Towards Democracy and Reconciliation (Part 3: Societal Interventions)

This post is the third of a series that summarizes last week’s day-long workshop, “Towards Democracy and Reconciliation: Challenges Facing Myanmar’s Incoming Government.” The previous two posts in this series outlined discussions that occurred during the first two panels of the workshop— with the first focused on Politics and Governance, followed by a second on Sustainable Development. Our third panel— which will be the focus of this post—spoke on the topic of Societal Interventions, asking how both the historical legacies and contemporary strategies of the military government and of the NLD-led opposition movement might transform societal conventions around themes such as gender, religion, and aid and assistance.

Khin Mar Mar Kyi, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Gender Research Fellow at the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, took on the pressing issue of militarization, analyzing the way a patriarchal military legacy has shifted norms around gender, violence, and power in modern-day Myanmar. As Khin Mar Mar Kyi argued, we see the pervasive impacts of militarization in all aspects of society—from recent race and religion protection laws, to the ubiquity of sexual violence and rape, to a more general cultural shift wherein male power over women has been normalized. The military, as Khin Mar Mar Kyi pointed out, has long constructed the country as a dangerous place, largely as a means of legitimizing their own power. With this context in mind, she highlighted the fact that the military, a particularly nationalist, masculine, and violent institution, has been defeated by a woman— and, at that, a woman who was married to a foreigner, a “colonizer”— is particularly significant in terms of demonstrating the public’s shift away from the kinds of viewpoints long put forward by the military authorities. What this might mean for future debates within the country remains to be seen, but it does appear that the newly-formed government may have an opening to challenge some of the now-commonplace conventions produced by the military government’s legacy.

Matthew Walton, the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies, also highlighted a problematic societal shift in contemporary Myanmar— that is, the now commonplace expressions of anti-Muslim sentiments that have been normalized and legitimized in the context of a “permissive environment” fostered by the previous government. How the new government will deal with ongoing religious conflict remains to be seen, given that NLD leaders can neither be seen to be ignoring incitement and hate speech, nor limiting freedom of speech in the context of the democratic transition. The fact that there are no Muslims in Myanmar’s new parliament, for the first time in history—despite a number of pressing issues related to religious freedom, discrimination against minority religions, and the four proposed religious protection laws— means that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will have to creatively respond to a number of tensions related to the relationship between Buddhism, minority religions, and politics.

In regard to questions of religion and the law, Walton wondered whether the four religious protection laws should be the primary and immediate target of activism. On one hand, if the NLD-led government immediately struck down the religious protection laws, it might galvanize and revitalize Ma Ba Tha. An alternative option, as presented by Walton, would be for an NLD-led Parliament to stall the laws, while simultaneously taking a closer look at other laws— such as those focused on unlawful assembly, for instance— that continue to be used to discriminate along religious lines or to target or silence religious minorities.

Marie Lall, a Professor in Education and South Asian politics at the UCL Institute of Education, explored a crucial issue similarly in need of creative solutions: that of basic and higher education in Myanmar, and its relationship with non-state and, specifically, ethnic education systems. Given that the NLD’s education policy is not in the public domain, Lall pointed out that we know little about how the NLD will move forward on education, such as how the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) will be taken forward, or if the newly-formed government might start over on the development of a new policy. This is a key question, Lall pointed out, given that it speaks to how the NLD envisions its relationship to donors, more broadly. The expectation on the NLD’s side is that international donors will assist with funding an education reform process, says Lall, but whether this will be the case depends largely on whether the NLD-led government engages with the CESR process or rejects it in favor of new proposals. Questions of the CESR aside, Lall points out that education has long been a key aspect of the transition, and will remain so, especially given that, in debating questions on ethnic education policies, we are often speaking of many of the same issues underlying the peace process in general— issues of representation, identity, and authority.

In the final presentation of this panel, Alex Bescoby from Integrity Research, provided an important perspective as to how such a wide-ranging set of societal interventions might be pursued, describing both the possibilities and challenges posed by an influx of overseas aid and assistance. With overseas development funding increasing tenfold since 2009, Bescoby pointed out that there is much to be gained, both financially and otherwise, from the support of international organizations and donors across five key priority areas: health, infrastructure, economic development, governance (and the peace process), and information and communications technology. Yet, as he alerted the audience, there are also challenges that come with such a large influx of funding— from concerns of waste and corruption, to the risk of saturation and duplication in programming. Key to avoiding such risks, as Bescoby has argued, is a clear, well-communicated development agenda that takes seriously the question of what sustainable growth might look like in Myanmar.


The discussion after this panel was also animated, with questioners wondering about the effects of the massive influx of aid to Myanmar. Some raised the spectre of Cambodia and the aid dependency that has been created in that country. Of particular concern to other audience members was the way in which aid could (perhaps unintentionally) undermine the legitimacy of local actors and civil society organizations. These include groups that have been doing important (and often unrecognized) work since well before the current transition began in 2010 but were in danger of being sidelined by both donors and the newly-empowered NLD government. Finally, the panelists were also asked to link together some of the presentations by considering whether there was a relationship between the rapid expansion of development aid and a looming FDI (foreign direct investment) boom and the rise of religious nationalism and xenophobia.