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NGOs and Civil Society in Myanmar (Burma): In it for the Long Haul

Adam Simpson
Queen Mary, University of London
Adam Simpson
Queen Mary, University of London
Open Panel

Abstract

Following national elections in Myanmar (Burma) in November 2010 characterized by widespread fraud the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed almost eighty percent of the available seats in the new parliaments. Despite the election of some ethnic and opposition parliamentarians, restrictions on activities in the new parliament together with the dominance by the military ensures that there will be little to encourage domestic and international democracy activists anytime soon. Myanmar’s nascent civil society sector has seen significant growth over the last decade, and particularly since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but starting from an extremely low base the country as a whole is ill-equipped to provide effective third sector governance of environmental and human rights issues for the types of large scale development projects currently being planned or undertaken. In addition, although discussing and engaging in ‘politics’ has been sanctioned for the first time in two decades many of the same limitations on political discourse remain in place, with media still heavily censored and an active domestic surveillance and intelligence regime. Based on fieldwork undertaken in Myanmar and the region since the election this paper therefore argues that engaging in environmental politics and other civil society activities in the country remains severely constrained and that local NGO activity is unlikely to challenge the military’s grip on political and economic power over the short to medium term. Unfortunately, despite the military’s appalling record in power, the enthusiasm with which China, India, Thailand and other regional countries are investing in Myanmar leaves little option for local and international activists, as well as Western countries, but to engage with the current regime in the hope of incremental improvements in domestic living conditions and political opportunities over the long term.