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Politics of Civil Society in Hybrid Regime (MMRQ Vol 1, No 1)

By ISP Admin | July 2, 2016

The Myanmar Quarterly
Vol.1, No.1.
October, 2016.

Politics of Civil Society in Hybrid Regime

Burma/Myanmar has entered its second phase of political transition, shifting power from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government to the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Aung San Suu Kyi in April 2016. Contrary to the old Burmese saying that “there is no room for two lions to dwell in the same cave,” the military-drafted constitution forces both the armed forces (Tatmadaw) and the newly elected civilian government to cohabit in the polity. In other word, the country’s governance system is still fit to be categorized as a hybrid regime involving some elements of electoral democracy together with the strength of authoritarian institutions. Moreover, the new administration exhibits strong populist tendencies involving its mobilization of the public by means of marginalizing mediating institutions such as civil society organizations (CSOs), independent media and public intellectuals. How do independent CSOs along with dissension and protests function in this hybrid and also movement-friendly regime? How does the regime react and handle dissent? How does regime type influence the repertoires of CSOs and social movements regarding critical issues such as ethnic peace, land rights and education reform? How does the new regime engage with international donor agencies to restrict funding for local CSOs and movements? Myanmar Quarterly’s August addresses the new political context and the questions raised above.


I. Editor’s Note

[toggle title=”Editors’ Note” load=”hide”] Summary: It is with pleasure that we introduce you to the first issue of The Myanmar Quarterly journal. The Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar (ISP -Myanmar) publishes the Myanmar Quarterly journal in order to achieve our two goals of promoting democratic leadership and strengthening civic participation. The journal addresses thematic topics that are relevant to contemporary Myanmar politics. The journal is a quarterly and publishes every three months. A wide range of Myanmar experts and researchers contribute articles, interviews and book reviews to offer their research findings and views on the relevant topic. In this inaugural issue, the thematic topic is the politics of civil society in hybrid regime. In addition to this theme, this issue also provides other sections that include special features, perspectives and research findings on issues relevant to Myanmar. We believe the Myanmar Quarterly will offer informed debate and deliberation on important issues, which in turn will help to promote democratic leadership and strengthen civic participation in our country.[/toggle]

I. Foreword

[toggle title=”Foreword by Larry Diamond ” load=”hide”]It is an honour to be able to participate in the launch of this vital quarterly publication. At a time when freedom and democracy have been in retreat globally, Myanmar’s emergence out of a half-century of dictatorship has been a welcome piece of good news. Ever since the 1988 Uprising, people around the world have felt a strong sense of identification with the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom and democracy. They have not only been inspired by the heroism and sacrifice of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, they have also been deeply moved by the courage and determination of the entire civil society in Myanmar, including the students, the monks, the journalists, and the grassroots and human rights activists who have repeatedly risked their lives in the quest for freedom. Among democrats around the world, there is a strong and continuing sense of solidarity with Myanmar’s quest for viable and sustainable democracy.

However, we all know that Myanmar has only completed a portion of its democratic journey. While the November 2015 elections were a historic breakthrough for democracy, they have not resulted in a fully democratic form of government. Many provisions of the 2008 Constitution are blatantly inconsistent with democracy. These include the presence of military officers in one-quarter of the seats in parliament; the right of the military to fill, without democratic control or accountability, important ministerial posts dealing with security; and the constraints on who can contest for the presidency. Moreover, stable democracy requires peace among the different ethnic and social groups, a strong civil society, a neutral and professional state, an independent judiciary, and a culture of respect for individual and group rights. These conditions are never achieved overnight, and in Myanmar they confront authoritarian tendencies not only from the military but also from the former political opposition that now controls the government.

It is not unusual for long time opponents of authoritarian rule to manifest some authoritarian tendencies once in power. Opposing autocracy is not the same thing as governing democratically, and as Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is why continuous independent scrutiny and questioning are vital in any democracy. In an emerging democracy, newly elected leaders need respect and a certain amount of space to govern. But they also need to be monitored and held accountable.

