Myanmar’s Top-Down Transition: Challenges for Civil Society
Saturday, 19 October 2019

(Continued from Yesterday)
In contrast, the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN) – an umbrella group of Karenni CSOs – voiced strong concerns about the MPSI project (KCSN 2012). The CSOs argued that the Tatmadaw used the project for its counterinsurgency in ways that resemble the infamous ‘strategic hamlet’ programmes, in which the United States military tried to separate the Vietcong from its local support base by forcibly relocating local communities into highly securitised villages during the Vietnam War. According to the KCSN, Tatmadaw soldiers confiscated 3,000 acres of land from local villagers near the project site for the construction of training facilities. The military also maintained a heavy presence in the various model villages of Shadaw Township together with pro government militias and military intelligence units. Along the road to Loikaw, posters propagandised the army with slogans such as ‘March bravely, and attack bravely!’ or ‘Crush the enemy!’ (KCSN 2012).
In an attempt to defend the project, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated that military installations in the village appeared unmanned when its diplomatic envoy visited the site. Moreover, it claimed that the CSOs confused the actual localities because its report cited different village names (Martov 2015). Its commentary illustrates the most dangerous shortcoming of international donor projects in Myanmar’s conflict zones: limited knowledge of the lived experiences of local communities and the politics of conflict. It is of little surprise that the Tatmadaw welcomes Finnish diplomats differently than local villagers. The villages in the KCSN report are, moreover, the same as in the MPSI project. As common practice in Myanmar’s border areas, the denominations differ as the KCSN report uses local Karenni language names when referring to the villages.
While not all international aid in Myanmar’s borderlands feed counterinsurgency strategies, the MPSI case highlights significant pitfalls for international engagement in an authoritarian and securitised environment. Most crucially, channelling aid through government structures, in an environment where government and counterinsurgency are intrinsically linked and little knowledge exists on the side of the donors, is likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate problems for local communities and civil society.

Understanding Myanmar’s political transition primarily through the lens of democratisation is misleading and problematic. The political reforms of 2011 were orchestrated by the country’s military in ways that safeguard its own power interests. This explains the persistence of authoritarian rule and military dominance in contemporary Myanmar politics. The country’s top-down transition poses severe challenges for civil society. On the one hand, transition has not progressed in a linear fashion towards liberal democracy as demonstrated by recent crackdowns on press freedom and other civil liberty rights. On the other hand, transition itself has created new challenges. While the rapid liberalisation of the public sphere has created space for civil society mobilisation, it has also provided a platform for uncivil society: ultranationalist forces promoting sectarian violence on the basis of exclusionary identity politics. While this has erupted most violently against the country’s Muslim communities, including the culmination in military-led ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, inter communal conflict between different ethnic groups is simmering across Myanmar. This in turn strengthens authoritarian rule by playing to the self-portrayal of the Tatmadaw as the guardian of the nation.

At the same time, the rapid influx of the international aid community attempting to support what it misconceived as democratisation has created additional challenges for civil society. In fact, Myanmar makes for a rather cautionary tale of an aid industry crash-landing in a country without profound knowledge of its intricate politics. The very assumption that Myanmar’s transition is a process of democratisation has not only proven wrong but deeply problematic. It has contributed to a wholesale shift of donor funds from supporting long-standing grass-roots networks based on the Thai–Myanmar border to state bureaucracies. This has not only left existing CSOs struggling to survive. It has also accentuated the danger that international aid ends up being co-opted by militarised power for the purposes of ethnocratic statebuilding and counterinsurgency. This is particularly so in the securitised space of the country’s conflict-ridden borderlands where state apparatus and military authorities remain inextricably linked up until today. Unsurprisingly then, international aid has not always contributed to, but also undermined, progressive social and political action in Myanmar.
To find more constructive ways of supporting civil society in this challenging environment, both in central and borderland Myanmar, international donors and development agencies should focus on: (a) rethinking the nature of Myanmar’s transition, including the legacy of protracted authoritarianism and conflict, as well as the ill-founded assumption that it was driven by democratic forces from below and is leading to a Western-style liberal democracy; (b) being more reflexive about the impact of international aid on the fragile politics of transition, conflict, and peace. Understanding the concerns of local civil society, including the inconvenient truths about the nature of transition and the state, in places outside of urban centres is indispensable in this regard; (c) supporting comprehensive reforms of Myanmar’s security and public administration apparatus by identifying and exploiting the limited political openings that top-down transition leaves. For the short-term, the key focus can rest on exploring creative opportunities that allow for change within the confines of the 2008 constitution, as demonstrated by the NLD’s recent move to place the GAD under a civilian ministry. Simultaneously, however, international donors need to support alliances between CSOs and democratic politicians that push for constitutional change itself.