Prior to the changes of 2011, civil society consisted mainly of either religious or charitable organisations or some government-backed organizations after decades of restrictions under socialist and military regimes. Especially after Cyclone Nagis in 2008, and formation of new quasi-military government, INGOs entered Myanmar where only very few civil society organizations coordinated as service providers. At that time, there were very few civic organizations working in the areas of democracy and governance inside the country.
Since the 2010 elections, with remaining legal and practical restrictions, local civic organizations and its roles are started to be acknowledged by the government in transparency, awareness and engagement affairs. With the changing scene many genuine civil society organisations were born or brought in from outside of Myanmar and from cross-border regions. While once political dissidents in exile media and organizations were returning home, emerging local civil society organizations (CSOs) attempted to take part more openly and address various issues gaining confidence.
Although they had first been accepted by the people and some public officials in government as important actors of democratic transition, their legitimacy and credibility are now gradually under threats due to the following factors.
Hence, when more CSOs emerged and most of them began to work on governance issues with more democratic space widen since late 2011, [people in Myanmar] expected CSOs to stand with the popular will, above all politically.
The first factor is public attitude toward CSOs which is significantly fluctuating, depending on the changing political scenario and popularity of the government.
Despite the changing political scenario, CSOs are using the same approach to engage with the government which requires them not only to cooperate with or give necessary recommendations, but also to criticize the government if necessary.
They were popular when they confronted actively with the U Thein Sein government which was unpopular among the people because people assume that CSOs stand with them, but when CSOs do the same with the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led government which have enjoyed popular support, the public started to see CSOs with suspicion because they assume CSOs are challenging the government that truly represents the majority of the population in the country.
People in Myanmar, who are not familiar with the setting of democracy due to long years of living under non-democratic regimes, usually see CSOs as those who carry out the delivery of humanitarian service as their first exposure to CSOs came as aid-delivery organizations during Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Hence, when more CSOs emerged and most of them began to work on governance issues with more democratic space widen since late 2011, they expected CSOs to stand with the popular will, above all politically. When CSOs questioned the performance of the government whom they elected, people have become reticent vis-a-vis CSOs. Fluctuations of public opinion about CSOs came out from their confusingly misunderstanding of the role of CSOs.
The second factor is the changing expectations of the successive governments from CSOs.
The government in previous term was formed based on the results of 2010 general election which most media and international actors said was filled with fraud, and consequently that government was, in the eyes of people, lacking in democratic legitimacy.
To help rebuild their popularity through CSOs, they tried to open more space for civil society organizations and worked closely with them. The expectation of the U Thein Sein government from CSOs was mainly focused on getting the support for building its popularity among international and domestic audiences, in other words, popular legitimacy.
That expectation dramatically came to an end after the 2015 general election which was mostly assessed as free and fair by local and international stakeholders. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led government which has won both popular support and legitimacy has different expectations of CSOs. It expects CSOs to demonstrate good performance which will be helpful for the country’s policy objectives than performing in indifferent routines and fragmented actions.
It is by nature that civil society's role is not always to get in line with the government, adapting their approach to the changing expectation has not been a priority for some CSOs. Meanwhile the government began controlling the communication between public officials and CSOs to be more formal than happening informally with interpersonal means, CSOs find it difficult to engage with the current government in established channels. The situation impairs relation and understanding between government and civil society.
Although there is no obvious legal provisions strictly regulates CSOs like in some other oppressive countries, some senior leadership in the Myanmar government seem to have suspicions that CSOs are agents of foreign organizations and its political opposition groups and that their agenda are not home-grown, but initiated by their donors, referring for example to the voices (especially about Rakhine issue and peace process) raised by them.
The third factor is high competition for funding support among too many CSOs with weak strategic leadership/approach.
As democratic space has widened for civil society, a large number of CSOs has been set up especially since 2011. The emergence of numerous small CSOs with overlapped focus areas and agendas gave rise to competitive atmosphere in their hunt for funding sources which in turn caused low coordination among them.
They are usually worried that their ideas about any program or projects will be taken prematurely by others if they discuss and work together with their counterparts, especially those who are working on the same issues. Most of them have weak strategic leadership or approach to cope with the situation or build their unique identity and profile. Many do not trust each other in such a high intensity environment. As a result, the work of their isolated activities are not effective enough to create substantial change. Their fragmented actions make it easy for other actors to unfairly manipulate in the latter’s own interests.
The last factor is the performance of CSOs that are sometimes out of line with the local context.
Although most local organizations understand the local context very well, they find it difficult to develop and implement their own strategic program based on their knowledge of local context, due to lack of internally-organized mechanism, strategic leadership and high level professionalism that enable the organizations to convince international communities about the local context.
Imbalance of resources between local and international organizations makes the matter worse. Consequently, many local civic organization fall to the status of mere implementers of programs initiated by donor agencies and INGOs.
That situation results in the activities and projects implemented by those local civic organizations that are sometimes out of line with the local context. In addition, it raises the suspicion among key stakeholders and the public that local CSOs are more accountable to donors than citizens. This also seriously undermines the credibility of local CSOs.
As local CSOs play a crucial role in democratic society, they need to enhance their credibility and legitimacy for their sustainable development and effective contribution to the successful democratic transition and development of the country. Conducting further research and thorough analysis shall be a great help in overcoming those challenges they are now faced with.
Aye Khaing, the Editor of Civics Now at Pandita, is a freelance writer cum translator, and a researcher. He worked as an editor in Sabei Phyu Magazine, Nweni Magazine and Messenger Weekly News Journal and also a founding member of the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a leading parliamentary monitoring organization in Myanmar. His published works includes essays and articles on education, politics, international affairs, social issues, and literature, and a book titled “Basic Concepts in Parliamentary Studies”. He studied Port and Harbour Engineering at the Myanmar Maritime University.