Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Myanmar embraces civil society

Myanmar is preparing for its largest regional civil society conference in decades, further evidence of its impressive engagement with the world.

The Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF 2014) from March 21-23 in Yangon bears the theme “Advancing Asean Peoples’ Solidarity toward Sustainable Peace, Development, Justice and Democratisation”.

Following the Asean Youth Forum, enthusiastically titled “Our Golden Chance to Rock the Golden Land”, which opens today, ACSC/APF 2014 will feature four plenary sessions and more than 30 workshops. It is the result of several rounds of tense debates among Myanmar NGOs working on humanitarian activities, border-based and ethnic issues.

Local organisers then broadened their discussions to include civil society organisations from other Asean member states. The aim is to promote independence, transparency and inclusiveness and continuity of the ACSC/APF process through consensus and solidarity.

It’s quite an impressive challenge, given how Myanmar has only opened up politically and economically in recent years.

For those who are unfamiliar, or too bored with the affairs of talking-shops such as Asean, the ACSC has been an independent space for civil societies since 2005, when Malaysia hosted the first people’s forum in parallel to Asean summits.

The people’s forum aims to provide a venue for independent organisations to speak out on issues affecting their lives and livelihoods and consolidate recommendations to the leaders of Asean.

The economic and political context of Asean has gradually changed toward more tolerance of issues once considered sensitive or internal affairs that the 10-member grouping sought to avoid.

Hence, the past five years have seen the launch of the Asean Charter, the Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and the Asean Declaration on Human Rights as well as the Asean Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC).

Inevitably, Asean governments have been moving into areas where civil society organisations have been active for decades. Moving beyond attitudes that used to range from animosity to indifference on the part of states, and mostly anti-government sentiment among activists, both sides have learned to embrace and manage the relationship.

The ASCS/APF was once a back-to-back event with the summits and a chance to interact with political leaders. Eventually the organisers felt compelled to stage their events at different times from the summits. But they believed it was better than not having anything. After all, civil society activities require some host government support from endorsement of the agenda to arranging venues and visas.

For any country hosting such an event, winning praise for meaningful engagement with civil society is a point of pride: you are finally a “civilised” member of the club. That appeals to Myanmar, which is preparing for an election right after the end of its Asean chairmanship.

Of course, there are some tensions, as in other countries. Some governments may take the recommendations of such forums seriously, and some will pay only superficial attention.

Activists in Myanmar now have more space, but they need to agree on priorities and make viable action plans. As well, they need to take into account issues that cut across borders.

May May Pyone, executive director of the NGO Gender Group and chair of the steering committee of ACSC/APF 2014, is pleased with the support of the Myanmar authorities and has requested visa-on-arrival facilities for participants. “This event is an important milestone for Myanmar’s transition and for the Asean Community 2015,” she said.

Premrudee Daoroung, co-chair of the steering committee, expressed appreciation for national organisers’ commitment to regionalism. “Myanmar has been an important focus of Asean civil society since the first ACSC in 2005, so this event is extra special to us all,” said Ms Premrudee.

As well, Myanmar exiles and activists from neighbouring countries as well as foreign embassies have been supporting some brilliant people in Myanmar as they breathe new life into their society.

The people’s forum itself faces a major challenge to present a united front on certain issues that could affect policy decision-making, such as investment that affects the environment and consumers, and cross-border issues such as migrant workers, refugees and stateless people.

Some observers might notice one thing, however: there is no explicit reference to the dreadful plight of the Rohingya boat people among the 30-odd workshops. One can only hope that the debates will touch on this intra-Asean issue that originates from Myanmar.

source: Bangkok Post
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