How Civil Society Can Engage with Policy Making in Myanmar’s Transitional Context

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Civil society can be defined as the space between the state and the family generally excluding private sector actors, political parties, and armed groups. Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 130,000 lives in the Delta of Myanmar in May 2008, was, undoubtedly, one of the worse natural disasters in recent history of the country. At the same time, with it came an increase in the number of civil-society actors in Myanmar, following the political opening that came from a mandate to respond and the surge of aid that entered the country. This sudden increase also built on other factors: cease fires in conflict areas that motivated the growth of community-based organizations; gaps in services, particularly in remote areas; and the need for environmental protection amid contestation over natural resources. While this could be considered a watershed in the history of Myanmar, these developments came late relative to the groundswell of civil-society growth worldwide that began during the 1980’s. This worldwide growth was in response to numerous transitions from authoritarian and communist to democratic regimes, including those in neighboring countries such as Thailand and the former USSR. Since then, civil society has become the sector whose potential the international aid community and advocates of democracy have tried to unlock. In an ideological sense, it is believed that civil society will hold in check unaccountable government and rampant capitalism in order to promote well-functioning government and a healthy capitalist system that ensures its citizens economic and political freedom. The working relationships developed with civil-society actors have often strayed from their objective to build societies that are more democratic. The relationships have been weakened by poorly targeted funding, approaches that are not contextualized to local realities, and idealization of civil society that ignores its weaknesses. This article will first seek to explain the strategies that a section of civil society has used to influence the outcome of some major issues under intense debate in this country. Based on this analysis, it will provide recommendations on how international actors can better engage with civil society for advocacy. While the article will not provide guesses as to the outcomes of the debates referenced here, the article’s observations can inform how international actors can better support civil-society actors to play a more meaningful and effective role in the shaping of democratic policies and institutions in the transitional context of this country.


Civil society can be defined as the space between the state and the family generally excluding private sector actors, political parties, and armed groups. A sign of strong democracies is the existence of a formal consultation process that governs citizen participation in the setting of new policies and legislation. In the last fifty years of military rule since 1962, the environment has not been conducive to that process of participation, mainly because the centralized military government – the State Peace and Development Council, formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council[1] – did not create the structures that would enable this type of engagement. Moreover, laws prevented gatherings, public demonstrations, and free press, all of which prevented people from easily being able to come together to exchange ideas.

Nevertheless, civil society has managed to develop from its nascent stage of being religious and community welfare organizations to a more prolific group of actors that are more proactively engaged with society. The most progressive now use formal and informal channels to influence policymaking around many of today’s most contested issues including land reform, environmental protection, and private investments.

By focusing in on the segment of civil society that includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals such as lawyers and community leaders with no formal connections to political groups, armed groups, and business interests, this paper will describe recent developments where civil-society groups were able to work within Myanmar’s transitional context to effectively influence policymaking.

Who is Being Invited to the Table?

Since the November 2011 elections, Myanmar has seen some incremental improvements in terms of greater transparency and accountability on the part of the new government. Positive developments include press conferences that are more frequent and briefings by ministers and other government officials, the debate over the budget and public disclosure of budget figures, and the decision to allow journalists into the parliament[2]. In some cases, such as the labor law and the women’s protection law, drafts were developed in consultation with stakeholders. Nevertheless, the tendency remains for most policies and bills to be arbitrated behind the scenes in the chambers of the national legislatures with the public largely in the dark about their contents.

Article 118 (a) in the English version of the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar adopted in 2008 says, “If there arises a need to study the remaining matters other than those studied by the Pyithu Hluttaw Committees, the Pyithu Hluttaw may form Commissions and Bodies with the Pyithu Hluttaw representatives or including suitable citizens.” This indicates that it would be permissible for citizens to participate in the development of new legislation. Additional regulations need to clarify formal procedures for engagement by citizens and to define the relevant qualifications of citizens who can effectively advise authorities on the development of new policies and legislation. Even in the absence of clear policies that govern these formal consultations, those bills that have been developed in consultation with expert input have been the most technically sound and most responsive to the needs of society.

As the government is making major decisions in the absence of a formal consultation process, civil-society groups have sought to create alternative spaces for the debate and discussion of policy issues. This form of engagement does not box civil society into an antagonistic role vis-à-vis the state, but highlights a need for the development of a relationship based on trust, open communication, and constructive debate. The set of characteristics that mark these developments are not unique to Myanmar. If understood, the characteristics can inform the way to support civil-society movements to become even more effective.

