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Myanmar Borders and Civil Societies: (Re)activation of a Peripheral Dynamism?

1330–1530, Thursday 14 April 2016, L4

Organiser:
Michal Lubina
Jagiellonian University
michallubina@wp.pl

Chair:
Michal Lubina
Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
michallubina@wp.pl

Discussants:
Marion Sabrié
Centre Asie du Sud-Est
sabrie.marion@gmail.com

MA Christiane Voβemer
University of Vienna
christiane.vossemer@univie.ac.at

 

Seven years after Cyclone Nargis and the (re)birth of a Myanmar civil society, and five years after the beginnings of the reforms and the democratic transition, Myanmar’s borders are not seen as they were over the last 50 years. The government, the minorities’ ethnic groups, their military organizations, the international and domestic investors are reopening and re-shaping the borderlands: mentally, economically and geographically. Myanmar’s borders cannot be considered as marginal peripheries, but on the contrary, as new centers. To what extent do the legalization of the regional linkages, the (re)integration of Myanmar in Southeast Asia and the political and economical openness of the country lead to new civil societies with new grass-root activities? Do international NGOs working in Myanmar’s peripheral regions – mainly in Kachin and Shan States – help in this process? How do their – sometimes unconventional – methods contribute to the creation of an ‘open society?’ How do complex domestic socio-political conditions on the borders overlap with international and regional factors? How do the ‘no war no peace’ socio-political circumstances (negotiated and renegotiated cease-fire agreements, occasional clashes and Tatmadaw’s offensives) influence the whole process? How are environmental and human welfare implicated by these processes, for example in the realm of health care? By confronting various perspectives from researchers from different fields and from diverse countrieson Myanmar borderlands, we want to discuss the renewal of the peripheries in Myanmar from the point of view of their inhabitants.

Paper 1: Economic megaprojects and livelihood at the Myanmar-Thailand border: new territorial and human dynamics

Marion Sabrié
Centre Asie du Sud-Est
sabrie.marion@gmail.com

Since the beginning of democratization and the acceleration of the economic openness in 2010, many international and national businessmen are investing in Myanmar, considering the country, which was partly closed before, as a “new Eldorado”. Myanmar government reopened four of its border check points with Thailand, one of its main economic partners. Over the last 50 years, the land border was closed because of the active conflicts with ethnic minorities – mainly Karens and Shans. However, economic exchanges were maintained while new roads are being built and new economic megaprojects are being developed, Yangon and Bangkok have never been so close. The coastalization of the economic activities and of the territorial dynamism is the result of the slow metropolization process – today only Yangon can be called a ongoing metropolis – and the displacement of the economics activities from the Ayeyarwady River valley towards the east (thanks also to the moving of the capital city from Yangon to Naypyi Taw).
Reducing distances and accelerating the integration of Myanmar into Southeast-Asia territory, how do Myanmar inhabitants, including ethnic minorities and their military branches, live the (re)activation of the peripheral dynamism? How does the civil society react to those changes that reorganize their daily lives and ways of living? Conducting interviews along the Thailand-Myanmar border, my findings will be directly linked to experiencing the border and its recent changes, from 2003 to 2015.

 

Paper 2: Health care in the transforming border spaces of Karen State

MA Christiane Voβemer
University of Vienna
christiane.vossemer@univie.ac.at

In conflict-shaped border areas of Myanmar health care had often been out of reach, and civil and political initiatives beyond the neglected and centralized state health services became vital in making at least basic health care services available to its inhabitants. Many of these initiatives, in particular in Karen State, have gained a remarkable reach as well as a level of stability and professionalization in their services and organizational structures over the past twenty years. Yet, since 2012, they are maneuvering in a profoundly changing border space of actors, interrelations, discourses and agendas of health care, evolving with the new legitimacy of the Government of Myanmar in international relations as well as the ongoing, protracting ceasefire and peace process. In Karen State, the increasing presence of state and international actors is creating a dynamic field of changing partnerships, controversial program and policy approaches.
The presentation looks at this field and discusses overt and underlying negotiations about the future of health care services in Karen State, as well as implicit shifts in the perception of Myanmar’s borderlands more generally. Processes of bordering birth care will serve as a case study. The presentation draws together preliminary findings from the analysis of documents, and interviews with diverse actors in the field of health care, situated in Karen State and its borderlands with Thailand.

 

Paper 3: Creating open society through the back door. The unconventional methods of Polish NGOs in Shan and Kachin state

Michal Lubina
Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
michallubina@wp.pl

Since 2011 Burma/Myanmar is under permanent transition. The democratic reforms help to (re)activate the social dynamism, particularly in the biggest cities. What is, however, even more interesting is the local dynamism in the peripheral areas. The domestic socio-political situation (the “no war no peace” conditions in many ethnic areas) on the one hand and (re)integration of Burma with the rest of Southeast Asia and global world on the other create a complex background for the (re)activation of civil society. All sides here, Burmese people, the Tatmadaw, ethnic minorities and their political/and military organizations, as well as international donors and investors reshape the borderlands. Within this picture there is one interesting phenomenon that is intended to help to create civil society: (un)conventional methods of Polish NGOs.
Polish NGOs arrived in Burma late, only in 2012. From the very beginning they focused on peripheral areas (Arakan, Shan, later Kachin) and introduced new, reinvented methods. Contrary to most NGOs working in Burma, they work outside the major cities. What is more, besides using modern, interactive technologies they focus more on the well known techniques, evoking early 20th century style activism, which may seem unconventional these days: itinerant cinema, door-to-door agitation, and radio (the medium most difficult to control). Hoping to stimulate democratization, social participation on local level and creation of civil society they organize technical training courses for local journalists which are targeted at reviving the free media in Burma. They also organize various other courses on grass-root level aimed to raise awareness of intercultural dialogue and the mobilization of local communities.
After four years we may summarize the outcome of their actions and ask if they really make a change?