The role of Civil Society Organizations emerged in Burma during the late 1990s led by students and citizen journalists in Yangon. The term “CSO” has been used in both the Burmese and English media over the past 30 years.
In recent weeks, CSO leaders and representatives actively engaged with peace movement and other human rights campaigns in various fields such as education and health care within the country. CSO and other Community Based Organization leaders have been mobilizing their forces through new media and participatory democracy as a change agent. This article is based on personal experience derived from the past 25 years as a citizen journalist and working professionally with CSO forces at a distance in Thailand and Australia. The CSOs are driven by two key foundations; their mission and their values. The largest western CSO, the Open Society Foundation, will be the key reference source in this article.
“The Open Society Foundations (OSF) works to build vibrant and tolerant societies where governments are held accountable and are open to the participation of all people”, the official mission of the OSF. In the late 1990s, the OSF, or OSI as it may be known, assisted Burmese students, journalists and other human rights activists to improve their professional skills in order to articulate their mission in the context of Burma’s social and political landscape. The OSF has been working across the world as a non-violent movement through media, human rights campaigning and other social justice movements, using different strategies and initiatives by local activists in each place or country. Many of Burma’s CSO leaders or activists became inspired by the OSF mission, including the author, during the late 1990s when most of us were in exile throughout Thailand as students and young people. Bangkok and Chiang Mai have been the two hubs of Burma’s CSOs for over twenty years until recently.
In early 2010, the Burma Partnership formed as a peak body of Burma’s CSO and CBO forces based in liberated areas along the Thailand–Burma border with the peak body established as a large international network. Most CSO leaders are well educated either at home or aboard and have been working with other NGOs or INGOs in different counties since the late 1990s when they left Burma.
Nevertheless, Burma’s CSO leaders used the mission statement outlined by the OSF that ‘seeks to strengthen the rule of law; respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions; democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check’. Burma’s diverse CSO leaders, regardless of race and religion, have been articulating this mission in different strategies compared with the Ethnic Armed Organizations’ leaders. The EAO leaders will have their legitimacy tested by the local people in the next 3–5 years, as the CSO leaders are emerging as an alternative voice to the core values of liberty, justice and democracy using different perspectives to the armed ethnic leaders. This is a contest of leadership at large in the modern political transition of Burma.
The Burma Partnership envisions a free and democratic Burma that upholds the principles of human rights, equality and justice. “We believe in collaboration and a participatory approach to advocacy as a key element in bringing about democratic change in Burma”, an official vision of the CSO’s leaders released by the Burma Partnership. The core principles on ‘human rights, equality and justice’ are not only the ultimate goals advocated by the armed ethnic leaders (EAO’s groups), but also the basic principles of modern humanity as we have learned from the American revolutions of the late 17th century. In fact, CSO and EAO leaders have been campaigning for equality but have used different strategies.
The Burma Partnership is a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, advocating for and mobilizing a movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. We draw our strength from the diversity of our partners, from the multi-ethnic leadership of political and civil society organizations both inside Burma and in exile, to our partners and broad-based solidarity organizations throughout the region. This idea has been formally explained by the CSO leaders while the EAO leaders have also formed an ‘alliance’, namely, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and other non-UNFC ethnic armed groups in Shan State. However, the CSO leaders have been mobilising their regional and international partnership, collaborating and campaigning beyond borders unlike the EAO leaders over the twenty years. Hence, the CSO leaders operate their strength beyond the ethnic armed leaders internationally.
Burma’s CSO leaders have being working with a mission driven operation as they gain knowledge, skills and professional networks from western co-operatives. They have been using the ethos of the OSF model to ‘help shape public policies that assure greater fairness in political, legal, and economic systems and safeguard fundamental rights. We implement initiatives to advance justice, education, public health, and independent media. We build alliances across borders and continents on issues such as corruption and freedom of information. Working in every part of the world, the Open Society Foundations place a high priority on protecting and improving the lives of people in marginalized communities’. Therefore, Burma’s CSO leaders will be positioning their legitimacy on a different path despite EAO leaders considering them less influential during this democratic transition.
Burma’s CSO leaders and its partners have been working on valued based action and operation with the local people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and religion. They have been modelling the core values adopted by western CSOs, especially from America and Britain. These values are universal but it is above political interest to the CSO leaders at large.
The CSO leaders are again modelling the values set by the OSF regarding the motto, ‘believe in fundamental human rights, dignity, and the rule of law; in a society where all people are free to participate fully in civic, economic, and cultural life; in addressing inequalities that cut across multiple lines, including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and citizenship; believe in holding those in power accountable for their actions and in increasing the power of historically excluded groups; believe in helping people and communities press for change on their own behalf; believe in responding quickly and flexibly to the most critical threats to open society; believe in taking on controversial issues and supporting bold, innovative solutions that address root causes and advance systemic change and believe in encouraging critical debate and respecting diverse opinions’. The CSO leaders of Burma will be gaining their legitimacy regardless of approval from EAO leaders through accomplishing these values as set by international laws and the charter of human rights.
After 25 years of unity between Burma’s CSO leaders from liberated areas to sweetened nations, and from small one-studio office spaces in Bangkok to far-away places, Burma’s CSO leaders have the potential of mobilizing its non-violent campaigns towards a democratic system in Burma. Min Ko Naing, the 8888 Generations and Open Society leaders recently said to the people of Burma that the scarification of ordinary citizens in Burma shall never be forgotten. The Suu Government, EAO leaders and officials of the Burmese Army will be judged not by the display of the up-coming Union Peace Conference but by its outcomes. If the CSO leaders are marginalised, the principle of non-violent campaigning for a democratic change advocated by Daw Suu over past over twenty years and her NLD leaders shall be questioned in due course. In 2020 and beyond, CSO leaders have so much more to offer to the nation but their legitimacy shall be acknowledged in principle, at least.