Elements of Informal Engagement

The following are elements that characterize how civil-society actors engaged with advocacy have been able to remain effective in influencing the policy discourse around current major issues:

Spontaneous & Empowered Alignment

Coalitions of interest formed spontaneously in opposition to the Myitsone Dam, as well as in opposition to two land bills—the Farmland Bill that will legalize the purchase and sale of farmland, and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Bill that will regulate the acquisition of land by private enterprise. With regards to these two land bills, many civil-society actors would consider the way they currently read as favoring large corporations over smallholder farmers, making rural communities increasingly vulnerable to the threat of expanding businesses seeking to take over more swathes of land.

The dynamic nature of these issues has called for and allowed individuals and organizations to decide on the level of their engagement on an issue-by-issue basis. These coalitions have come together and moved apart depending on need. For example, one public campaign, through which farmers were able to voice their concerns about the new proposed legislation, was considered so effective that, on their own accord, other groups replicated them around the country. The fluidity of these spontaneous alignments has also required the support of an active “secretariat” to manage the multiple moving pieces.

The leadership roles played by individual citizens have been more fluid and taken up by those who see their roles as beyond the responsibilities of their formal professional role. In fact, a deep commitment to issues as citizens inspires involvement that transcends their alliance to any particular agency. NGO workers, lawyers, journalists, and the average concerned individual freely come together after hours and weekends. This is, in fact, an expression of citizens’ awareness of their ability to impact and effect change.

Amplification of Citizen Voice

Civil-society leaders were not only speaking on behalf of communities affected by recent developments in terms of land reform or large infrastructural developments, communities themselves mobilized to speak on their own behalf. Akin to the formalized town hall meetings that are held by local politicians in most democratic countries, a number of spontaneous informational workshops were arranged between rural representatives and the media and public at large. The stories of human struggle in the face of injustice may not be quantifiable in the degree to which they brought change, but they are indeed memorable and able to light the spark of greater public consciousness.

Media Networking

Civil-society voices where further amplified through use of media to amplify and strengthen messages. Groups have become more astute at targeting individuals with background understanding of specific issues, as well as journals with a particular readership slant. Likewise, the lessening of restrictions on media and various forms of media outreach by a range of “media training” groups have resulted in a more informed and engaged media capable of questioning the decisions of the government and various other power holders. Historically, news reports only described problems, e.g. there is too much traffic in Yangon, while recently the articles include analysis of the cause of an issue, e.g. there is no longer a monopoly on car import licenses.

Credibility & Clarity of Messages

However, as opposed to groups that may have taken a more antagonistic approach in the name of activism, these groups have found truth in the idiom that the “pen is mightier than the sword.” As a result, the power of these groups comes from their ability to back up policy positions grounded on sound research, with an appreciation of learning from the region substantiated by the voices of community members themselves. As members of these groups are often closely in touch with issues on the ground through their community development work, they are able to relay the direct impact of poor policies on the lives of citizens left out of the decision-making processes. This is especially true of the majority of the rural communities who remain largely cut off from the decisions made at the centers of business and power. The simplification of these messages for the consumption of policymakers who are just learning the issues makes the groups that much more effective in ensuring that their voices are heard.

Coalitions with Strong Linkages Upwards

How have civil-society groups been able to establish contacts with government in the absence of a formal consultation process? Civil society is fluid, and people move in and out of the category all the time. Many active members of civil society were once part of the military or former government authorities. The connections of former military and government authorities provide the coalitions a quick and direct channel for passing messages. Given the backgrounds of many civil society leaders, it is only natural that they would have personal relationships with authorities and parliamentarians. As one civil-society leader put it, “Our networks have contacts based on social relationships, not only working relationships…When you bring people into a discussion, we must know it they will be allies and whether they will be champions.”

In addition, through the collation of information from various sources, civil-society groups have become more adept at mapping out the interplay of power and identifying those who are most influential to the outcome of a decision. With this understanding, coalitions have been able to pin point key change agents and, through their networks, have been able make direct contact with targeted policymakers.

Once lines of communications have been opened, they can become conducive for regular dialogue. As policymakers develop trust in the source of the messages, they continue to seek input from these same groups.

Policymakers Who Reach Out

While civil-society groups have been communicating messages to policymakers, policymakers have themselves been reaching out. Many new members of government recognize their own shortcomings in being able to knowledgeably legislate across a range of technical issues. In contrast to western legislators who are often resourced with teams who can provide them the relevant background information on any issue, Burmese parliamentarians face challenges in getting up to speed on the breadth of issues with which they have to grapple at the moment.

