NGOs offer valuable chance for popular engagement in Myanmar

By Bi Shihong Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-28 1:08:01

The democratic transition in Myanmar has resulted in the country being more receptive to civil society efforts, which encourages the setup and operation of more NGOs.

These can roughly be divided into three kinds. The first kind is Myanmar NGOs (MNGOs), which are locally founded with the advantage of having close relations with the grass roots but also suffering from evident professional inferiority. The second is international NGOs (INGOs), whose advantages are connections with overseas groups and abundant capital. The third type is community-based organizations (CBOs).

INGOs in fact closely cooperate with MNGOs and CBOs which often receive capital assistance from the former.

NGOs in Myanmar mainly focus on poverty and health while these years they have seen a surging interest in environmental protection.

It's estimated that over 40 INGOs are engaged in environmental issues all across the country. Together with the participation of many churches, Buddhist temples and grass-roots environmental research institutions, they play an important role in promoting the sustainable development of Myanmar.

These environmental NGOs, aiming at protecting natural resources, maintaining sustainable development and improving livelihood, take the initiative to establish contact with the government and urge the authorities and interest groups to pay attention to community development, environmental education in policymaking. They often issue investigative reports to promote debate, organize forums and speeches, and make use of community networks and the media to spread environmental protection information.

As Myanmar's biggest investor, China's investment activities have inevitably become the target of criticism of many NGOs. Some NGOs are not simply environmental groups but political ones.

Take the suspension of construction of the Myitsone dam in September 2011 by the Thein Sein government. It's hard to say it's mainly driven by environmental concern. Instead, the suspension is a result of political struggle, pressured by some opposition parties and groups. 

The international anti-dam movement highlights the social, environmental and security influences by the dam, but the anti-Myitsone dam movement led by NGOs in Myanmar was particularly characterized by demands for making the division of benefits transparent, related to Myanmar's intricate and complicate ethnic conflicts and armed conflicts. It's thus not a mere environmental movement, but also the pursuit of ethnic equality and democratic rights.

Some NGOs, represented by the Shwe Gas Movement and Arakan Rivers Network, have been opposing the oil and gas pipeline project between China and Myanmar. NGOs in Myanmar often mobilize public opinion and use all sorts of forces to press the government for achieving their purposes.

Under such circumstances, China's investments in Myanmar undoubtedly face potential risks. China needs to face up to and keep alert on activities of NGOs in Myanmar. It's also in dire need of cultivating its own NGOs to support them playing an increasingly important role in global governance.

China could learn from countries like Japan, which is forming a new model combining government, enterprise and NGOs to offer foreign aid. It should intensify cooperation and partnership of overseas Chinese companies with NGOs and introduce NGOs' services to help fulfill the social responsibilities of enterprises and establish a positive image.  

There are many opportunities for Chinese NGOs to expand in Myanmar, such as meeting gigantic demands in poverty relief, rural development, environmental protection, infrastructure construction and employment and so on. Myanmar can be a test field for Chinese NGOs to play an international role.

As a country in opening-up and rapid changes, the Myanmar government is still immature when it comes to the management of NGOs.

One of the best ways for Chinese NGOs to enter Myanmar and reduce risks is attending the INGO forums, where they can communicate with its foreign counterparts and learn from others.

Chinese NGOs could also establish connections with MNGOs and CBOs, providing supportive help to them. Chinese NGOs could also participate in Myanmar projects through signing agreements with Myanmar governmental agencies.

Currently, Myanmar's Ministry of Health has carried out extensive cooperation with many international organizations, while other authorities have comparatively little ties with overseas institutions. If Chinese NGOs could attach more importance to develop cooperation in education, agriculture and religion, they will greatly help those disadvantaged groups.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Yunnan University.

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