Institutional Interventions in Myanmar: Innovations for the Future

Editor’s note:
This is the second of two blog posts written by Dr. Reshmi Banerjee, who is currently a visiting scholar in the Asian Studies Centre in St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
On Tuesday, we featured her first post on the restoration of land rights in Myanmar. Dr. Banerjee will also be giving a talk entitled “The Political Economy of the Indo-Myanmar Frontier” at the St Antony’s Southeast Asia Seminar Series on Wednesday, 17 February at 2pm.

Myanmar has witnessed its fair share of demonstrations and protests against successive military juntas and political authorities. Communities have also come together against the construction of big development projects and dams (against Myitsone, Chibwe) and have been successful in halting devastation to their ecology. Interestingly, the spirit of activism in the country is not a post-independence phenomenon. Rebellion was common in the pre-colonial times. One finds evidence of it in history in various forms. In 1922, ‘Bu Athins’ (secret organizations for achieving self rule) had resisted the payment of taxes. There was another group called the ‘Sibwaye Athins’ who had tried to put pressure on the Indian money-lending Chettiars to reduce debt. Although the Burma Rural Self Government Act was passed in 1921, the impact of people’s role in the local development planning apparatus remained negligible. Under the later military regime, Burma did see the setting up of peasant councils and Lanzin youth organizations. In the mid 1960s, the agrarian crisis and shortage of food & clothing led to protests (like the workers protest in Insein). Repression was the order of the day but the country also saw the creation of Village Security and Administrative Committees along with the formation of People’s Councils and People’s Courts.

Michael Adas has observed that there was ‘avoidance protest’ rather than confrontation in the pre-colonial state. In the colonial period and after, passive avoidance has been replaced by direct clashes and violence. Much of the conflict in recent times has been over land dispossession. The Rule of Law and Stabilization Committee in Parliament has received hundreds of complaints related to land. The Ad hoc procedures need to be done away with and awareness campaigns regarding land registration & land rights need to be activated by vigilant civil society groups. Moreover, public consultations and assessments need to be given priority. The aspect of ‘prior informed consent’ should not be treated as a privilege but as a right which needs to be exercised regularly by the people and safeguarded well. Customary land rights and traditional institutions are often sidelined which becomes problematic especially in the peripheral/frontier areas.

People have used prayer meetings, posters, open letters and graffiti as means of protest but still the role of communities in deciding their priorities is limited. Years of coerced conformity can often numb the ‘collective consciousnesses’ of a nation and fear psychosis could lead to the mind being closed to alternative realities. This internalized web of powerlessness and helplessness needs to be broken in order to move forward. Stereotypical roles and images of people created by the military for self-preservation have generated limitations which need to be uprooted. There is need to build and strengthen mutual relationships and community-driven development. Institution building is a necessity as democratic agency can be nurtured and expressed through these inclusive bodies.

Global Witness, in its report ‘Dealing with Disclosure,’ has rightly defined transparency as the relationship between three rights: – the right to access information, the right to participate in decision making and the right to challenge such decisions. Thus, one can say that the role of the community and the judiciary are equally sensitive; with the former demanding rights and the latter defending them. Various non-governmental organizations have initiated community projects which is creating a positive environment for successful interventions. Metta Foundation (through its Regeneration Initiative) has been focusing on capacity-building and has stressed PAR (Participatory Action Research). It has also initiated the Deepa Lawka project to create more awareness of land registration. Myanmar has also seen the rise of Legal Assistance Centers which are beginning to play a crucial role in community awareness by holding workshops and community theatre. Action Aid’s ‘Change-maker’ fellowship programme with its emphasis on the creation of community facilitators to create a self-reliant society is truly commendable. The role of the media in creating a ‘free and open’ Myanmar with democratic social spaces for citizen engagement and deliberation needs to be actively promoted.

The UNDP has initiated micro-finance operations in three regions (Irrawaddy delta, Dry Zone and Shan State) covering 11 townships and 2400 villages. Group lending has also led to building of a social network, reaching more and more people and creating mutual trust. Borrowers are divided into groups consisting of five members, each in turn are federated into centers. Both in the Delta Region and in the Dry Zone, the majority of the borrowers are women and landless. PACT Myanmar has created ViCOs (village credit organizations) and also has managed CRDI (Credit for Rural Development Institution). Initiatives have been taken to improve the environment too. Smithsonian Institution has been working with the forest department in Chatthin Wildlife Sanctuary since 1992 to build local capacity. A study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that grazing, hunting, fuel wood collection and permanent settlements occurred in more than 50% of the areas surveyed, with huge biodiversity losses. The organization has been instrumental in accessing 22 of the 31 official protected areas in the country and has worked closely with the forest department. The 88 Generation Student’s Group aims to look after the rights of women, farmers and workers in the ethnic areas and they have created an initiative titled ‘Discussion on Peace and Open Society’.

The Buddhist Sangha and the Myanmar Council of Churches need to be roped in and partnership can be achieved through religious networks for social service delivery. A core value in Burmese Buddhism is the concept of ‘Myitta’ (similar to the Christian and Muslim value of compassionate love). Consensus needs to be created through the cultivation of shared cultural values. The connection of Buddhism with governance needs to be explored further in the future as it could play a constructive role.

Aung San Suu Kyi in 1998 wrote while describing her father (in an article for Asiaweek) that his greatest strength was his ‘largeness of spirit and an immense capacity to learn from his experiences. He recognized his faults and worked hard to remedy them’. This strength and resilience will be required in the younger generation as Myanmar marches ahead. The results of the recent elections and the coming of the new government are ushering in a new wave of optimism for the country. Procedural democracy has to take deeper roots and this can only happen if people’s voices & genuine grievances are allowed to come up to the surface. The future will tell whether the country is guided by a ‘sense of justice,’ as demanding rights without an element of justice can lead to instability & a narrow vision of the nation. A politics of inclusion & participation is key as it would open up the ‘corridors’ of social connectivity and economic exchanges which will be beneficial for all.

Author: reshmioxford

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is currently an Academic Visitor in the Asian Studies Centre in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She was previously a research associate in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in SOAS, University of London where she worked on land conflicts in Myanmar and on the political economy of the Indo-Myanmar frontier. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations in the University of Indonesia (UI) and was a researcher in the Economic Research Center, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.She is a political scientist with specialization in food security and agricultural policies and has an M.Phil and Ph.D in the subject from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.