One civil-society leader explained that, “there is a tendency for ethnic parties to support civil society, but people are different, and allies can be identified even in the [Union Solidarity and Development Party]. Some [members of parliament (MPs)] may not openly express their true opinions in front of their superiors, but even some military MPs[3] were reported to have expressed their appreciation outside the meeting room for what reformist MPs said in support of pro-smallholder farmer land reforms.”

Instead of taking up the bigger challenge of changing the government to allow for routine and comprehensive consultations, which one MP recently proposed in the lower house, it is much easier to informally reach out. “Informal relationships make people feel more comfortable; if we expose our work more explicitly, we may draw attention from people who may oppose our work,” said an informant.

It has been demonstrated that well-argued policy options backed up by evidence to policymakers stand the best chance of being taken seriously—very different from those groups that have used more aggressive messaging not necessarily backed up by thorough evidence nor with a balanced consideration of the costs and benefits of different policy options. The views of the advocacy groups, if credible, are then often absorbed into the positions taken up by policymakers and shared widely with colleagues. Another informant who was recently included in an informal consultation with MPs said, “Often times, interests align behind a policy position to increase the chance that they will win on a debate. The opposition’s position may not be strong enough, and they need to be supported with counter arguments based on strong rationale.” Some MPs validate this point and have also said, ‘The messages you have given us are very useful, but we must receive them on time in order to use them in parliamentary discussions’.”

Not a Straightforward Process

Finally, we must recognize that the process of aligning civil-society actors behind a common agenda can be challenging. Civil society is composed of a diverse array of groups from different backgrounds and they do not always share similar objectives. Some groups may even perpetuate the top-down hierarchical order typical of Myanmar’s society. Diversity of opinions and approaches can weaken an agenda and can confuse policymakers who may then decide to shut out further consultations. Even in the discussions around land, uniform consensus does not exist; while some people favor laws that govern the buying and selling of land, others oppose it because of fear of land consolidation by a small group of people. Consequently, external actors seeking to support civil-society groups in policy advocacy must consider the range of actors and their viewpoints and seek to negotiate differences in order to build a strong mass of support for a desired outcome.

Implications for the International Community

So what does it all mean for actors in the international community who want to work with and promote the development of a stronger civil society? To one civil-society leader, it means that, “Donors and aid agencies need to understand that the country is changing and their roles have to change. As civil society is growing stronger, they need to be supported to take on a bigger role, not only for service delivery at the local level, but also at regional and national levels.” The implications can be summarized by the following points:

  1. Civil-society actors do not by definition act antagonistically against the state but rather can demonstrate ways to exist in complement to the role of government, especially to bridge the gaps that currently exist between the state and citizens, while supporting the state to develop those direct channels of communication with citizens themselves, for example through town hall-style discussions.
  2. International aid agencies need to recognize the plurality and thus divergence of voices within civil society itself and seek to manage differences between these actors and with those whom they seek to influence. Once international agencies identify priorities, the agencies can support cultivation of constructive working relationships between these actors and those in positions of power while recognizing the value of both formal and informal advocacy strategies.
  3. At a time of rapid transition for Myanmar, civil-society actors, that are seeking to influence policy making at the highest levels, require fluid processes and structures that allow for flexibility in the formation and management of groups. At the same time, these groups need quick injections of technical expertise and funding. More specifically, international aid agencies need to support civil-society groups to develop their policy positions based on evidence and to articulate their messages most effectively to relevant decision makers, considering the effectiveness of both formal and informal channels.
  4. Finally, while government is trying to work out the basics of governance against the backdrop of decentralization, informal engagement may be one of the most effective ways for civil society to engage with policymakers. In other words, institutionalized formal engagement processed between citizen and state may be unrealistic at a time when those with power are vying to establish their foothold on a rapidly evolving political stage. This does not mean that we drop everything and wait for the political dust to settle. In the current context, international actors must clearly understand the ways that civil-society groups are having the most impact on policy advocacy and support these processes while also calling for a more inclusive process of formal consultation in the longer term.


[1] From 1988 to 1997, the SPDC was known as State Law and Order Restoration Council
[2] Thomas Kean, from “Time to lift veil of secrecy in parliament,” Myanmar Times 20-26 Feb. 2012

[3] The Constitution of the Republic of the Union ofMyamar allocates 25% of all parliamentary seats to the military. More than 75% of all parliamentary votes are needed to promulgate new legislation.