Myanmar Civil Society, Burmanization, and the Bars and Coffee Shops of Thailand


Under the neon lights of bars and coffee houses of Chiang Mai, Mae Sot and Bangkok, people, with pitchers of beer or coffee, are popping off in English or Burmese about how “key stakeholders” and other civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are doing wrong. They excitedly assert narratives about how to fix Myanmar by developing short and long-term projects through potential entry points. The drinkers of course are the CSO (civil society organization) and NGO elites, who dream of a modern Myanmar, and creating a civil society based on “global best practices.” They would use “good governance” principles developed by the world’s greatest institutions in Geneva, New York, Rome, London, Uppsala and Tokyo.  UN Sustainable Development Goals are acknowledged, and the need for Myanmar to be inclusive of youth, women, ethnicity, disabilities, sexuality and religion; at least for the time-being the seemingly cooperative military would be ignored. But this is not that new. The problem is that it is the same conversation heard in Yangon’s tea shops and bars before 2021 where favor and financial advantages were dispensed from the deep pockets of the donors from the embassies and UN agencies known as Peaceland. It did not work well then, so why should it now?

This “we-know-best” narrative developed in the tea houses of downtown Yangon, encouraged by the Thein Sein government in 2010-2015, and the NLD government which held a modicum of power from 2016-2021. Such tea house conversations became the place where international assistance funds were injected into Myanmar for ceasefires and the countering of ultra-Buddhist nationalism of everybody except the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military).  The wealthy international donors deemed Myanmar as beginning a new democratic dawn, and therefore best practices borrowed from the West were needed to expand the civic space and establish peace. That dream of course was squashed by the coup of Feb. 1, 2021 and subsequent brutal military crackdown. The generals had never really forgotten the habits of military repression and nationalism that supported Burmanization and had been cultivated since 1962.

The shrinking civic space

So in 2021 the donors, INGOs (international NGOs) and CSOs moved to Thailand, and from Myanmar’s tea houses and bars, to Thailand’s coffee shops and bars, yet their narratives largely remain unchanged. They simply adjusted to the “deteriorating civic space and security,” keeping the Western peacebuilding vocabulary, which still focused on everything except the elephant in the room: the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw, meanwhile, reached back into their habits of repression that were deep within their culture and “Standard Operating Procedures.”  It seems there are no tricks within the peacebuilders’ narratives to address this new problem, which has never responded to “best practices” from abroad. Their Global Best Practice tricks still missed the elephant, which is the Myanmar military.

The problem was that the tea/coffee house conversations on Myanmar rarely touch Myanmar cultures, and the military and its Burmanization were still taboo subjects, even after the move to Thailand. Liberal Western concerns about youth, women, ethnicity, religion and governance are still highlighted in “Calls for Proposals.” This happens again because the “the donors”, with their deep pockets, had little real experience in Myanmar, and never appreciated the decades-long consequences of the military repression. So, the goals in the Yangon tea houses and Chiang Mai coffee shops are the same. They still seek that elusive “civic space” even as Myanmar’s democratic future is becoming more and more constricted.

Such coffee house/bar conversations go something like this:

NGO Worker I: We had a real good series of peace workshops up in Kachin State in 2019, youth and women were enthusiastic! We were shifting the narrative, and focusing on inclusiveness.  We had evidence-based surveys too that the workshops worked. Now, it would be relevant to do such workshops in Sagaing, where donors are interested in investing due to armed conflicts.

CSO Worker I:  A friend from Forum of Unitary States said they had done enough trainings on best practices of building a unitary state. He even got a trip to France to observe. But, they are now interested in supporting evidence-driven policy reports to conduct advocacy to various stakeholders.

NGO Worker II:  Did you hear Center for Pluralism did a pretty bad job with their online diploma course on political science? I knew that they had no idea what they were doing. We should step up and get funding for our own online diploma course with more unique angles. I’m not sure if their money came from USAID or the EU. But I heard that at least USAID is ramping up again with the $86-million 2022 Burma Act!  I looked online—it says there will be $200 million, but where it is going is “redacted”, which makes figuring out how to apply for good governance grants pretty opaque.

NGO Worker I: The money should be arriving soon, and I think we must focus on peace and federalism research, key stakeholder advocacy, community peace, and interfaith dialog. And don’t forget gender inclusion. Since we can’t be in Myanmar physically, we should either do the programs online or try to find networks in conflict areas to implement the program. We can also sneak the programs past the border.

