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  • Civil Society and Development x
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This panel discussion session explores some of the central dimensions of the Crisis in the Anthropocene that constitute global social challenges in the context of development studies. The conference theme highlighted the profound human impact on our blue-green-brown planet, that is already breaching planetary boundaries and pushing us beyond the roughly 1.5°C tipping point. This threatens liveability and sustainability in many localities and regions and may well rapidly be ‘off the scale’ of imaginability and survivability. Inevitably, as mounting empirical evidence and increasingly clear projections by the IPCC and other authoritative bodies show, these impacts are unevenly spread, both socially and spatially, both now and over the coming decades. The urgency of appropriate action is undeniable and we already know many dimensions of the required adaptations and transformations. Yet progress mostly remains too slow. These challenges are vital to the development studies community – heterogenous as it is – with our concerns for tackling poverty, inequality, deprivation and environmental degradation globally and locally.

Hence this symposium asks what the crisis means for development theory, policy and practice and what development studies can and should be contributing to – and, indeed, whether it is capable of – addressing some key dimensions that warrant greater attention.

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This chapter describes competing advocacy frames that emerged around the 2010 elections in Myanmar. Representatives of the democracy movement called for an election boycott, stating unfair conditions for the opposition, whereas other civil society actors viewed the elections as an opportunity to discuss politics and contribute to political change. Both actors engaged in voter education to highlight their positions, and both tried to influence international audiences to either support or reject the 2010 elections. For democracy activists, it was more difficult to lobby, as their message to boycott the elections and their attempts to influence the election outcome were sometimes seen as contradictory. The elections took place under highly restrictive circumstances in 2010 and were won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. In the aftermath, some democracy activists shifted focus to new campaign issues, calling for a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes committed by the Myanmar military.

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This concluding chapter summarizes the main arguments regarding the forms and functions of civil society in Myanmar and presents policy recommendations to donors wishing to support civil society in restrictive environments. It argues for the need for donors, policy makers and researchers to take local circumstances into account, understand the activities and restrictions of civil society in repressive environments, and be willing to offer long-term engagement. The chapter ends with a cautious exploration of the future of civil society in Myanmar, highlighting the importance of local voices taking part in international policy and research debates.

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This chapter provides a historical background to the protracted period of military rule in Burma/Myanmar. Starting from British colonialism, it discusses how contestations over territory, political structures and ethnic minority rights have been recurring since before independence and provided a motive for the military to continue its rule. Tensions as a result of ethnic diversity had been exacerbated during British colonialism and were far from solved when the military staged a coup in 1962. The nominally socialist military government faced a number of popular uprisings, notably in 1988, which resulted in a military reshuffle. Elections were held in 1990 and won by Aung San Suu Kyi, but the outcome was never honoured. Armed ethnic resistance continued in the borderlands, while a Burman-dominated ‘democracy movement’ was established, partly from exile, in the 1990s. The military’s ‘Roadmap to Democracy’ and its new constitution imposed during the occurrence of cyclone Nargis in 2008 resulted in the 2010 elections, which marked the start of a political transition period under the Union Solidarity and Development Party government. The political situation in central Myanmar improved temporarily, while the fate of most ethnic groups in the border areas deteriorated.

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This chapter discusses what constitutes civil society in Myanmar over time, and what activities these actors engaged in. It highlights a Gramscian perspective on civil society as a sphere of contestation, potential exploitation and hegemony and brings in the notion of ‘uncivil society’ to describe some of the Buddhist nationalist groups that emerged during the political transition period, as well as the rise in hate speech via Facebook and other channels. The chapter traces the origins of Myanmar civil society to Buddhist nationalist movements and ethnic self-organizations engaged in resistance activities as well as social welfare. It introduces the democracy movement that emerged in the 1990s and ends with a description of the 2015 electoral victory of the National League for Democracy and the escalating violence against the Rohingya that occurred in its wake.

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Local Change and Global Recognition
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This book centres on various contestations in Myanmar society and illustrates the ways in which these are reflected in civil society.

