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Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society
Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 27 / Asia

Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society

Around the world, much hope has been placed in the prospect that civil society – the loose groupings of non-government actors in political processes – would act as a major force to change or remove undemocratic governments. This has particularly been the case in Myanmar where there has been an expectation that students or monks might force the military government from power. This has not been realised; indeed civil society is at its weakest state in decades.

Executive Summary

Around the world, much hope has been placed in the prospect that civil society – the loose groupings of non-government actors in political processes – would act as a major force to change or remove undemocratic governments. This has particularly been the case in Myanmar where there has been an expectation that students or monks might force the military government from power. This has not been realised; indeed civil society is at its weakest state in decades.

When Burma was under democratic government from 1948 to 1962, a vibrant civil society existed in urban areas although paramilitary organisations and local politicians tended to repress dissenting views and independent organisations in rural areas. Since General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, however, successive regimes have sought to stamp out civil society and permit only state-controlled organisations that further the regime’s interests.

Civil society re-emerged during the nation-wide pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, with an explosion of student organisations, political parties, and independent media. After the military retook control in September of that year, however, it clamped down on most independent organisations, although it allowed political parties to form. Following the 1990 election, the results of which it did not honour, the regime declared most political parties illegal. Nevertheless, the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, and some ethnic minority political parties have struggled to restore democracy.

The military regime continues to restrain civil society in Myanmar severely today. Because the generals rule by decree and judges are under the influence of the authorities, legal challenges are virtually impossible. While individuals can complain about economic woes, they cannot publicly criticise the military, suggest that the NLD should be in power, or advocate federalism. 

The generals maintain tight control over the media and are extremely reluctant to expand access to communication technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, because of their potential use in anti-government activities.The regime seeks to isolate and demoralise those who would speak out for political change by extending its intelligence network into all the institutions where frustrated individuals could organise and by imposing long prison sentences for even minor actions.

Certain students, monks, and writers have taken great personal risks to promote the restoration of democracy, but they have not been able to galvanise a mass movement since 1988. International NGOs and some local organisations have worked to start small-scale projects addressing local problems, but they must stay clear of politics. Many educated people have left the country rather than live under such constraints.

Today Myanmar is entangled in two political struggles: the restoration of democracy and the resolution of ethnic minority rights. To what extent can civil society play a role in solving these conflicts? Aung San Suu Kyi strongly promotes the idea that everyone must take part in the democracy struggle, but because of the harsh repression, most people leave it to the NLD leadership to resolve the political crisis itself. Yet because civil society is weak, and so many members have resigned under pressure, the NLD’s bargaining power is reduced.

At the same time, few independents in central Myanmar have thought seriously about ethnic minority political demands and how a process of understanding and cooperation between majority Burmans and minority groups can be achieved. While the NLD has reached out to the ethnic minority political parties, the regime has sought to limit such contact by imprisoning elected MPs from those parties and the NLD.

Because Myanmar has been under military rule for so long, few people today understand the role that civil society is meant to play in a democracy or that a healthy democracy requires broad-mindedness and a dispersion of power. Thus, even organisations outside the regime’s direct control tend to replicate the hierarchical organisational structures and lack of tolerance for dissent which characterise state-controlled organisations. Low levels of education and cultural factors mean many ordinary people in Myanmar lack confidence in their ability to effect change.

For all these reasons, civil society has had an extremely limited share in the political process in Myanmar in recent years. That said, independent organisations would surely proliferate if the space emerged for them to do so. With more openness, organisations would also be likely to expand the scope of their activities and develop more dynamic organisational structures.

Foreign radio broadcasts are currently one of the few sources of uncensored information but the domestic media would be likely to play a particularly significant role in a political transition. Independent journalism has a long tradition in Myanmar, and journalists and writers could serve both as watchdogs and educators while citizens come to terms with an altered political arena.Nevertheless, it should also be noted that a sensationalist media and organisations promoting narrow nationalism could emerge to disrupt the difficult process of resolving the country’s deep political crises.

The military regime’s resistance to devolution of power to the ethnic states and its determination to unify the country’s diverse population through cultural and religious assimilation have deepened the mistrust between many minority groups and Burmans. Turning Myanmar into a pluralist society in which power is decentralised and differences are respected is a challenging and long-term process.

