Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges Paung Ku has is determining whether their methods are working and if they are achieving their goal of building the capacity of civil society organizations. An evaluation of each group they worked with and their respective project can provide some insight. In these evaluations, Paung Ku’s methods seem to be working well. There are many stories of overwhelming success in both group strength and project accomplishment.
As Paung Ku relies on local actors to decide which project to pursue, it is able to push the envelope more than many NGOs and fund activities that many would be uneasy funding. For example, in August 2012, Myanmar’s then active Press Scrutiny and Registration Division issued indefinite suspensions to the journals Voice Weekly and Envoy. In response, Paung Ku supported media and social mobilizers who formed a Myanmar Press Freedom Committee and a ‘Stop Killing Press’ campaign. At least 100 journalists and other supporters rallied for two days wearing ‘Stop Killing Press’ t-shirts, and approximately 60 journalists joined demonstrations for one day in Mandalay. A few days later, the government responded positively; the president’s office called a meeting with the Myanmar Press Freedom Committee to understand their demands, and soon after announced lifting of restrictions on the two journals. “The reason for lifting the suspension, I think, would be because of the rallies by the journalists,” concluded an editor of one of the suspended journals.
Journalists participating in the “Stop Killing Press” campaign
There are some promising examples of growth in networks and groups’ registering to become legal entities. In the Ayeyarwady Delta, for example, the Paung Ku team has in the years since Cyclone Nargis helped village level CSOs form four township level networks. In 2012, these four networks, headed by elected Zonal Committees, began work towards forming themselves into registered organizations; in the second quarter 2012, the first of the committees formally applied for registration, as the “Social Radiant Development Organization.”
Paung Ku, however, rejects the idea of counting the number of groups that become registered tor that evolve into local NGOs as a way to measure success. This is an important point. It allows civil society to be defined much more broadly than just registered groups. It includes those who come together to accomplish a goal and then disband when the goal is achieved. Therefore, it does not encourage groups to exist just for the sake of existing or to chase grants for things that may not be needed in their area solely to keep their group funded.
As seemingly easy as it is to see the direct successes that Paung Ku has, the other, more broadly conceived notion of civil society strengthening is less easily evaluated. As Paung Ku itself points out: “Crucially we must acknowledge that all the combined international NGO, donor and embassy initiatives in Myanmar only interact with a tiny fraction of the country’s civil society. The section of civil society which we do interact with tends to be urban, elite and development (or humanitarian activity) focused. If civil society in Myanmar is indeed becoming stronger it is difficult to attribute that to us. Our role as international actors is important, but by no means at a sufficient scale to have any significant influence on the wider civil society.”
Civil society in Myanmar is becoming more active in light of recent political changes. Grievances over issues such as land confiscation have helped mobilize local communities and networks into action as they seek to assert claims to land tenure. In January 2012, farmers from the Ayeyarwady Delta used networks that grew out of post-Nargis rebuilding efforts to organize 1,421 signatures to a petition that impacted a draft land law then being debated in parliament. Elsewhere, farmers have been working to claim illegally seized land; in Pyin Oo Lwin, for example, a network of farmers were able to secure the return of 4,042 acres during 2012. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, when the government refused to let humanitarian aid into affected areas, local civil society sprang into action and is credited with nearly all of the initial recovery. At the national and regional level, the campaign to protect the Ayeyarwady River was a significant moment of intense civil society activity, culminating in a Presidential decision to halt the Myitsone Dam, largest of the dams threatening the river. These successes show that civil society in Myanmar had been bubbling below the surface for years.
In Myanmar’s current context, Paung Ku and others must support partners seeking to make positive social change. Ultimately, this is what it will take for civil society to drive positive change in Myanmar; civil society must have firm foundations, and it must have the ability to influence Myanmar society and the state at all levels, as well as actors on the regional and global stage. Without such civil society, current reform processes will lack the support they need to succeed – and, where reforms are lacking, Myanmar must have a civil society strong enough and with a voice to hold the government accountable.
However, civil society in Myanmar is faced with many challenges. New and larger flows of funding have potential to create new competition and rifts. External support may also do inadvertent harm, pushing civil society to align with external agendas and priorities. Opportunities for civil society, meanwhile, are divided unequally, with urban elites benefiting more from new information and resources than rural, ethnic or less educated actors. And as civil society individuals, organizations and networks grow and develop, they risk being produced by cultures that do not value pluralism and diversity and are characterized by rigid hierarchy and inter-ethnic mistrust. They must also face the historical legacies of authoritarian repression, restrictions and limited opportunities for learning and growth, which mean civil society may remain conservative and risk-averse, unwilling or unable to positively transform Myanmar’s social, economic and political spheres.
As I finish my time here, I am hopeful for the future of this country. Political and economic transitions are complex and there are many places where things could go terribly wrong. However, as the civil society actors have shown, the people here have the capacity to drive positive changes; they are innovative and not afraid of a challenge. With great respect for existing local capacity, there is an opportunity for Paung Ku and others to continue to strengthen civil society. With any luck, that sector will have a voice and a government held accountable by it.