HOW WILL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATIONS FARE IN THE NEW DEMOCRACY?
by Alan Nichols
Richard Htay Reh in 1988 was a student in his final year of university study in Myanmar and took part in the student uprising. He left for the Thai Burma border and several years later came to Australia, where he graduated with a Science degree from RMIT University. He works as a medical scientist in a pathology laboratory in Melbourne and lives in Doncaster, Melbourne. He is currently studying for an MBA. He is from Karenni State, one of the many ethnic groups in the country. In January 2015 he made his first visit back home for 27 years. It was Alan Nichols’ privilege to accompany him.
1988 student leader Richard Htay Reh visiting his old university in Myanmar for the first time in 27 years, in January 2015
Alan Nichols interviews Richard Htay Reh of Melbourne
AN. Ko Kyaw Thu, head of Paung Ku, a civil society organisation (CSO) in Myanmar which started in 2007, then had a huge increase in work with Cyclone Nargis in 2008, has forecast (in an interview the The Irrawaddy) a paradigm shift in the way CSOs will operate in the future. Do you agree with that?
RHR. I have only a brief understanding of Paung Ku since Nargis, but when the National League for Democracy (NLD) gets into power, they could help in the expansion of civil society organisations. CSOs can be representative of grass roots people.
AN. Could CSOs operate effectively 7 to 8 years ago?
RHR. In old times the military caused such hardships that people were too busy to be involved in civil society or to represent the public. They made it difficult for people to be concerned about wider social needs. The new government may make it easier for CSOs to speak to government, but in the process the NLD has to determine priorities in health and education and other issues which may be different from what CSOs say. It is important that they raise broader issues but the downside for CSOs is their concerns may not be taken up.
AN. What about land confiscation issues?
RHR. This is a huge issue for NLD to deal with. The military government forced people out of land which they had used for generations. The government knows what every land has been used for, and by whom. If the NLD solves even one land issue, it will make them very popular. In regard to Chinese buying land, they pay whatever price is asked. It then goes to new owners, not historical owners such as refugees.
AN. In the last five years as democracy has moved forward, some students, farmers and activists have been imprisoned. International observers have criticised this. Will this change?
RHR. In my opinion, over the last five years (before the national election last November) it has been a pseudo democracy, a bit like Russia, maybe 1% democracy. When the NLD becomes the government from April 1, some adjustments will be needed.
AN. Will the new government give more freedom to CSOs?
RHR. Military rule was still holding over the last five years, pseudo democracy. Freedom is very small. Once NLD becomes government they might have to do a lot of adjustment in government, who is ready to change and who is not. Whatever the NLD does is good for the people. It will be good if they can hold democratic values, then it will be good for the people.
AN. Myanmar’s population in the last census was 50% Burman and 50% ethnic. Will it be a test as to how the NLD handle this question?
RHR. It will be a test of how they can handle perceptions of ethnic communities as rebels. The ethnic groups have also got to change, they have to be willing to compromise.
AN. Let’s talk about your people, the Karenni, and take the Karenni State as a case study. Do they still have an armed force, did they sign the peace agreement which other ethnic groups signed?
RHR. Only eight groups signed the peace accord. The others are not part of it, including the Karenni who are at the truce stage. Most ethnics are not part of the peace agreement. The sticking point has been that the Burmese military want ethnics to lay down arms – total surrender. Ethnics won’t do it. They hold arms for self defence and as a deterrent. They do it to prevent ethnics from being Burmanised. But ethnic communities also want peace and safety in which to do development. Conservative Burmans also need to change attitude.
AN. Now that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has won government, she has the power to appoint Chief Ministers for the ethnic States. Will this make a difference?
RHR. This will make a difference depending on the persons appointed – how well they understand the State and can promote development. While the current process is okay, eventually the Constitution will have to change so that State Governments and Chief Ministers can be elected locally.
AN. What is the situation within Karenni state right now, with regard to local participation and civil society organisations?
RHR. 28 years ago the churches were the only civil society organisations in Karenni State, particularly the Catholic Church. Two key Bishops brought about change by the way they faced issues such as environment and social issues, and this has seen a rise in CSOs dealing with social issues and disaster management.
AN. How does drug cultivation fit into all this? Karenni State is famous for this.
RHR. It is sad to see young people using drugs. Poppy cultivation is growing closer to the cities in like Loikaw Karenni State. The NLD will have to face this, and introduce substitution crops.
AN. What has been the result of a lot of foreign aid, particularly from the United States, which was designed to eliminate drug cultivation?
RHR. Since I was in high school the Americans provided for alternative crops to opium but ended up providing military hardware. In Karenni State there are no institutions for drug addiction, no support is available for people to get free from drugs. My own relatives have been affected in this way so I can speak personally. It’s a very sad situation and I feel sorry for the Minister in government who has this responsibility. But the new government will have many priorities as well as drugs.
Other foreign interventions have been China doing business in Burma. It is not always in the interests of the people. The national debt to China is not in the interests of the people. I believe the government has to find the money to repay the debt and buy things back. Some investment is good for the people. But the dam on the Irrawaddy River is very bad for the people who live downstream. The Irrawaddy is the most important river; it is the lifeline for the country, and is the most important waterway to reach from south to north of the country. Also the gas pipeline does not provide gas to the people, in fact they have to buy it back from Thailand. Another example of poor foreign intervention is food products from China of shockingly poor quality, such as cooking oil. Burma should not be a dumping ground.
Among future solutions, will the new government try to entice back refugees scattered through the diaspora in the US, Canada, Norway and Australia, to help run the country?
RHR. It can seem ideal to entice people back home, but many don’t want to return because they have been exposed to a different quality of life and standard of living. Achieving this in Burma will take time, maybe ten or 20 years. However, we should find creative ways for them to make a positive contribution from all the education and skills they have acquired.
First copy of Burmese edition arrives in Australia
The Rev. Winston Aung Myo Tun, translator and editor of the Burmese edition
The first copies of the Burmese edition of Dancing with Angels – The Life Story of Stephen Than, Archbishop of Burma have just arrived in Australia. One thousand copies were printed locally in Yangon, capital of Myanmar, and were immediately distributed through the six dioceses of the Anglican Church. Locally, the retail price is 2000 kyats = US $2.
Author Alan Nichols with the English and Burmese editions, using the same cover design by Melbourne artist Ivan Smith, artist for Acorn Press, who published the English language edition. The Burmese edition was funded by SparkLit Australia.