Reshmi Bannerjee reviews a new book on Myanmar’s transition.
Myanmar today is very much shaped by responsible civil society which has slowly but surely ushered in change and transformation. In her new book, Marie Lall ventures into the difficult and untrodden path of documenting the multiple stories of transition, thereby revealing to us the different perspectives, discourses, priorities and alternatives at play. She analyses the inter-connectedness and profound effect of the reform process and explains the steps of Myanmar’s democratization, and its movement towards participatory and functional democracy. Using extensive original data drawn from her 2005-2015 fieldwork as well as her valuable links to various NGOs and civil society organizations and leaders, the author intricately maps the role, relevance and growth of the Third Force/civil society actors. National and ethnic reconciliation, economic and educational reforms, and Buddhist nationalism are all part of this fabulously comprehensive and gripping saga.
Lall starts her exquisitely detailed analysis of the reform process with the failure of ceasefire agreements to lead to a political peace process or a sustained dialogue. The extraction of natural resources, poor regulation of mining and forced labour were accompanied by limited NGO growth that was restricted to issues of education, development and health, with no role for politics. Changing times were marked by the growth in private schools, along with that of grassroots leadership trainings, both driven by the middle class urge for reshaping the environment. From this came the birth of Myanmar Egress, an institute to train young minds to become future change-agents.
The referendum of the 2008 Constitution and the subsequent 2010 elections threw people into the political process, even though many of the country’s citizens had low political literacy and poor understanding of citizenship rights and responsibilities. Politics became legal again with Myanmar Egress not only influencing the birth of the RNDP (Rakhine Nationalities Development Party), but also setting up unofficial and underground election monitoring systems that included citizen reporting. Lall discusses the changed setting which saw people openly supporting legally-accepted opposition parties, the rise of new regional assembles (which represented a potential new power base) and the ethnic dimensions of politics – all of which produced an enhanced opportunity to promote ethnic cultures and languages using the local media along with the educational system. Leadership, civic education and individual agency all became significant.
This book takes us deeper into how the country countered general negative pre-conceived notions, both national and international with the Parliament discussing sensitive issues like land tenure, amnesty for political prisoners, and conflict in ethnic areas and with bills on local democracy, micro-finance, environmental conservation, and labour unions submitted. The President’s call in August 2011 for those in exile to come back and the suspension of the Myitsone dam project in October of the same year highlighted the fact that protests were acknowledged and people encouraged to take part in the pro-change spirit engulfing the socio-political scene.
Lall also reflects on the interesting paradoxes occurring in the country during this transitional phase. On one hand, abolition of official censorship allowed Mizzima and The Irrawaddy to operate during the course of 2012 and 2013, but it also resulted in blogs and social media being used to express hatred towards the Rohingyas; ILO helped the government to redraft its labour laws in keeping with international norms, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi refused to condemn the actions of the army in Kachin, Northern Shan states and was less supportive of the local concerns regarding the Letpadaung copper mine conflict – both of which resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. Meanwhile debates around the changing of the Constitution flourished along with the functioning of capacity-building institutions like the Metta Foundation, Myanmar Peace Centre, Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, and Nippon Foundation.
The government was learning to co-exist with various stakeholders and their even more varied opinions. Collaboration between the government and the EAGs (Ethnic Armed Groups) on the field resulted in the construction of new bridges and roads, the distribution of 800, 000 ID cards in remote areas, freedom of travel for residents, and land cultivation without fear. Political transition was also being seen in the light of economic reconstruction. The government worked on formulating the National Comprehensive Development Plan (for 2011/2012-2030/31), adopted the Framework for Economic and Social Reforms, and set up the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Minimum Wage Law in 2013.
Education also became a critical arena for a power-tussle for different groups within the government and INGOs with diverse political agendas. Lall observes the challenges faced by this sector, one of which is linked to the existence of different educational institutions and varied ethnic educational systems. The need for review and decentralization is emphasized along with rectifying current problems like rote learning, lack of trained teachers, and the politics around language of learning and national curriculum. Finally the book touches upon the crucial aspect of Buddhist nationalism and how reforms have brought out decades of grievances between communities. Discussed are complicated issues of citizenship, identity, alleged radicalization of the Sangha, passing of controversial ‘protection of religion’ bills in 2015 and the Population and Housing Census.
Lall’s effort in documenting this journey of alliance building/networking, as attempted by various ethnic and small civil society groups, is remarkable. Her eye for detail in encapsulating the churning desire within society for promoting empowerment, advocacy and democracy is commendable. A convincing argument is made in favour of embracing long lasting, bottom up and locally-owned initiatives to solve contestation and conflict. The book is a compelling page turner as Lall weaves linkages between the different facets of the reform process, thus helping us to understand the ‘land of jade’ as multifaceted and aspirational.
Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).