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Civil society and democratisation in Burma/Myanmar

Open Panel

Abstract

Civil society is increasingly identified as one of the most important drivers of democratisation. Many western donors seem to be funding civil society as a substitute for bilateral development aid in countries where governments do not meet standards of ‘good governance’. By funding civil society initiatives, donors can show their commitment to the population in developing countries, without channelling funds through regimes that they disapprove of. Moreover, civil society assistance is expected to result in ‘democratisation from below’, leading to durable democratic practices and institutions. In response to this trend, critics in development theory have started questioning the direct link between civil society and democratisation. By simply displaying civil society as benign, and government as unworthy of foreign assistance, donors risk overlooking undemocratic aspects of civil society, as well as progressive elements within government institutions. This paper covers Burma/Myanmar as an example of a country where western donors are funding civil society in the hope of achieving political, social and economic change. Burmese/Myanmar civil society can be defined as a transnational movement consisting of a large variety of activists, supporters and beneficiaries. The role that civil society can play in democratisation on the local, national and international level is determined by a number of factors: (1) political opportunity; (2) societal opportunities such as trust, accountability mechanisms and freedom of association; and (3) individual opportunities such as education, employment and the availability of a relevant network. Moreover, the concept of democratisation is multifaceted and open to different interpretations, depending on the preferences of those domestic and foreign actors who are in the position to define the goals. These dynamics will be analysed in relation to recent events in Burma/Myanmar such as the latest popular uprising in 2007, cyclone Nargis in 2008, and the general election held in 2010.