Greed the unseen peril on Myanmar’s road to democracy

Greed the unseen peril on Myanmar’s road to democracy

The international surge in investments, and political opportunism, are doing little to help Myanmar’s already weak civil society evolve in the interest of all. JONATHAN BOGAIS reports.

In 1941, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856–1941) wrote: ‘We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

A staunch defender of civil liberties, Justice Brandeis spent most of his life as a lawyer, trying to reconcile the developing powers of modern government with the maintenance of civil society, individual liberties and opportunities for personal development.

Barely emerging from decades of isolation under military dictatorship, Myanmar is seeking democracy. Determined to make it possible, the international community is embarking on a range of actions including foreign investment, non-government organisation or NGO-led projects to reshape Myanmar’s civil society, and security initiatives.

It is also helping Nobel laureate and National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the presidency at the 2015 general election, hoping that her leadership, a new constitution and the installation of the rule of law will achieve this goal.

Myanmar has become the new frontier of the Asia–Pacific region, both politically and economically. With its large potential markets, abundant natural resources, and strategic position, competition for control of the anticipated revenues and geostrategic advantages increases pressure on all sides. NGO’s are multiplying, and looking at the multitude of projects ranging from engineering to health, setting up a program in Myanmar has become a trend for many international institutions.

On the surface, this could be seen as helpful. But the reality on the ground shows a completely different picture, suggesting that much of this help may cause more harm than good by building local elites in an already divided environment and will fail to address some of the important cultural and sociopolitical issues.

There are over 65 international NGOs currently operating in Myanmar under various framework agreements with the government, such as memoranda of understanding or letters of agreement with a relevant ministry. Funded by foreign governments, a number of these international NGOs are acting as de facto foreign affairs representatives under the guidelines of soft diplomacy strategies, a growing trend in foreign affairs.

International NGOs also tend to act as de facto civil society organisations operating within a framework often consistent with a long-lasting tradition of Western dualism. In this process, they fail to acknowledge current social realities, including the struggle for Myanmar to evolve while managing the interplay of two different religious traditions in a social and cultural setting dominated by one.

Assessing the roles of international NGOs and determining the conditions under which they should operate is necessary. These organisations often support a wide range of new national urban NGOs, many of which have a weak membership base, lack countrywide and balanced political or ethnic representation, and are often linked to the political establishment. Thus, donor-driven NGO/civil society initiatives potentially constrain capacity to create domestic social capital, in the process undermining empowerment and leaving domestic groups in a weak and subordinate position.

The NGO/civil society paradigm in Myanmar—as in many other countries—needs major rethinking. NGOs are only one of many components of civil society, which also comprises non-state actors, and associations that are not driven by private, political or economic interests, are autonomously organised, and interact in the public sphere. Civil society actors must be independent from the state, but also oriented toward, and interact closely with the state and the political sphere.

Role of international NGOs

International NGOs are often driving civil-society organisations into service delivery, keeping them away from other important work and de-emphasising their advocacy functions. Although the legitimacy of civil society actors may benefit from effective service delivery, it does not necessarily enhance civic engagement.

Current changes in Myanmar are providing an opening for investment, and political and economic reform, together with the hope for a more effective civil society and the promotion of human rights, which are essential prerequisites for development.

These opportunities are dependent, however, on building an inclusive political structure where parties use dialogue—not coercion—to address acute sociopolitical and cultural challenges in a country of over 55 million, which is home to 135 ethnic groups in which 70 per cent of the population is made up of small-scale farmers.

While economic development can quickly generate massive wealth, the extractive, agricultural and infrastructure-building industries are at risk of being concentrated in the hands of privileged elites. The scale of rising wealth concentration and opportunity amid an unequal political representation is a serious and worrying trend presenting a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems vital to the future of democracy. Myanmar’s leadership and opposition have not yet grasped the notion that democracy cannot exist without social cohesion.

Myanmar remains plagued by unresolved ethnocultural conflicts, rampant inequality, ineffective civil society and corruption at all levels of government. Human rights abuses are endemic. But, oblivious to current political instability and the lack of economic structures, foreign investors are competing aggressively for a share of this market, buying their way into a state affected by systemic corruption.

Scores of newly created businesses, often involving former members of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), are welcoming this massive influx of capital, providing foreign investors with the means to achieve their goals, often to the detriment of minorities and the poor.

This is symptomatic of the transformation from the ‘military-enterprise’—a long-lasting trademark of Myanmar—to new enterprises run by former and, at times, present, military personnel, only too well aware of the tremendous potential for profit brought by political change.

Meanwhile, consistent with the United States’ well-defined defence diplomacy initiatives to secure ‘forward presence’ as part of its rebalancing in the Asia–Pacific region, the Obama administration has asked for congressional support for ‘non-lethal military assistance to the Myanmar military’.

Instead of creating a space for civil society to flourish, the state, in its weakness, influences uncivil, discriminatory groupings to develop or become stronger.

Myanmar’s position between China, India and the Gulf of Bengal is of the utmost importance to US geo-strategists. Building an alliance with Myanmar would allow the United States to control one of China’s key resource transportation routes (between mainland China and the Gulf of Bengal). Forward presence involves leveraging allies’ resources and power while taking advantage of regional insecurities, integrating forces with partner countries across the region, and building new alliances.

Instead of creating a space for civil society to flourish, the state, in its weakness, influences uncivil, discriminatory groupings to develop or become stronger, thus limiting considerably the potential influence of civil society groups working for cross-ethnic understanding. As people’s natural reaction to conflict, inequality, social stress and violence in a state over-determined by ethnicity and religion is to strengthen bonds to their ethnic or religious group as a protective mechanism, this process is likely to turn weak civil society groups into uncivil actors, thus increasing the separation of civil society along ethnocultural grounds.

When extreme nationalist movements, such as the 969 Movement [Theravada Buddhist], are fuelling this process by expressing uncivil behaviour, preaching hatred against other groups and at times inciting violence, a fundamental obstacle to development occurs. Violence in Myanmar is a structural process pervaded by a long-lasting tradition of exclusion, marginalisation, inequality, frustration and racism.

Under pressure from nationalist groups, the Myanmar government is now trying to introduce new tough laws against Muslims to protect the country’s national race and religion, which, if successful, would further increase discrimination and oppression of minorities on religious grounds.

The leader of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been reluctant to speak against these proposals, let alone oppose them. Most of the population, made up of 70 per cent Theravada Buddhists, supports the legislations.

Using the words of Justice Brandeis, democracy depends on a state’s ability to ‘reconcile the developing powers of modern government with the maintenance of civil society, individual liberties and opportunities for personal development’.

On-the-ground reality shows that the current international engagement in Myanmar is doing little to support social cohesion and is failing to help civil society to prosper. The road to democracy may be tougher than first thought.

Dr Jonathan Bogais is a specialist in foreign affairs in Southeast Asia and the west Pacific. He is a social scientist and strategic adviser in conflict, international and human security and an adjunct associate professor with the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney.

The lights of Yangon. Myanmar has become the new frontier of the Asia–Pacific region, both politically and economically (Wikimedia Commons).

Jonathan Bogais Dr Jean Jonathan Bogais, is a psycho-sociologist, analyst and negotiator specialising in conflict, violence ethics and complex systems - and in Southeast Asia. He is also an associate professor (adjunct) at the University of Sydney (School of Social and Political Sciences) and a senior fellow at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University, Bangkok. His website is

Share On: