There are still relatively few independent organisations in Burma, but a few years ago, a stronger civil society began to emerge. Today Sida supports several organisations that work with the environment, HIV/aids and legal issues, with the objective of changing the balance of power in society. So far, most of the work has been done in silence. But people are starting to let go of their fear.
“There are still no organisations working directly with human rights in Burma, but we can start spreading awareness and educate people about what it means to have rights,” according to Shihab Uddin Ahamad, Director of Action Aid in Burma.
The organisation was already established in Burma before Cyclone Nargis (2008). Supported by Sida, Action Aid is working to develop a core of human rights defenders. These "fellows" (escorts), who are often young, offer people in the villages hands-on support in how to improve their situation. This can involve everything from how to help children do better in school to how to resolve minor conflicts between people from different ethnic groups. All this may seem simple, but in a society where people had never been able to freely express their opinions, each small step is the beginning of something big.
“The level of skills is very low, and this is one way to make people aware of their rights and what they can do in their everyday lives. It is simply impossible to demand your rights – or fight for them – if you are not even aware of them,” continues Shihab Uddin Ahamad.
Burma is a country with a huge ethnic mixture and there are still ongoing military conflicts between the regime and the different ethnic groups in several areas of the country, including the conflict in the Kachin province bordering China, where the situation is very precarious. All of this further complicates an already difficult situation.
Optimistic despite problems
Shihab Uddin Ahamad, who is from Bangladesh and a former scholar at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, is optimistic despite the problems associated with the opening towards democracy. He finds it hard to believe that it could be reversed. He is also of the opinion that Burma has a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes that others have made:
“Compared with my homeland Bangladesh, Burma is beginning to be developed in a period when knowledge and experience can easily be shared between people throughout the entire world with the use of the Internet and mobile technology. In Burma there is the opportunity to skip many of the stages we took – and avoid the mistakes we made!”
Swedish Diakonia is another organisation that has long been active, both in Burma and among Burmese exile groups. One of Diakonia's partners in the country is the Myanmar Baptist Churches Union (MBCU), which for many years has worked with local development efforts throughout the country.
“I hate Nargis and I also love Nargis! The cyclone was awful, but it got us to begin working together in a completely different way. Since then, the work has continued,” says Tin Maung Kyaw, Director of MBCU.
The local work which MBCU carries on has so far mainly focused on helping people improve their livelihoods through micro-credit to improve crops, livestock and other things. But support has a dual purpose, as it also helps people to develop their own organisations. In this way, democracy is built up from below.
Tin Maung Kyaw also sees a positive trend towards greater democracy in Burma. The regime's control over the organisation's work has declined, but all foreign visitors to the district must still however be registered. Yet it is clearly evident that fear has diminished. Today, people supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party dare to express it openly, which would have been impossible before.
During the years of military rule, people have developed their villages and communities, using their own resources, while contact with the authorities has been very limited. Now there may be apossibility for change here as well.
“The next step is that people dare to begin to make demands on the authorities for improvements in water, schools and more. But there is still a long way to go,” concludes Tin Maung Kyaw.