The Role of Civil Society In Burma’s Transition to Democracy

The important role of civil society in Burma’s transitional period must not be overlooked. The rapid changes that officially dismantled decades of brutal dictatorial rule, resulting in the restoration of Parliament, would not have been possible without popular social movements. The supportive contribution of civil society has provided much-needed legitimacy and popular weight to the democratic transition. The role civil societies play in advancing the democratic progress of Burmese society is pivotal, and it is imperative to recognize the work they are undertaking. It also important to note the obstacles and challenges that continue to hamper their progress.

A true democratic transition in Burma will require civil society members to play an active role. When a country like Burma is emerging from absolute military rule it becomes vital that civil society is free to perform its most basic role: to monitor and check state powers. Every country requires a robust civil society environment that acts as a watchdog and counter-weight to the power of the state. However, this will not be possible if the ruling administration continues to feel threatened by independent social action movements. In order for any transition period to be successful, the transitional government must work with, not against, civil society members. Burma has a long tradition of a vibrant and effective civil society that spans a diverse spectrum. For decades, civil society members have bravely responded to gaps in critical social issues such as poverty reduction; natural disaster response; social empowerment; human rights education; and affordable health care. Official policy towards independent social and humanitarian efforts has been, and remains, hostile.

Civil society movements in Burma are a clear reminder that democracy is about more than elections. Democracy is about strong institutions such as an independent and transparent judiciary and respect for the rule of law. Democracy is also about state powers responding to the needs of the people in an equitable manner, and ensuring accountability when state officials fail to listen to the voices of the people. Lastly, no democratic state can properly function without the respect and support of the people. Civil society seeks to create this partnership by acting as a key mediator between the government and the people. To deny this partnership would be to deny democracy.

Full paper here: The Role of Civil Society in Burma’s Transition to Democracy