The challenge is particularly urgent when founding democratic elections produce a landslide victory for one political party. In other countries, this outcome has often been associated with a slide toward renewed authoritarianism, for two reasons. First, in winning a landslide, the victorious party and its leader are tempted to think of themselves as the embodiment of the national will, with transcendent moral authority that does not need to answer to political opposition or civil society. And second, as a practical matter, when one party dominates the political landscape, the political opposition lacks the numbers in parliament and the organization and standing in society to provide an effective check. This absence of a strong opposition party (or coalition) that can provide a credible governing alternative explains why the quality of democracy has been deteriorating steadily in South Africa since the late 1990s. While the military provides a counterweight to the power of the dominant political party in Myanmar, this is not a democratic check. Sustainable democracy in Myanmar will thus require constitutional change not only to remove the military as a political player but also to modify the highly majoritarian nature of the electoral system, so that a greater plurality of political parties and voices can be represented in parliament in fairer proportion to their electoral strength.

Many of the conditions for sustainable democracy will take a long time to establish in Myanmar. Unfortunately, this may be the case for the needed constitutional changes, and for securing a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement. We know that building a popular culture of tolerance, vigilance, and civic engagement requires many years of grassroots mobilization and reform of the educational system. Transforming civil-military relations is as well not merely a matter of legal and constitutional changes but also of building trust and confidence between military officers and civilian political leaders.

There is, however, one thing that Myanmar can do from the start to facilitate democratic progress, and that is to foster and protect a strong, autonomous civil society. Without truly independent NGOs, think tanks, media, and grassroots organizations, it will be difficult to check the power of the two dominant actors in political life—the ruling party and the military. And without a vigorous, autonomous civil society, it will be difficult to achieve the other cultural and institutional conditions necessary to achieve, consolidate, and deepen democracy in Myanmar. In a vigorous democracy, civil society plays an essential mediating role between the state and society. It recruits new leaders into politics and rejuvenates the system. It provides a forum for debating and thinking about the problems confronting the political system, the economy, and the society. And it offers a wide array of channels for citizens to become actively involved in voicing their concerns and defending their interests. While civil society is sometimes viewed as an adversary of government (even a democratically elected government) it can provide credible sources of information, fresh ideas, and systematic analysis that are indispensable if government is to be responsive and effective, and if democratic reform is to move forward. Thus, the successful democracies of recent decades have been the ones that recognized a symbiotic relationship between a strong democratic state and a strong civil society.

The launch of Myanmar Quarterly could not be more timely. Myanmar urgently needs quality independent thinking and analysis of the governance challenges it confronts. Civil society must play a vigorous role in helping to provide this, and Myanmar Quarterly will provide an essential forum in this regard. I wish it every success and hope it will attract widespread readership and support.


