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Burma and Open Society

Boys sitting with newspapers
With the relaxation of censorship, newsstands have sprung up all over Burma, including this one near 49th Street in downtown Yangon, Burma on December 13, 2012. Still, challenges remain. Some newly un-censored publications have reported the possible hacking of journalists’ email accounts by the government. The government denies the allegations. © Ed Kashi/VII for the Open Society Foundations

The Open Society Foundations have been actively involved in Burma since 1994. With a focus on supporting marginalized groups such as Burma’s ethnic communities, women, and youth, we have helped foster a generation of civil society and media leaders who represent one of the best hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy.

We believe the transition in Burma will not be successful without genuine national reconciliation and the promise, for all of the people of Burma, of equal rights under the rule of law. To this end we support efforts to build the capacity of civil society groups and other key stakeholders to advocate for a transparent and accountable government, responsible foreign aid and investment practices, and universal access to education, health care, information, and justice in Burma. 

What happened in Burma?

In 1962, a military coup thrust Burma into a half century of military dictatorship, which decimated public institutions, isolated the international community, and saw the continuation of decades-long wars with several of the country’s many ethnic groups. The country quickly went from an economic and social capital of the region to one of its least developed and most repressive states.

While nationwide protests in 1988 and 2007 revealed a widespread desire for democracy and an end to government oppression, each was followed by violent crackdowns, which left many dead, imprisoned, and exiled.

In 2010, Burma’s military government defied all expectations by taking tentative steps towards democratic reform. In the years since, the world has been amazed at the speed of the transition, and rightfully so.

However, severe challenges to peace, democracy, and development remain. Additionally, a “gold rush” of foreign investment threatens to exacerbate Burma’s perennial issues of cronyism, ethnic conflict, environmental destruction, and land-grabbing.

What has changed since 2010?

In 2010 a new quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein and reform-minded ministers bowed to internal and external pressures for change, and began a process of reform. The government initiated a dialogue with democratic opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed media restrictions, legalized labor unionization, implemented several economic reforms, and accelerated a ceasefire process with ethnic armed groups.

Most significantly, the government allowed for the development of a more open political environment in which Daw Aung Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in parliamentary by-elections.

Civil society is in overdrive and determined to make the most of the openings. Protests on Burma’s streets are now a common occurrence. In short, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future.

What challenges remain?

Challenges to Burma’s democratic transition abound. While the government preaches peace and national reconciliation, the Burmese military launched offensives against Kachin and Shan communities in Eastern Burma, ending a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachins and displacing approximately 100,000 civilians. The military continues to commit human rights abuses, using child soldiers, forced labor, land mines, and extrajudicial killing in its operations.

Though the government is in dialogue with opposition members, its tenuous ceasefire process with ethnic leaders lacks transparency, divides ethnic representatives, and largely excludes civil society. Genuine peace and national reconciliation will not be possible without respect for the fundamental principles of equality and nondiscrimination.

Arakan State witnessed what appeared to be state-sanctioned violence against the Rohingya, a minority Muslim ethnic group, during which at least 89 people lost their lives and state security forces conducted mass arbitrary arrests. Recently, anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence has spread to central Burma, where riots have left at least 44 people dead.

Many political prisoners remain behind bars. Return to the rule of law and constitutional reform will be the true tests of transition and people will remain skeptical until then. So, while there is cause for optimism about Burma’s future, there are still enormous challenges to overcome.

What are some examples of Burma-related organizations supported by the Open Society Foundations?

We award more than 100 grants each year, mostly to grassroots civil society organizations. Grantees include exile and ethnic media organizations such as Democratic Voice of Burma, one of the most respected sources on Burma, and Burma News International, a network of ethnic media groups that helps build its members capacity to report accurately on issues of concern in Burma’s ethnic states.

Our education grantees include organizations like Thabyay Education Foundation, which provides scholarships and education services to Burmese youth looking to play an active role in the country’s reform. We have also been a long-term supporter of human rights documentation and advocacy organizations such as the ND-Burma, a human rights documentation network that uses accurate, systematic documentation of human rights abuses for advocacy and information purposes.

We support efforts to provide quality health care to marginalized groups through grantees such as the Mae Tao Clinic, which provides health care to displaced persons along the Thailand-Burma border. And in the realm of public policy, we have been increasing our efforts to support institutions that can create a more informed government in Burma, which is better able to carry out necessary reforms. By supporting a broad range of civil society organizations operating in different fields, we hope to promote open society values during the country’s transition. 

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