Civil society and the 2020 election

Civil society will again play a critical role in the general election due late next year, but in a context and political landscape that differs significantly from 2015.


IN LATE 2020, probably November, Myanmar will hold a general election. It will be the third under the 2008 Constitution and will decide the composition of the third Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – Myanmar’s national legislature – as well as its state and region hluttaws. The winner will form the third government in Nay Pyi Taw and the state and regional capitals.

As the National League for Democracy government nears the end of its present mandate, much attention is being focused on next year’s election. There is disappointment at the government’s performance among NLD voters, party members and MPs, as well as many others among the general population, Myanmar and foreign experts, and the international community.

Although most commentators expect an NLD victory in 2020 (it also performed strongly at by-elections in 2012, 2017 and 2018), a widespread sentiment has emerged that the Union Solidarity and Development Party will win more seats than in 2015 and, perhaps more importantly, that ethnic political parties will also perform strongly, and might even win control of some subnational parliaments.

The likely role of civil society organisations in next year’s election has received less attention. Since the late 2000s, CSOs have been important actors in the political transition, and five years ago many organisations mobilised for the polls because they hoped that the NLD would win. CSOs and their leaders could have provided the NLD with much-needed expertise in a number of sectors and contributed to ensure the success of reform initiatives, but instead the party has ceased virtually all interaction with them.

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As a result, CSOs, their members and their donors are increasingly divided and wondering what role they could and should play in the 2020 election.

Born again: civil society in Myanmar

Civil society has long played an important political role in Myanmar. Early forms of what would later be described as “civil society” organisations existed in pre-colonial Burma, many of which were linked to religious – mostly Buddhist – networks that supported education and welfare activities within their respective communities.

The rise of nationalism and the struggle for independence fostered a significant strengthening of civil society. Cultural organisations, nurtured by the rapid growth of indigenous literature, and associations formed for the purpose of “defending” Buddhism became ubiquitous. However, the creation of students’ associations – which organised their first demonstrations in 1920 – workers’ unions, and the Saya San rebellion from 1930-32, resulted in civil society becoming directly political. The founders of Burma’s pre-independence political parties, including Bogyoke Aung San and U Nu, were for the most part representatives of such networks.

The military coup of 1962 led to civil society being suppressed for four decades – only religious networks were allowed to continue their work – but the democracy movement of 1988 revived the ideas and movements of the first half of the century. The hundreds of thousands of people who joined marches and rallies in 1988 were a powerful demonstration of the population’s desire for change, and specifically democracy, and led to the creation of new networks of activists, such as the “88 Generation”. The military’s brutal suppression of the uprising and its seizure of power in the September 18, 1988 coup, led to the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which in 1997 changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council. The NLD was founded on September 27, 1988.

The aftermath of the events of 1988 is important for understanding the dynamic today between politics and civil society. In the five years after 1988, thousands of protesters, mostly university students, fled to border areas where they joined forces with ethnic nationality groups, which had been fighting the central government for decades. The emerging new democracy movement was comprised of “1988” and “ethnic” activists, and groups that attracted support from Western countries. It led to NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and sanctions being imposed on the country between 1997 and 2016.

In the 1990 election, the NLD won 82 percent of the seats but the SLORC ignored the result. A national convention began work in 1993 on drafting a constitution that was not adopted until 2008.

The 1990s and 2000s were defined by the suppression of all forms of dissent, continued military dominance and civil conflict, an attempt at economic reform which contributed to the emergence of cronies and oligarchs, and Myanmar becoming a pariah state, at least in the eyes of Western countries.

However, the absence of civil society and independent media began to change in the late 1990s, a trend that gained pace during the 2000s. This first phase in the development of civil society occurred in parallel with the development of the movement in exile, mainly over the border with Thailand. The second phase was between 2008 and 2011 and the third began after the 2011 elections.

In 2007, widespread discontent found expression in the mass protests known as the Saffron Revolution and, just as in 1988, economic concerns were mixed with political demands. Leaders of the 1988 Generation movement initiated the protests, which saw monks take to the streets in a second wave of demonstrations.

The split

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis brought devastation to the Ayeyarwady Delta and killed at least 137,000 people. Amid widespread dismay at the government’s incompetence and inaction in responding to the natural disaster, Myanmar society began to take control. Nargis led to an explosion of civil society as people from all walks of life joined forces to provide aid and relief to cyclone survivors. Within weeks the number of CSOs and civil society activists multiplied several dozen times. For many, it was an intensely empowering experience.

In the context of the relief effort, and with a general election due in 2010, civil society once again had a political role, but it was split along lines that remain today.

