The Myanmar Quarterly
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
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
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.
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?
(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
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
V. Special Features
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.
VII. Let Numbers Speak
Number of Political Prisoners