III. Cover Stories, Interviews and Book Reviews

[toggle title=”Politics of Civil Society in Hybrid Regime By Min Zin” load=”hide”] Summary: The article treats civil society as a dependent variable and argues that it could be constructed with proper strategies and coordination. The article analyses three pathways through which civil society has developed in Myanmar since 1962. The first pathway is independent mobilization from below that defined the survival and activation of CSOs (in forms of underground and informal groups) in the Ne Win period (1962-1988), when political opportunities were closed. The second pathway is co-construction of civil society involving networks of exile/underground activists inside the country and external allies (especially Western campaign and advocacy groups). This pathway was the hallmark of political activism in 1991-2010. The third pathway is a strengthening of civil society, which involves increased engagement between CSOs and the state. This dynamic was a significant feature of the Thein Sein-led government’s hybrid regime (2011-2016). With the National League for Democracy led government taking office in April 2016, CSOs have faced two challenges: the populist tendency of the new government, which have marginalized mediating institutions, and the lack of effective embeddedness on the part of many CSOs within their respective communities. Despite these challenges, the article argues that CSOs should pursue the third pathway of state-civil society synergy, and it also offers strategic recommendations to achieve this goal.[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Critical perspectives on civil society By Camilla Buzzi” load=”hide”] Summary: This article is a study of the concept of civil society as a descriptive and normative term that can be used to describe the variety of associations that exist in a country as well as to express an ideal about what such associations should contribute to. The article reviews the concept of civil society and discusses the relationship between civil society, state and market. It also takes a critical outlook at how the notion of a boundary between the public and the private sphere shapes the definition of civil society and the question of legitimacy and accountability of civil society. The article emphasizes the need to recognize civil society as a category in its own right and not as a residual category that exists in order to make up for the weaknesses of other institutions in the state and the market.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”A Robust and Functioning Civil Society By Min Khin Maung Yin” load=”hide”] Summary: Most scholars agree that civil society plays a vital role in the success of a democratization process, while some scholars have been critical of the claims that civil society plays a democratizing role. However, there is an emerging consensus among scholars that civil society plays important roles in initiating and sustaining the process of democratic transition. As for Myanmar, the concept of civil society is new, as the development of civil society was suppressed during decades of military rule. Although the recently imposed political liberalization led by the Myanmar military has created more space for civil society to operate, the sector requires significant development to be effective. Whereas the democratic transition process of Myanmar has recently shown signs of losing its momentum, civil society – the only reliable social engine of the country – is not sufficiently robust. Instead of constantly criticizing the transitioning state, this article argues that civil society needs to reposition itself to play a supportive role in revitalizing Myanmar’s stagnating democratic reform process.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Hybrid Regimes and Civil Society: Comparative Analysis from within Southeast Asia By John Buchanan” load=”hide”] Summary: This article examines the relationship between hybrid regimes and civil society organizations (CSOs) through a survey of hybrid regimes, which have emerged in Southeast Asia after long periods of authoritarian rule. The cases considered are Thailand from 1973 to 1976, the period after the “People’s Power” movement vanquished President Marcos from the Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia following the downfall of Suharto in 1998.

The article examines several patterns of interaction between hybrid regimes and CSOs. One dynamic is that the expectations by many CSOs that they would succeed in engaging with the government in a time of more open politics were often not met. Hybrid regimes engaged with CSOs on some issues, but not others. The influence of members of the previous ruling coalitions often continued to wield influence and blocked demands by CSOs. The article also shows that not all CSOs operating under hybrid regimes were “inherently benign.” The Thai case involved the emergence of Nawaphon, a right-wing movement led by members of the Buddhist clergy. Nawaphon is an example of an organization that can also be considered part of civil society. The article also shows that the engagement between CSOs and hybrid regimes are not only reflective of institutional arrangements and politics, but also can change in accordance with electoral cycles. The article concludes by raising questions about the factors that account for the emergence of a hybrid regime and the influence of these circumstances on the relationship between hybrid regimes and CSOs.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Views from the rulers: A manual for handling Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and protests By Aung Thu Nyein” load=”hide”] Summary: Is civil society at risk in Myanmar? Despite a popularly elected government led by democracy icon, civil society in Myanmar does not feel encouraging to them by the opposition-turned- government, in terms of relationship as well as their participation in peace and policy process.

Look around the neighbouring countries; Cambodia recently passed a law restricting to NGO’s activities and in China, 2015 NGO law forbids all activities that endanger the peace, stability, public order, culture or traditions of the country and India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) (2010) dictates NGOs receiving money from abroad must have a “license” and no political activities with that money. There are many restrictive laws against civil society around the world.

