferated. It was civil society that made up for the military state’s criminal negligence toward its own citizens in the aftermath of the cyclone. Despite harassment and repression, civil society proved its resilience and effectiveness in assisting the survivors.

Moreover, civil society groups joined together to protest against the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a multibillion-dollar Chinese investment that would dam the Irrawaddy River at eight locations with grave environmental and cultural consequences. The new government’s partial concession in September 2011, when it agreed to suspend construction of the dam, illustrated the strength of Burmese civil society.

Ironically, then, Burmese civil society — sidelined and demoralized during a relatively open period — was once capable of great things, even during the harshest periods of military rule. Will it find its voice in the new Burma?

It’s possible that the recent resurgence of the armed forces will prompt civil society groups to regain their strategic focus and their willingness to coordinate their actions. If the military decides once again to project its power on the streets by intimidating or attacking protestors, that might force activists to reconsolidate their defensive capabilities and reclaim ownership of Burma’s regime-driven political transition. If not, civil society can expect to remain on the sidelines for years to come.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.