The book offers a concise overview of recent political developments in the country, from the short-lived attempts at democratisation to the 2021 military coup, and analyses the involvement of various civil society actors, as well as their international supporters. It incorporates multiple identities and fault lines in Myanmar society and explains how these influence diverse perceptions, framing and agenda setting as political developments unfold.

The book provides an up-to-date overview of the main identities and contestations within Myanmar’s civil society and, by extension, within Myanmar society as a whole.

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In order to analyse the activities and advocacy positions of various civil society groups, this chapter discusses diversity in identities and positions within Myanmar civil society and the fault lines that can be identified between different groups based on ethnicity and religion, gender and generation, class and education level, and location inside or outside the country. The role of Buddhist monks, student activists and the democracy movement in exile as the most visible actors in Myanmar’s civil society is put into perspective. This chapter also discusses civil society’s various levels of independence from the state, and the role of so-called government-organized NGOs. Lastly, it reflects on the elitist nature of some professionalized civil society organizations and their relationship with grassroots activism, with particular reference to the so-called Third Force that emerged in Myanmar at the start of the political transition.

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This chapter discusses the influence of the largely Western donor support on civil society’s room to manoeuvre before and during Myanmar’s political transition. Under military rule, foreign assistance was constrained, and aid budgets were relatively low. During the political transition, many donors and inter-governmental organizations entered the country looking for opportunities. Although this resulted in increased support for civil society, international non-governmental organizations remained in a more powerful position than local actors. After the rise in hate speech and violence against Muslim communities, aid again became politicized. Foreign agencies in Rakhine State were accused of prioritizing Muslim recipients, and some were forced to leave the country. After violence against the Rohingya escalated, cases against Myanmar were started at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, in which Aung San Suu Kyi defended the role of the military. This sparked surprise and outrage among Western observers who had viewed her as a human rights icon. The selective international attention for Myanmar, which focused respectively on sanctions, opportunities for foreign involvement and the plight of the Rohingya, arguably resulted in feelings of ‘competitive victimhood’ between different ethnic groups that were all affected by the military.

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This chapter zooms in on civil society’s responses to Myanmar’s military coup of February 2021 and its renewed search for inter-group solidarity and international attention. It discusses the role of elected politicians and civil society representatives in the newly formed National Unity Government, a shadow body to the military State Administration Council. Since the coup, these two entities have contested for local legitimacy and global recognition. After months of peaceful protest and violent repression, some citizens turned to armed resistance by forming People’s Defence Forces, many of which were trained by ethnic armed organizations in the border region. This led to new questions regarding representation and agenda setting on behalf of the Myanmar population, as well as debates regarding effective and acceptable forms of resistance. Civil servants formed the Civil Disobedience Movement by refusing to work for the government in health care, infrastructure or education, while those who did not participate faced social punishment. The nationwide anti-coup protests had an emancipatory effect on various marginalized groups, with women, youth, ethnic and sexual minorities playing a more prominent and visible role than before. The post-coup resistance movement also displayed public support for the plight of the Rohingya.

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Burma/Myanmar has faced prolonged periods of military rule and hosts some of the world’s longest internal conflicts. In the early 2000s, hopes flared up at the local and international level for democratic reform under the military’s ‘Roadmap to Democracy’. These hopes were crushed as the military continued to dominate the political landscape and terrorize the population. It continued its violent treatment of ethnic minorities, resulting in large-scale crimes against the Rohingya in 2017. After handing over power to the National League for Democracy, the military again staged a coup in 2021, which resulted in a large anti-coup movement and escalating military violence against dissidents. This introduction sets the context of the political transition period between 2010 and 2020, outlines the methodology and positionality of the researcher, introduces the concept of civil society as a lens through which these political developments are analysed the various perceptions on social and political change in Myanmar at the local and global level. It introduces the following chapters in which civil society identities and tactics in pursuit of local change and global recognition are analysed. The chapter ends with an explanation of terminology, including the use of Burma or Myanmar.

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