The “1988” civil society and civil society in exile, reinvigorated by the demonstrations of 2007, took the position of opposing the constitution and boycotting the 2010 election.

The “Nargis” civil society networks and activists tended to support the idea of playing “the only game in town” and accepting the new political rules. However, only a minority supported the constitution and participation in the 2010 election. Among them were some civil society leaders, including from Myanmar Egress, an organisation dedicated to capacity building and good governance, who became influential advisors to President U Thein Sein and played a key role in the reforms initiated by his USDP government.

Believing the 2010 election would be rigged in favour of the USDP – a party created and supported by the military – civil society chose overwhelmingly not to monitor the election or engage directly with participating political parties. The only two groups that had election-focused projects and which tried to monitor the vote in 2010 were Myanmar Egress and the Nyein (Shalom) Foundation (in the interest of full disclosure, the author worked for Myanmar Egress at the time, including on these specific activities).

This was in glaring contrast to 2015, when dozens of CSOs monitored the election, with the support of several thousand observers. One of the most prominent was the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, an independent Yangon-based group formed in 2013, which is one of the 12 members of the Electoral Reform Coordination Body. The ERCB was established ahead of the 2017 by-elections.

The main reason why civil society mobilised so strongly ahead of the 2015 elections was because it shared the hope of most voters that the NLD would win, as long as the ballot was free and fair. This enthusiasm, at least among civil society activists, has clearly dissipated since the NLD took office in 2016. The consequences for the 2020 election, and the role that civil society will play in it, are unclear.

Policies, platforms and politics

Beyond election monitoring, one area in which civil society could play a role, and for which it is ideally suited, is helping political parties to draft their election platforms. In each election since 2010, the platforms of political parties have been unsatisfactory because they have lacked well-defined policies and failed to offer a clear vision for the future.

This an issue over which CSOs and political parties differ significantly. Civil society activists regard the political process as being flawed under the “hybrid” system created by the 2008 Constitution, and they tend to believe that issues included in the prerogatives of elected MPs, such as education, health, labour, land rights, and natural resources management, should be the priority of politicians.

Politicians, on the other hand, tend to believe that working on specific issues is irrelevant as long as the constitutional framework is not changed. This means constitutional change is their priority, even though they see little prospect of it actually happening in the foreseeable future.

This has created a situation in which civil society activists and politicians ignore each other, with the possible exception of ethnic political parties. Since political parties are largely defined by personalities rather than by platforms, ideas and plans for reform, they fail to see what civil society has to offer. Conversely, since civil society does not believe that members of Myanmar’s various parliaments, and particularly those in the two chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, will gain much power in the coming years, they tend to ignore them and focus on engaging with cabinet members in Nay Pyi Taw and the states and regions, and with the bureaucracy.

For this reason, civil society has built a series of networks that seek to collectively engage the government on a range of issues. They include the National Network for Education Reform, Land Core Group, Land in Our Hands, Gender Equality Network, Women’s League of Burma, and the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability. Some of these groups represent scores of CSOs.

If the entire civil society movement mobilised for the 2015 election because it wanted the NLD to win, its motivation in 2020 will be because it does not want the NLD to lose. But the civil society movement also has no appetite for showing or providing support to any party that it feels has let it down.

The attitude of CSOs towards the election next year will be informed by two factors, one to do with politics and the other with identity.

In terms of where they stand politically, CSOs can still be divided between the “1988” and the “Nargis” groups. The former will decide which candidates and parties to support and do all they can to help them win; the latter have a broader objective and typically reach out to all parties because they see themselves as neutral players that strive to promote good practices, capacity and awareness among all politicians.

In terms of identity, CSOs can be divided between those with a clear “ethnic” identity and those who see themselves as working for the whole country. The former hope for a better result for ethnic political parties in 2020 than in 2015; the latter believe that the best outcome would be an NLD victory, partly because one of their primary concerns is ensuring that the USDP remains in opposition. Indeed, many activists, and others, oppose the USDP because of its association with the “old order”. These activists are disappointed by the NLD but have no choice but to support it again.

Civil society will again mobilise in 2020, but the fact that so many activists and organisations are disappointed by the NLD will ensure a very different context than 2015, in ways that are not easy to predict.

What can be anticipated, though, is a much clearer division of civil society along political and ethnic lines.

Whether this will be a positive or a negative development remains to be seen. If it means less dialogue and cooperation, it will be negative. If, on the contrary, it means that civil society increasingly reflects a more mature political spectrum, then it could lead to more pluralism in politics.

Such a development might result in key issues taking centre stage in the political arena, which would demand the development of better platforms, and help to strengthen the relationship between civil society and political parties.

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