By Dan James.

The eyes of the world are on Myanmar right now. The opposition led by Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi looking set to win a majority against the ruling USDP party of the former military regime, after an historic election on Sunday. With results still coming in, we reflect on developments in civil society during Myanmar’s reform process, and the challenges it faces after the election.

A top-down reform

To an outsider, Burma’s political and economic transition might appear to be the culmination of years of campaigning by pro-democracy groups and pressure from the international community. These have certainly taken place, but long-term Burma observers I met while working in-country point to a predominantly top-down reform process, initiated and led by the same military elite that has ruled the country since the 1960s.

What evidence do we have for this? First, the regime has successfully faced down greater pressures in the past than during the 2010s. Second, the regime has been putting together the building blocks of reform for some time now, with the construction of a new capital and parliament building starting in 2002, and changes to the constitution in 2010. The ultimate rationale for the reform process – from the regime’s perspective – is not entirely clear, though over-reliance on China and the long-term economic decline of the country (in stark contrast to its neighbours) may have led regime to question its approach, and seek to align itself westwards.

Lifting the lid on civil society

As with other authoritarian regimes, Myanmar’s military junta kept a tight lid on civil society and social organising, with draconian laws preventing freedom of association and expression and an extensive military intelligence network keeping tabs on potential dissidents. That lid has been partially lifted over the last four years, but the results have not been wholly positive.

On one hand, the pro-democracy groups have been able to come out from the underground (I attended an extraordinary 25 year anniversary celebration of the famous 1988 uprising, held in Yangon’s largest convention hall, and attended by tens of thousands). And there has been a flourishing of other progressive movements on gender, environment, land and worker rights, albeit from a low base. These are backed by a growing presence of INGOs and donors in country.

On the other, disorganised anti-Muslim violence has accompanied the reform process, starting with sustained violence and oppression against the Rohingya group in Rakhine State, but spreading through the country with incidents in Meikthila and Lashio, and culminating in more organised extreme Buddhist-nationalist movements, such as 969 and Ma Ba Tha. Ma Ba Tha in particular, has proved to be adept in mobilising large numbers of people, including via social media, and lobbying for laws regulating interfaith marriage and the number of children a Muslim woman can have.

A conspiracy theory?

There are those that say that the rise of such movements have been manufactured by the regime. There is evidence that blind-eyes have been turned to killings and other serious rights violations. There are also political benefits from such disorder that accrue to the ruling party, which appears both moderate by comparison, and justified in its authoritarian stance towards freedoms “disciplined democracy”. Meanwhile, the Suu Kyi and her party have been hamstrung: taking any position would involve either losing votes from the Buddhist majority or the backing of the international community.

But the conspiracy hypothesis contains within it an optimism that if the opposition wins the election, these phenomena will wither. This is probably too hopeful. More realistically, movements such as Ma Ba Tha, draw their energy from social divisions and deprivations that have been allowed to simmer for a long period.

What happens next?

Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) are way ahead in the polls so far, whether Suu Kyi’s party will form a government is still uncertain. As Human Rights Watch point out, the deck has been stacked against them, including a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for military and a constitution designed to bar her from the presidency. If there is a change of government, is not clear to what extent and NLD-led government will have the political capital to contain the extremist nationalists. That task may fall to progressive civil society organisations – that for so long have focussed on fighting the regime – and now will need to refocus on the task of social reconciliation.

Here, international actors may find themselves in a catch 22. Progressive groups have been characterised by the nationalists as being puppets of “foreign elements”, and INGOs seen to be favouring (or simply serving) Muslim communities have been targeted with physical violence (in the case of MSF) and accusations of bias (e.g. the BBC). Funding inter-faith reconciliation therefore risks undermining the legitimacy of local groups, while refraining from supporting such groups plays into the hands of the extremists. Working more through locally sensitive civil society initiatives such as Paung Ku (its name means bridge, referring to its role in mediating international and local organisations) may be one approach. Focussing on mobilising sectors of society – such as youth – that are in any case more international in outlook may be another.

It is comforting to believe in a linear model of democratisation – whereby authoritarian regimes finally crumble under pressure – leaving space for progressive civil society to flourish. But many examples show us that, whether initiated by outsiders (e.g. Afghanistan), by civil society (in the case of the Arab spring) or by regimes themselves in the case of Myanmar, the exit of an authoritarian regime can create as much space for undesirable social movements to flourish as it does those movements that we might wish to see.