October 2014 Report – Myanmar Civil Society Organizations Forum

Reported by Zunetta Herbert
Partners Asia Senior Advisor

Myanmar Civil Society Organizations critique the transition and the role of international donors, October 2014.

Myanmar is at a crucial period in history. Since 2011 the current President U Thein Sein (former General Thein Sein) has pursued liberal policies designed to attract western support and investment. This shift has brought significant resources to the country, but these new resources have often been disbursed without regard to existing community organizations and local knowledge. Communities are finding themselves increasingly more vulnerable as they are excluded from their land as business investors rush to take advantage of natural resources in areas that were previously closed, and as they continue to be unable to access services provided by international aid.

The critical moment to ensure lasting and sustainable progressive development in Myanmar is now: civil society organizations that can and should be holding their government accountable need to be supported to organize, build on their local knowledge, and respond to the issues they identify as most important, giving them full recognition that they are the drivers of change. Partners Asia is supporting these efforts.

For three days in October, 650 people from 257 Myanmar civil society organizations came together to exchange opinions, debate and to assess a wide range of issues currently confronting Myanmar in the context of recent political developments. The conference, funded in part by Partners Asia, included discussions on six areas they considered the most pressing to them as community organizers, farmers and workers unions, social service providers, activists, lawyers, faith groups and self-help groups. These areas were:

• Law Reform
• Peace and Conflict
• Media, Hate Speech and Communal Violence
• Parliament, Government and Accountability
• Economic Reform and Foreign Direct Investment
• The International Community’s Role and Involvement

Some of the key takeaways of the final declaration (full text available here) are:

♦ “The current transition process has little transparency and is controlled by the government without democratic and meaningful inclusion of democratic opposition forces, ethnic forces, civil society and the people. The liberalization of the economy in the context of a broken legal framework is creating many negative social and environmental impacts as floods of money flow in from abroad. Much of the country still lives in poverty, while the benefits of the economy opening up has mainly benefitted the elite class, many of whom are crony businessmen connected to the Government and/or the Army. Thus many local communities across the country are experiencing the loss of home, land, livelihood, health, education, social security and natural resources in the name of development supposedly for the people and for poverty reduction. The lack of fair land rights and investment laws has resulted in nationwide land confiscations and new large-scale projects being planned and implemented by businesses in partnership with the Government without consultation with the local people.”

♦ “The act of spreading hate speech and incitement of ethnic and religious conflict across the country since 2011 has reached an alarming point, yet there has been no action taken by the government…”

♦ “Parliament is no more than window-dressing without the ability to address the major challenges facing judicial reform and rule of law and has a long way to go in terms of reaching full democratic debate on key issues.”

♦ “The peace process has stalled after the signing of preliminary ceasefire agreements in late 2011 and there has been fighting in Kachin and Northern Shan State since. There has been a continuation of different human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and rape and sexual assault….Meanwhile in non-ceasefire areas, fighting has resumed. Our analysis of these fighting is that there is a connection between those clashes and investment projects.”

♦ “….many of the common discourses and actions that we see in the international community have not addressed such issues confronting the transition and some of them have led to unnecessary negative impacts due to the lack of serious consideration about the situation in Myanmar….Furthermore, the prioritization of individual agendas over local processes by the INGOs without enough consultation has undermined the role and capacity of local organizations. INGOs’ support to local CSOs have been ineffective and there have been cases where double standards are applied.”

Partners Asia is also mindful of the recommendations to International non-governmental organizations (and donors):

We urge the international non-governmental organizations:
• To continue aid and support programs and capacity building initiatives, while operating in compliance with international humanitarian and human rights principles, and to avoid activities that can lead to increased conflict
• To respect and acknowledge the capacity, equal entitlement and the important role of local civil society organizations
• To support processes that have emerged from consultations with local organizations and people as opposed to prearranged activities

The critical issues identified by civil society organizations at this conference are at a tipping point, and supporting their efforts in the coming year will have a tremendous impact for decades to come.