However, more could be done to support this process and to develop the key civil society organisations that will be essential if any negotiated political transition is to be durable. With this in mind, expanded external support is needed to promote civil society in Myanmar, including in the areas controlled by ethnic opposition groups. New entry points for such international support do exist, especially in cooperation with Myanmar’s Asian neighbours.

Should the SPDC and the NLD reach an agreement on future political structures, they will both need to reassure their supporters about this deal. The SPDC will have to get the full backing of the military, which will be fearful that a deal could result in instability. The NLD will have to prepare its supporters for the compromise over the military’s political involvement that will be necessary for a deal.

Civil society organisations will be important in creating the backing for any solution, and in consolidating the democratisation process once it begins, but are not likely to be crucial players in achieving a momentum for change.

Bangkok/Brussels 6 December 2001

Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 7 March 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 155 / Asia

Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps.

What’s new? With no near-term prospect of returning to Myanmar, almost a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh face an uncertain future. An impressive aid operation has stabilised the humanitarian situation; attention must now turn to refugees’ lives and future prospects, in particular improved law and order and education for children.

Why does it matter? A lack of security and hope creates major risks. Militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity in the camps, consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political leaders. Without education opportunities, children will be left ill equipped to thrive wherever they live in the future.

What should be done? Bangladesh should institute an effective police presence in the camps and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. It should also lift its ban on formal education in the camps. If it does, donors should help meet the costs of these and other measures to improve refugees’ lives.

I. Overview

Eighteen months on from the mass expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, no sustainable solution for the refugees is in sight. Repatriation to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the huge burden on Bangladesh but also because that is the strong preference of the refugees themselves. But the unfortunate reality is that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be unable to return home to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Systems are now largely in place to provide for their essential humanitarian needs in the sprawling refugee camps. It is now time to move beyond the emergency phase of managing this crisis. Shifting focus in this way requires Bangladesh to ease its restrictions on longer-term assistance. Specifically:

  • The Bangladesh government should lift its ban on the provision of formal education in the camps; local and international organisations are ready to provide such education.
     
  • It should also improve law and order in the camps, where militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity and are consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political voices and leaders. This requires instituting a regular and effective Bangladeshi police presence in the camps and investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
     
  • For their part, donors should help Bangladesh not only to meet the refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs but also to cover the costs of measures that improve their lives and prospects for the future.

II. Slim Prospects for Return

The Myanmar security forces’ mass expulsion of Rohingya starting in August 2017 created a major humanitarian emergency in neighbouring Bangladesh and the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]This briefing is based on an April 2019 visit by Crisis Group to Dhaka and the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, including interviews with refugee leaders, humanitarian agencies and local analysts. For more background on the situation of the Rohingya, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; 292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013; and Asia Briefing N°153, Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote Around one million Rohingya, from this and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Some eighteen months on from the main exodus, a major humanitarian operation by local and international aid groups has successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials – food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services – are now in place. As the monsoon season looms, the camps are much better prepared this year than before: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced. But there are limits to what can be done to mitigate risk in such densely packed camps carved out of former forest and where there are almost no flat areas. A heavy monsoon (unlike last year’s unusually mild one) could still take a serious toll, and a cyclone – a relatively frequent event in this region – would be devastating.

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects.

There is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon. The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of Rohingyas being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights. Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army – a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims) – has escalated sharply since January.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote The fighting has affected remaining Rohingya communities, both because they are caught between the warring parties and sometimes find themselves in the crossfire, and because of the uncertainty and fear that fighting brings. This creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and national elections in 2020.

III. Fraught Conditions in the Camps

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects. A key priority is education. The Bangladesh government currently prohibits the provision of formal education to the refugees. This restriction robs families of their hope for a more economically secure future and ensures that a generation of children will be deprived of the skills they will need to flourish, wherever they ultimately live.

