Myanmar’s transition to democracy has earned the country a lot of appraisal on the international stage. In a process that astonished most observers, the country has indeed taken substantial steps of democratisation. But over the last year, the boundaries between what is permitted and what will get people in trouble slid back and blurred again.
Myanmar has seen a marvellous transformation over the last years. In 2010, the military regime began a transition towards more democracy, started opening up the economy, and initiated peace processes with dozens of ethnic armed organisations. A quasi-civilian government under former general Thein Sein as president took office.
In a breath-taking pace, press freedom and rights of free speech substantially improved, and scores of political prisoners have been released. This included releasing the most well-known political prisoner of the country: Aung San Suu Kyi. The icon of the democratic uprising from 1988 had been kept under house arrest for years, and has become a symbol of the struggle of Myanmar’s democratic opposition.
Initially, this ‘transition’ was not given a lot of credit – neither in the country, nor by international observers. Too deep ran the mistrust towards the military, which has ruled the country since 1962. The military had promised democratic reforms before, but they have not materialised, and democratic protests were usually met with violent crackdowns.
But this time, things looked different, especially after Aung San Suu Kyi was released. The legislation for civil society organisations was reformed, and prison terms stipulated by the old law for being a member of an unregistered organisation were abolished. In this new environment, Myanmar has seen a level of openly conducted political activities that would have been inconceivable only a few years earlier.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had boycotted the elections in 2010, participated in the 2012 by-elections. The NLD won 43 out of 44 seats it contested, and Aung San Suu Kyi got elected into parliament. Three years later, in the general elections held in November 2015, the NLD won almost 80 percent of the seats up for vote. Pictures of celebrating crowds made the headlines worldwide.
After expansion comes restriction
But the time since the NLD took office has clearly showed that Myanmar’s transition is more complicated than the events just described would make believe. The peace processes initiated under former president Thein Sein can at best be called partially successful. Only a few ethnic armed organisations have signed the nationwide-ceasefire agreement that was meant to end one of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts.
While for the first time in decades, the areas in the country’s South-East are experiencing rather stable ceasefires, the North-East since 2011 has seen the heaviest fighting in decades. The peace process officially still goes on, but the disappointment of many ethnic minorities is palpable.
At the same time, the country has been plagued by intercommunal violence that broke out in 2012 between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minorities. In the country’s West, violence against the Muslim population who self-identifies as ‘Rohingya’ – a term not accepted by many Burmese, who refer to them as ‘Bengalis’ – has displaced major parts of the population.
Together with a rise of extreme Buddhist nationalism and hate-speech, the violence has also spread to other parts of the country. Beginning of this year, a United Nations report accused the army of widespread atrocities against the civilian population during a counter-insurgency operation in Rakhine state. It has drawn a lot of criticism from international actors that the NLD government has denied the accusations and is opposing an independent UN probe into the events.
The NLD government in the focus of criticism
The NLD government is in an uncomfortable position: As stipulated in the 2008 constitution, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military. The important ministries of Home affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs are controlled by the army. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency – this is why she created the position of the State counsellor that she now holds.
In this situation, the NLD seems to have taken a rather conciliatory stance towards the military. At the same time, the expectations of the population for the ‘change’ promised in the election are extremely high. Critics reproached the NLD for not speaking out against un-democratic practices.
Indeed, after the space for civil society rapidly expanded under the Thein Sein government, it seems to be shrinking under the NLD government. The previous government actively used the space it granted civil society to make a point for the genuineness of the democratic reforms.
The NLD government seems less inclined to grant civil society such a central role. Even though the NLD has its roots in the democratic uprising from 1988, its relationship with civil society actors has been astonishingly tense. An illustrative episode occurred before the elections in 2015, when members of the 88 generation – one of the most well-known civil society groups, named after the democratic uprising – applied to run for the NLD in the elections.
With one exception, the NLD rejected all applications – also to the dismay of many of its own supporters. Another example Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement to the protestors against a copper mine in Letpadaung in 2013, where she was quoted with saying that their protest is “in vain”, and that the country needs the jobs created by the contested mining project.
In the overwhelming share of seats the NLD won in the 2015 elections, the party seems to read a strong popular mandate and legitimacy to realise its own vision for change when in government. Accordingly, the NLD acts less inclusive towards other actors in the process, especially when they use means that are not part of the formal political process.
This has led to concerns that the focalisation on Aung San Suu Kyi typical for the NLD – and for international actors –risks eclipsing other civil society forces. Min Zin, an analyst and former activist in the 1988 uprising, observes that many civil society organisations have struggled to play a meaningful role in the transition since Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to the political stage.
Control of the civil society
Local civil society organisations (and international NGOs) noted that the new government is actively bringing civil society under closer scrutiny: With the argument to increase ‘efficiency’ and ‘stop the waste of funds’, the government increases mechanisms of tight oversight, control, and expands the requirements for bureaucratic reporting substantially.
But also other factors have constricted the space for civil society organisations over the last year, such as the article 66(d) of the telecommunications law. The article allows individuals being prosecuted for defamation. Because the article does not allow to release the charged person on bail until the trial, it has been used extensively against critics.
Over the last year, the number of people charged under this article has soared – and the charges have been filed by a range of actors including the military, private individuals, and also by exponents of the NLD. This resulted in a return of self-censorship not only for journalists, but also for civil society organisations. Rights groups have recently criticised the overall record of the new government on press freedom.
Finally, an event earlier this year has changed the landscape decisively. Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and constitution expert associated with the NLD, was shot dead – in plain daylight, when exiting Yangon’s international airport. The background of the assassination remains unclear. What is clear though is its effect: While (often anonymous) threats against civil society activists are common, they certainly have a different weight after the assassination, and might discourage political engagement.
