The 1st of September marks seven months since Myanmar’s military coup. In that time over 700 Myanmar people have been killed in brutal military crackdowns, the economy has been ravaged, and conflict has rumbled on.
Uncertainty defines Myanmar’s future. The military government appears to have consolidated power, but economic, political, Covid, and conflict-related pressures may yet destabilise it. Or equally possible is a further tightening of the grip of the Tatmadaw, as the military is known.
Facing such dramatic change and uncertainty, how should development programmes respond? Some things just stop – donors have called time on direct support to an illegitimate government, so technical assistance to ministries is out. Some support could be expanded – the humanitarian needs are high and growing – something worsened by a vicious wave of Delta-variant Covid. But what of governance and civil society programming?
Prior to the coup my organisation, Kivu International, ran programmes in Myanmar supporting research and advocacy organisations. Our work wasn’t stopped, but we did completely reorientate away from a focus on policy influencing to a goal of “institutional defending” – supporting some of these nascent think tanks to both survive and plan for a longer-term future. The best policy brains in Myanmar needed support to adapt, so that if the dust settles and a new political settlement emerges, civil society is ready – in a better position than when Myanmar last started to democratise a decade ago.
But what does “institutional defending” involve? Five things were key:
- Changing partners and approaches fast: some of our pre-coup partners did not exist after February 1st. One, which had close ties to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party closed its doors as staff members fled. In other cases, partners were too close to the military government making continued work with them undesirable. We switched to a small group – with four core partners, which we do not name for security reasons – that appeared to have a decent chance of survival.
- Respecting different partners’ strategies: One core partner opted to leave Yangon to operate from a neighbouring country. They took a decisive anti-Tatmadaw stance and plan to register outside Myanmar and to openly support the democracy movement. Three other core partners have remained in Yangon – their pragmatic survivalist strategy has been to operate above the radar in post-coup Myanmar. We respected these different judgements.
- Not just survival for survival’s sake: One goal has been simple organisational survival. But we have focused on more than this – what is the potential contribution and role? The organisation which has left Myanmar has developed a network of in-country underground researchers who are assessing the coup’s economic impacts. The two other partners are providing useful insights for donors or continuing to work on Myanmar’s long-term challenges – including climate change.
- Thinking short and long-term: When the world is changing so fundamentally, short-termism is inevitable. Just getting through the next week is tough. Nevertheless, trying to make decisions which will work for the long-term has been important. A post-coup assessment of future scenarios suggested the most likely outcome – albeit with large uncertainties – was a military consolidation of power. This was one reason to support some pragmatic survivalists.
- Having supportive flexible funders: Our funders such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) – grasped the merits of “institutional defending”. They supported a complete reorientation of our work. Their common sense and flexibility mattered on basic issues like how to get money to Myanmar organisations’ bank accounts. They were also a source of insight and ideas – having a strong track record in adaptive programming.
As we approach half a year since the military takeover, our three partners have survived. In very different ways they have also started to develop important roles.
One is already conducting research on the socio-economic impacts of the coup in Myanmar. They plan a future role informing international debate and engaging with the National Unity Government – the NLD-led government in exile.
The second continues to work on climate change and environmental management. However the political dynamics play out, these long-term challenges will remain paramount and research on them will matter.
The third has positioned itself as being able to provide donors with evidence and insights into how civil society has been affected by the coup. They plan to continue to play a convening role with civil society – informing and influencing international actors from their vantage point on the ground.
The fourth, a network of CSOs, has changed its focus, name, and way of working, yet has retained the same values and aims. In a shrinking and changing civic space it has admirably kept its end goal alive and motivation to take small steps in the right direction.
The context remains fraught. Some fear a future military crackdown on CSOs. Many organisations staying in Yangon are playing a risky double game – outwardly eking out a legitimate role, but privately supporting the democracy movement.
But so far at least a strategy of institutional defending for CSOs has paid dividends.
Continuing this approach will require further adaptation. As the context changes local organisations will need to evolve. But just as important will be donors’ appetite for the long haul of institutional defending. Will they find ways of supporting CSOs that move beyond the humanitarian space? Can they maintain the degree of “adaptive management” which has been forced on them in the immediate post-coup period? Can they defend civil society in a way that will help it play both an ongoing role, but also a future role if and when Myanmar returns to democracy?
The Tatmadaw will almost certainly have stamina. But will funders match it with the will and wherewithal to continue to defend Myanmar’s civil society in a way which will have potential influence in the future?