CSO Worker II: My friend Jeffrey from Save the Teenagers was at KNU headquarters last week, and he thinks the money is flowing through Mae Sot. He is good at figuring out where the money goes. He is sure to have connections for how we can get a grant. I just hope that they can get us a Thai visa of some sort….

See how “civic space” shrinks?  When the conversations took place in Yangon in 2019, at least the villages of Sagaing, the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, and even the neighborhoods of Yangon were nearby. Now, foreign funding as currently distributed means that all that are left are NGO and CSO fads, donor development dogma, all of which is summed up as “best practices”. Nothing about the nature of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar cultures, or the long-term effects of Burmanization.

The problem is the military

The central problem in Myanmar since 1962 has been the military and its Burmanization policies. This subject is uncomfortable for the international community, which always gives the benefit of the doubt to the UN-recognized government. Remember too, the military’s story began early, in 1962, when General Ne Win’s coup led to a sweeping program of Burmanization, which transformed the schools, government, popular culture, and society into an isolated celebration of Buddhist Burmese Identity. For those who were not willing to go along with their narrative, or were born into the wrong category, there was fear, imprisonment, torture, deportation and forced disappearance into the military’s Gulag.

The mistake before the 2021 coup was that the international donor community—with its NGOs, Joint Peace Fund, ceasefires, elections and other liberal solutions—never confronted the deep influence that the military’s discipline has in Myanmar society. The publishing of evidence-driven policy papers to reform or strengthen governance for peace and development and short-term empowerments beat around this bush. The military still controls “the narrative”, which vast segments of Myanmar’s population assume is the truth. And for those who doubted, the all-seeing police state has returned. The situation that our fictional tableau of NGO and CSO workers experienced in Yangon in 2012-2021 was an anomaly in Myanmar’s history. The past has now returned, as the military assumes control again using the same techniques as before.  Now of course it applies to the modern media too, as young people express their opinion on Facebook find out. Elsewhere, the military asserts sweeping powers over aid delivery. The problem of course is that even in 2012-2021, the military never ceded much power to the NLD-led government, and the military’s Burmanized policies, so long nurtured, continued.

Reinventing Myanmar civil society

Missed in the donor, NGO and CSO narrative even today is that solutions to Myanmar’s problems need to emerge from the Myanmar narratives, not imported narratives of NGO and CSO elites. Myanmar narratives do not center Western concepts of history and politics. Addressing the concentration of power in the military since 1962 is long overdue. Projects to support the people of Myanmar need to go beyond publication of best practices, situational analyses, and policy papers all illustrated with numbers, graphs and “twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows” pointing to agency logos, and each with a caption.  Such reports become self-fulfilling prophecies as very serious UN reports cite other very serious UN reports, or perhaps one from the EU, USAID, FHI 360 or IPA—i.e., the people who have all the money squirreled away.

Instead, put in some Burmese citations starting with things like Freedom from Fear by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, or The Glass Palace Chronicles. Or perhaps some very serious citations pointing to military thought leaders like Ko Ko Maung Gyi, who created the military government, or if you want to stick to English, Mary Callahan’s excellent book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, which is about how the Tatmadaw created its own Burmanized culture beginning in the late 1930s. And then of course there is the Tatmadaw’s statement of philosophy, “The System of Correlation of Man and his Environment,” a document outsiders find strange, and historian Thant Myint-U called inchoate, but is what every Burmese schoolchild was exposed to before about 1990, and tells the reader how the men leading the military think today.

The tea house gossip has of course ended in Myanmar itself, a testimony in many ways to the failed policies of 2012-2021. Perhaps the only good news, though, is that it somehow continues in Bangkok, Mae Sot and Chiang Mai, where Myanmar politics can still be discussed with some measure of freedom by exiles. But how will the NGOs, CSOs and donors use their exile to discuss and craft policies. Will they create new ideas, or will they simply chase the same donor money with its Western strings attached? What can be done about the elephant in the room, the military?

R. J. Aung (a pseudonym) is a former employee of INGOs in Yangon and Thailand, and a native of Yangon. Tony Waters is a Visiting Professor at Leuphana University, Germany, and formerly at Payap University Chiang Mai.

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