It could be a subtle trend or an undercurrent threat to civil society, but many civil society advocates and scholar alike have warned that “Civil society under pressure –as their space is shrinking –closing– turned to no space”. The governments use a bundle of measures: compromising laws, vilification campaigns, repression or criminalization, bureaucratic and tax regulations and harassment, smear campaigns, secret service methods and open repression. It would be an interesting question why the states have changed their position against civil society?[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Ethnic Civil Society and Myanmar’s Hybrid Regimes By Ashley South” load=”hide”] Summary: This article discusses the role of ethnic civil society in Myanmar. The transition has opened new space. While obstacles remain, previous distinctions between civil society in government controlled areas and civil society in opposition areas in the borderlands are disappearing as ceasefires have enabled more cooperation. In ongoing conflict areas, however, space remains restricted. Civil society also remains excluded from the peace process. New issues are emerging. Border based groups have undertaken important advocacy work and cross-border assistance in the past, but need to change. The relations to ethnic armed organizations are changing. The question of who speaks for local communities raises issues about representation in civil society. The author further discusses the power of donors in relation to civil society. Finally, civil society in Burma tends to be fragmented and reproduce existing cleavages in Burmese society and the authoritarian past. However, it remains important for social and political change.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Social Movement and ‘Framing’ By Ko Tar” load=”hide”] Summary: The National Network for Education Reform sought to frame itself as an independent network that did not oppose any institution. However, people viewed the NNER differently. Indeed, when student leaders developed their 11-point demands in 2015, the NNER failed to establish the identity they wanted for themselves. During the previous government, the NNER became framed as impractical, while student leaders were viewed as closely associated with the former Communist Party of Burma. Psychologists state that perception can often be more important than reality. The author argues that the dominant frame in Myanmar now is about the need to “be supportive of (the leader)” and the fear of “an ogre hiding in the back”. He suggests the need to look beyond such frames. While he agrees on the need for the existing frame of “being supportive of”, the article also questions what is needed in order to move beyond this frame.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Beyond Ma Ba Tha Anti-Muslim Movement: Impacts on Democratization and National Reconciliation By Dr Sai Latt” load=”hide”] Summary: This article argues that the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) is not a religious movement because the contents of the movement are not about Buddha’s philosophy and spiritual teaching. It instead is a political movement to ensure Bama Buddhist supremacy in the socio-political hierarchy of the nation. Although the immediate target of the movement is the exclusion of Muslim communities, the broader political impacts are weakening public support for long existing democratic forces and posing a threat to national reconciliation, which requires promoting inclusivity and diversities (unlike exclusionary politics of Ma-Ba-Tha). Whatever the intent and the means are, the result clearly shows that Ma Ba Tha undermines the democratic forces and reinforces Bama Buddhist supremacy, while organizing itself as a mass mobilizing mechanism.[/toggle]

(a) Bo Kyi
– a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP)
(b) Phyo Phyo Aung
– former General Secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and a member of the Democratic Education Movement Leading Committee
(c) Wai Wai Nu
– former political prisoner and the co-founder of Justice for Women. She is also the founder and director of the Women Peace Network Arakan
(d) Aung Myo Min
– Executive Director of the Equality Myanmar
(e) Win Myo Thu
– Director of the EcoDev Myanmar

Book Reviews

The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: managing dissent in post-communist Russia, Graeme Robertson by Su Mon Thazin Aung

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Non-Democracies, Kurt Schock by Akar Hein

IV. Research Findings

[toggle title=”Donation, Transparency and Accountability By Zawtu Seng” load=”hide”] Summary: In 2015, a global survey of charitable donations and works conducted annually by the Charitable Aid Foundation ranked Myanmar for the second year in a row as the most charitable nation in the world. This article, however, questions how donations were raised by the donors and managed by recipients. The author collected information about donations made by 37 senior state leaders from the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run, daily newspaper, in the period from January 1 to December 31. 2014. His investigation finds that there are approximately two million USD worth of donations made by the state leaders during this period, which means that on average each leader donated over $50,000 USD in 2014. The amount is more than the annual salary of the President. The author also conducted field research in twenty monasteries to understand how they manage their monetary donations. The findings suggest a lack of transparency and accountability in Myanmar’s charitable practices.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Intra-Elite conflict in Union Solidarity and Development Party By Nay Yan Oo” load=”hide”] Summary: This article seeks to explain the conflicts between the two top USDP leaders, President U Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House in Parliament, U Shwe Mann, during the political transition. Why did such conflicts not occur during the previous military regime? This research puzzle is partly explained by Barbara Geddes’s concept of “collective leadership” in military dictatorship. The utmost priority for military leaders is institutional survival to secure military corporate interests because disunity can lead to regime breakdown. Hence, there was no conflict between the two leaders while they were generals during the military regime. A rational choice approach further clarifies that they both pursued self-interested behaviours. The desire to be ‘political champions caused the rivalries among them and with their close allies after the military’s withdrawal. Therefore, the paper argues that the internal conflict among the USDP leaders resulted from personal interests rather than policy divergence.[/toggle]