Informal private “tuitions” held in private dwellings and networks of madrassas that only teach the Koran do not adequately fill the formal education gap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders and humanitarian agencies, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote No evidence has emerged of these madrassas promoting violence or intolerance among children, or of indoctrination or recruitment by local or transnational jihadists. However, a policy of denying young people formal education and leaving them reliant on unregulated madrassas almost certainly increases the risks of such groups gaining a foothold in the camps.[fn]Bangladeshi officials also cite this as a risk. See “Delayed repatriation risks breeding Rohingya terrorists: Bangladesh official”, The Irrawaddy, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Already, the Chittagong-based Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam – which has publicly called for jihad against Myanmar – has considerable influence over the madrassa network in the camps, through the funding and religious scholars that it provides.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists and analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019. For more details on Hefazat-e-Islam, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°295, Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh, 28 February 2018. On the calls for jihad, see “Hefazat: Jihad against Myanmar if Rohingya killing continues”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Equally concerning is the lack of law and order. One prominent refugee leader described the security situation as “very serious”, saying he was “unable to sleep at night” for fear of attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee leader, refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote A determined and often violent struggle is currently underway for de facto control of the camps. At stake is informal political authority over a huge population and access to lucrative economic rents from the camp economy – both licit and illicit – through corruption and extortion. The groups vying for control include the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which has shown that it is willing to deploy deadly violence to further its aims; informal networks of religious leaders; non-violent political and civil society groups; and a random assortment of criminal gangs.

Violent groups operate freely in the camps. As evening draws in and humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees. Overstretched Bangladeshi police are focused on perimeter security and protection of local Bangladeshi communities and remain mostly outside the camps at night. Refugees express serious concerns about their personal security, and militants and gangs are intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, analysts and humanitarian workers, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019. See also “In Rohingya camps, a political awakening faces a backlash”, Reuters, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Murders and other forms of violence are an almost nightly occurrence; the police rarely investigate, and perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority.

This creates a toxic political environment within the camps. Without basic security, non-violent political actors face intimidation or worse. For example, ARSA was likely responsible for the grisly murder of Arif Ullah, a camp leader, in June 2018 – based on the manner of his killing which is typical of ARSA (a deep knife cut to the throat) and the fact that death threats typical of ARSA had been circulating against him on WhatsApp, accusing him of being too close to the Bangladesh army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts with detailed knowledge of the security situation in the camps, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote Some refugee leaders to whom Crisis Group spoke in April 2019 had received credible death threats, they believe from ARSA, and fear for their lives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Amid the lawlessness, violent actors are likely to further consolidate control, which will stifle peaceful political organisation among the refugees and constructive debate about how to shape their own futures. Effective control of the camps will pass to those who prioritise accumulation of power or wealth, or militant agendas, over the future well-being of the community.

The burden of ameliorating these problems disproportionately falls on Bangladesh. Understandably, Dhaka’s policy response is focused on repatriation, which it sees as the only viable durable solution for the refugees. Making life better for the Rohingya where they are now would not only impose financial strain on Bangladesh but might be perceived as working at cross-purposes with Bangladesh’s interest in Rohingya returns to Myanmar.

IV. Improving Refugees’ Medium-term Prospects

Returns to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the hardship visited on Bangladesh and avoid consolidating what a UN investigation called ethnic cleansing, but also because that is the preference of the refugees themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019 and November 2017-March 2018. See also “‘I still don’t feel safe to go home’: Voices of Rohingya refugees”, Oxfam, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote International pressure on Myanmar through the UN and by countries having influence in Naypyitaw should continue to focus on improving the situation of Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, a prerequisite for any sustainable return. This pressure should include insistence on implementing the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations of August 2017, in particular its detailed suggestions on addressing discrimination and ensuring freedom of movement and a credible pathway to restoring Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. It is only by demonstrably improving conditions in Rakhine that any refugees would consider returning home.

At the same time, Bangladesh should recognise – even if it does not want to state this publicly – that no major repatriation is on the horizon. In this context, policies that restrict the Rohingya refugees’ ability to prepare for an uncertain future should be eased. Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority, and there exist local and international groups with the ability and willingness to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian agencies, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Measures to improve law and order would include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues now will do significant long-term harm to the refugees, and potentially fuel insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.

Though some of the burdens to be borne by Bangladesh are unavoidable, donors can and should, at least, lessen the financial impact on Dhaka. If the implications of the Rohingya refugee crisis for regional peace and security are not to worsen, donor countries need to be generous in their support not only to the annual humanitarian appeal but, if Dhaka’s restrictions are eased, also to longer-term assistance to the refugees.

Brussels, 25 April 2019

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State