Civil Society Is Crucial to Reforms in Myanmar

A copper mine in Myanmar. (Photo: Flickr/AntwerpenR)
Issue: IKAT-US
Facebook logoTwitter logo

Things are happening in Myanmar under the leadership of President Thein Sein, and keeping up with the pace of change can be a challenge. This is certainly true for Myanmar’s dynamic civil society, which is working overtime to educate society and build networks with an eye toward making sure President Thein Sein's reforms take root and achieve their potential. These government-initiated changes depend on effective oversight, and civil society engagement is vital in ensuring that this process does not stop short of addressing the most vexing issues.

The oil, gas and mining industries lie at the heart of many of these issues, especially in areas where ethnic dimensions of armed conflict overlap with the control of natural resources. Good governance in these sectors will be vital for the fair, sustainable and peaceful development of the country.

The government is taking positive steps in this regard. Its commitment to reform can be seen in the laudable focus on anti-corruption, transparency and accountability. Myanmar’s parliament has just started to work on a long-awaited draft Anti-Corruption Law, as a step towards the ratification of the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, signed by Myanmar in 2005.

In terms of the oil, gas and mining industries, key political figures have recently committed or called for the country to implement the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative. Further efforts are underway with respect to the investment law, taxation policies, budget processes and privatization plans and other key policy reforms vital to ensuring that natural resources in Myanmar are managed to the maximum benefit of the people.

To be politically credible, the new framework will need strong oversight. In this sense, the strengthening of civil society’s place and role in Myanmar, which has been particularly notable since cyclone Nargis hit the country in 2008, is clearly a positive development. The CSO community in Yangon has been developing fast and can support or rely on strong community-based organizations in each of the Regions and States at the local level. Exile organizations based across the border in Thailand have been coming back to open official offices in the country.

Groups like 88 Generation are particularly vocal and influential on a range of issues, while issue-specific groups and networks (gathering local, national and exile groups working together) have been growing in both capabilities and confidence following successes such as the campaign targeting the Myitsone dam project in 2011. As the media has gained more press freedom, they are also contributing mightily to the growing sense of empowerment and responsibility within civil society. Increasingly active members of parliament from the opposition party State Peace and Development Council have begun to take their representative functions seriously. Ongoing mobilization campaigns targeting the Deep Sea Port project and some big copper mine projects, even if they fall short of achieving their full objectives, already signal that the rules of the game have changed. While impediments to governance reforms remain huge, oversight actors are playing a more visible role and must be taken into account.

A strong civil society bodes well for the country, but it is imperative that the international community do what it can to both support the government as it seeks to reform and open up, and to support civil society — by assisting capacity-building efforts targeting complex policy areas like natural resource governance, or further strengthening the efforts already underway to promote both international and intracountry network-building — as it works to ensure those reforms stay on track.

Matthieu Salomon is RWI Asia Pacific Ikat Program Manager. Matthew Genasci is RWI Head of Legal/Economics.

Post new comment