Strengthening civil society in Myanmar – the influence of political reforms

Start date: 29 October, 2012 End date: 28 November, 2012 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A19495 Countries: Myanmar Institutions: Roskilde University (RUC), Denmark Grant recipient: Marie Ditlevsen Total grant: 15,000 DKK


After almost half a century of military rule, Myanmar is in its democratisation process gradually opening up to the outside world and re-introducing people´s right to free speech and assembly. Civil society, which was either banned or strictly controlled during the authoritarian military regime, may now have the opportunity to gain ground. It is assumed that international development organisations will play an important role in this development. However, the ambiguity and the actors’ different perceptions of the term ‘civil society’ combined with the Burmese society still being affected by the past military structures may be a challenge for the strengthening of the civil society. These issues have been explored through a case study based on a civil society project implemented in the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar, led by the INGO ActionAid Myanmar (AAM). The fieldwork was conducted in fall 2012, and it included 36 eye-opening interviews. The empirical data has been approached through a social constructionist perspective, and studied by applying a narrative analysis, thus providing the basis to study how the informants construct their feelings through their narratives. As the theoretical framework, Marina Ottaway’s (and Thomas Carothers) theories about ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ civil society have been applied to discuss the ambiguity of civil society, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and James Ferguson’s theories have been applied to study the relationship between civil society and the state. To discuss the role of AAM and its project implementation, Anthony Ware and Peter Oakley’s theoretical aspects on context-sensitive development have been applied. The thesis indicates that the main actors, the AAM and the villagers, have different understandings of civil society and this creates difficulties in implementing civil society projects in the Burmese context. Furthermore, it appears that the Burmese people are still affected by the past authoritarian ruling, and the informants express a need for everyone to change their mindsets. The political reforms undoubtedly have a positive influence on the Burmese people´s desire and possibilities of participating in civil society. It may, however, require more time in a country like Myanmar to fully adapt to the democratic environment, and hence fully exploit the potential of the reforms.