Smothering civil society with love
The restriction of space that civil society organisations are facing due to the political situation in Myanmar has been widely documented. Less attention is given to another aspect that is equally constraining their space: the international environment.
An important effect of the transition was the change in perception of the country, its government, and its political actors on the international stage. Before the transition, the discourse of other governments, their bi-lateral donor organisations, and by INGOs was pretty clear: Myanmar was described as the most authoritarian state in the region, with little prospects for a change.
After the events of 1988, Western governments mainly engaged with Myanmar by criticising its human rights record, or by renewing economic sanctions; and the manifold organisations linked to its diaspora firmly had the moral high ground. The so-called ‘third force’ – meaning people who tried to constructively engage with the regime in the country – were seen with high suspicion or portrayed as driven by their personal (economic) interest.
These ‘old’ ways of looking at Myanmar certainly drew a simplistic picture. But with the transition, the pendulum swung to the other extreme: Within a few months, Myanmar was portrayed as a land of opportunity, a place of dynamic reformers, with high hopes for the future.
Suddenly, investors flocked to the country, INGOs initiated large-scale development programs, and Western governments (re-)opened embassies. The way of the ‘third force’ became seen as an example of successfully fostering reforms, and the top-down transition was praised as an effective approach to societal change – often in opposition to the ‘chaotic’ grass-roots mobilisations of the Arab Spring.
More attention for organisations from international donors
This change in discourse completely re-shuffled the deck of international support: The organisations of the diaspora, and those operating across the Thai border were soon discredited and their perspectives discounted as outdated; funding levels dropped soon afterwards. International sanctions were mostly dropped, and funding became concentrated on activities in the country: The OECD reported $504 million of official development assistance disbursements to Myanmar in 2012.
With the transition in full swing in 2013, this number stood at $3.9 billion – an almost 8-fold increase from the numbers reported for the year before. Donors were now engaging directly with the government, strengthening governance and the capacities of ministries, and rolling out large-scale development programs.
Accordingly, international actors started to see their main counterpart in the government institutions, rather than in civil society organisations. And with a democratically elected government in office, the international support that civil society organisations can mobilise is considerably smaller than before the transition.
Naturally, this shift meant that also the local and national civil society organisations in the country received more attention from international donors. But it was a different kind of attention: In the ‘old’ ways of engaging with Myanmar, an important part of the activities of international donors tried to create spaces for civil society and democratic engagement.
They provided spaces for critical discussion, supported language skills and access to information, provided small grants and core funding for networks and organisations. Small steps were already seen as a success, and overall expectations were low. With the transition, international donors started to think big.
Their small-scale engagements have mostly been side-lined by funding for big development projects. Programs that supported civil society in the form of un-earmarked funds that organisations could use according to their own ideas – often to strengthen their internal systems, broaden their networks, or improve their analysis and strategies – have come under pressure and have practically disappeared from Myanmar’s landscape.
What took the centre-stage instead is the implementation of internationally conceived and funded projects, usually framed in non-political development terms, where local organisations take the role of an ‘implementing partner’.
Exponential growth of civil society organisations
Undoubtedly, this meant that some local and especially national civil society organisations have grown exponentially over the last years. Higher levels of project funding also meant a lot more people were hired to manage these projects, and to deal with the heavy administrative requirements of international donors or INGOs.
The small rooms – typically tucked away in a private apartment with a leaking ceiling – local organisations used for meetings have given way to office spaces with computers and a signboard at the entrance. But the flood of new projects also meant that the technocracy of international development has absorbed more and more of these organisations’ attention; and there are less resources available to play a role as a critical and active voice in the political arena.
For some organisations, their role as a critical voice has become a side-project, while they are mostly occupied with implementing donor funded projects that pay their salaries.
Finally, local civil society organisations are subjected to a massive brain drain: They lose important staff to the much better paid positions in INGOs, bi-lateral donors, or businesses every day. While such positions can be great career opportunities for the person in question, these losses are getting more and more difficult to replace for organisations.
This is not to say that civil society organisations have not come up with their own strategies to cope with these trends: After all, Myanmar’s civil society can draw on decades of experience in creatively carving out their own little spaces in very difficult situations. But the overall effects of the deployment of international development, and to be tied into its structures are weighing heavily on the sector overall. To put it with the words of analyst Lex Rieffel, civil society is “smothered with love” from international actors.
Eclipse: More opportunities, but less political space for civil society?
In the beginning of Myanmar’s transition, the space for civil society rapidly expanded. But over the last year, the boundaries between what is permitted and what will get people in trouble slid back and blurred again. For decades, this very uncertainty on the space for political action had been instrumental in ruling the country under military regimes. Civil society organisations have a lot of experience navigating these uncertain waters, and have usually found their ways to carve out space.
What they have less experience with is that now, their critical voices are side-lined by unexpected actors: The NLD in government has shown tendencies that marginalise voices of a more diverse civil society; and the fact that now a democratically elected government is in office has certainly shifted the focus of the international community away from civil society.
In combination with the professionalisation, and de-politicisation that many organisations have seen with the deployment of international development in Myanmar, the critical voice of civil society in the political arena risks being eclipsed – only this time, by its supposed allies.
This article is part of our Dossier Squeezed - Space for Civil Society.
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 The term ‘Bengali’ implies that these communities have immigrated from neighbouring Bangladesh.
 The report is available online: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/FlashReport3Feb2017.pdf
 For example, Prasse-Freeman (2016). For example, Prasse-Freeman (2016)
 Lawi Weng and Thet Swe Aye (2013).
 Min Zin (2014).
 Democratic Voice of Burma (2017).
 On the struggles of the organisations on the Thai-Myanmar border, see Duell (2014).
 OECD (2017).
 Boot (2013).