Myanmar: bottom-up, not top-down

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By Stephen Hindes

Constant armed clashes in Myanmar, despite continuing peace talks, and rising tensions between Buddhists and Muslims underscore the fragility of President Thein Sein's attempts to bring democracy to the country.

For the international community to effectively negotiate these complicated and deeply embedded tensions and effect positive developments it must leverage the knowledge and talent of
Myanmar's established network of local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Such a process will be instrumental not only in solving such disputes in a much more amicable environment but also serve to sow the seeds for positive change in a country in desperate need of a new direction.

Decades of military rule have left an undeniable mark on Myanmar. Corruption and disregard for human rights have for decades been a common factor in the country and have consequently embedded deeply within the nation's political and social culture.

Many commentators, particularly from the NGO community, have gone so far as to claim that the current changes are of insubstantial, claiming that they are merely a calculated policy to profit from international engagement and thus only cosmetic in nature.

Even in its current imperfect state, Thein Sein's government will play a pivotal role in developing what has become one of the region's poorest countries. A strictly bottom-up approach, by its nature focused at the community level and therefore a dispersed process, cannot be relied upon to implement the grand infrastructure and other projects needed to help lift Myanmar out of poverty.

Yet such grand projects, including road networks, ports and airports, do not guarantee a viable democracy. In fact, such mega-projects can reverse the current path towards better governance by strengthening the old regime's behind the scenes power and hold over increasing sources of wealth. What becomes essential, therefore, is how to best capitalize on this golden opportunity under a quasi-civilian government whose path is far from assured.

International engagement from the bottom-up offers the best option to influence and cement positive change. Despite years of repression, Myanmar has remarkably developed a strong network of local NGOs (LNGOs). In 2009, 86 LNGOs were active in the country, according to the Capacity Building Network. Furthermore, these LNGOs have proven time and again that they have the capacity to operate in tough environments, including in the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster.

While international bodies have struggled to gain access to many areas of Myanmar, LNGOs have been quietly forging relationships with government agencies and local communities. These relationships have in instances helped to deliver humanitarian relief to areas affected by civil war and natural disasters off-limits to international organizations.

The international community therefore should focus its attention on further developing the capacity of these LNGOs. Foreign donors should also advocate for the government to improve the environment and loosen the restrictions under which LNGOs operate. Essentially, the focus must be geared towards helping these groups help themselves.

Developing Myanmar in this bottom-up fashion ensures that fundamental issues, such as continued ethnic grievances and armed conflicts along Myanmar's porous borders, are addressed at the core by intimately linking those involved and affected to locally driven processes and outcomes.

Another advantage of this approach are so-called flow-on effects. An educated, healthy, productive and proactive citizenry is a vital component in any functioning democracy. Decades of oppressive military rule in Myanmar have left a tragic mark on its people, with around of quarter of the population living below the poverty line.

With Thein Sein's government now loosening its control on society, supporting and developing communities will not only assist in helping them engage the government to forward their respective grass roots agendas, but will also promote democratic governance through greater engagement with an increasingly vocal and informed population.

As the violence in Myanmar has demonstrated, the country's path to democracy is far from certain. By opening up his once highly isolated country, Thein Sein has given the international community the opportunity to help bring democracy, peace and prosperity to Myanmar.

To help cement recent democratic reforms, the international community should focus its aid efforts in Myanmar at the community level and engage the government insofar as it benefits this bottom-up approach. Such a focus will help to ensure that these changes are long lasting and lead ultimately towards a more peaceful, democratic society.

Stephen Hindes is a postgraduate student at Macquarie University, currently completing a Double Masters in Policing, Intelligence and Counter-terrorism/International Security Studies.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
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