V. Special Features

[toggle title=”Risks and traps on the road to democracy By Igor Blazevic” load=”hide”] Summary: This article assesses the transition in Burma since 2011 by setting Burma in a comparative perspective. While democracy has expanded globally, cases of failed democratization are also common, with challenges coming from entrenched political and economic interests and high expectations. Despite many positive developments and good intentions, Burma is still a hybrid regime and faces many risks to successful democratization, including the political and economic role of the military and the need to overcome deep identity divisions leading to different visions for the country. Burma also needs institutions for vertical and horizontal accountability to develop the quality of democracy. The author further discusses what constitutes good government and the need for a change in mindset for activists who enter government. Democratization is likely to take time and Burma can experience backslides several times. However, the growing strength of Burmese society makes it hopeful that the country will succeed.[/toggle]

VI. Perspectives

[toggle title=”Rule of Law: Opportunities for the NLD government By Zunetta Herbert, Partners Asia” load=”hide”]Summary: The ‘rule of law’ is a priority for the government formed by the National League for Democracy. One challenge is that prevailing understandings of the law in Myanmar are at odds with each other. One concept stresses the equality of individuals before the law. But the practice by previous military governments has involved the use of the legal system as an instrument for maintaining order and stability. The article addresses the question of how will these two fundamentally opposed conceptions of the rule of law play out under a hybrid regime, in which the elected leaders and the military will have to negotiate every move.

The article identifies several challenges in promoting the rule of law in an acceptable manner. At present, the law is not applied with consistency. Many current laws do not meet international standards. Customary laws and practices are often not recognized by law. The process for drafting legislation is in itself opaque and sometimes arbitrary.

The article discusses priorities for legal reforms in the following four areas: The reform of law implementing agencies; The promotion of equality before the law for everyone, through the amendment and repeal of current laws; The strengthening of the domestic legal system, so that no one is above the law; A final priority for reform is addressing corruption in the legal system.

The paper proposes recommendations for immediate action: The appointment of new members to the Supreme Court; The establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate and propose solutions to address the problems associated with corruption; The Attorney General’s Office should instruct courts to follow existing codes to reduce the length of trials; Prevent law officers and judges from duplicating charges; Eliminate the use of torture or inhuman treatment by the police to extract confessions. Establish mechanisms for settling land disputes at state and regional levels based on the new National Land Use Policy; And, the government should encourage and protect civil society.[/toggle]
[toggle title=”Political Regime Change and Six Sources of Power By Kyaw Kyaw Nyein Chan” load=”hide”]Summary: This article argues that ruling elites exercise authority so long as people allows them to rule. Thus, non-cooperation on the part of the general public is crucial to the breaking chains of autocratic rule. The author notes that if the public is aware of the sources of political power, they can discern how the state (no matter whether it is an autocratic or hybrid regime type) exercises repression and engages in manipulation to maintain their unjust power. The article outlines six sources of political power, namely legitimate authority, human resources (sheer numbers of the masses), knowledge and skills, material and natural resources and intangible factors, such as culture, and sanctions. The public could deprive these sources of power from the rulers by means of elections, non-violent civil defiance or others methods.[/toggle]

VII. Let Numbers Speak
Number of Political Prisoners









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