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Activists fight for stable democracy in Myanmar

In fight for stable democracy in Myanmar, civil society activists scramble to reverse former junta’s legacy of fear and silence

By Rose Foran

In the village of Nant Sin Kyun, located in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Division, the fate of a beloved political figure has long served as a cautionary tale to its residents to stay out of politics if they value their freedom.

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U Saw Hlaing was a respected teacher who advocated for the local youth to learn English, and an influential person within the community at large. But he was also a member and party representative of NLD, which, during the time of the ruling military junta, was an offense punishable with imprisonment. Like NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U Saw Hlaing spent a great deal of time in prison and under house arrest for his activities within the opposition party. He died in 2013.

The collective memory of oppression from the military regime and its toll on free thought and speech is a cancer on the electorate, and perhaps the biggest hindrance to the country truly realizing its democratic dream.

Ahead of the historic November 8 election, civil society organizations have been scrambling against time to reach as many people as they can, to quell their fears and educate them on the logistics of voting, the democratic process, and why it is important for ordinary people in Myanmar to fulfill their civic duties.

Than Zaw Oo, 30, the president of the Kadu Youth Development Association, credits the memory of U Saw Hlaing’s trials as the reference point for many villagers as to what keeps them away from engaging in Myanmar’s burgeoning democracy. He is one of the many civil society activists trying to subdue the trauma of those who witnessed the harsh limits on freedom from the military regime and provide them with the civic education of which they have long been deprived.

“A lot of our people are still frightened if they even hear about something political,” Than Zaw Oo said. “They are afraid that if someone is involved in political movements, they will be caught by the military or police. U Saw Hlaing was always in prison.”

While political discourse in Myanmar has transformed from the days that required checking over one’s shoulder before uttering the word “democracy,” the seeming haphazardness in which activists are still persecuted or speech policed remain a powerful source of intimidation.

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Once a trainer in organic farming and agriculture, after the transition period that began in 2010, he decided to focus his energy toward civil society. Than Zaw Oo sought training in civic education and advocates at the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement (iPACE), which is operated out of the American Center in Yangon. iPACE is a program facilitated by the DC-based NGO World Learning, whose aim is to strengthen civil society through democracy education and empowerment, with an emphasis on a trainer-of-trainer model so their students can keep expanding their reach of civic knowledge.

Than Zaw Oo now runs the Kadu Youth Development Association, which is based in Nant Sin Kyun Village in the Indaw Township. The organization aims to preserve Kadu ethnic minority’s language and culture, and also provides people from the nearby communities with voter education and training.

At first, the KYD’s Youth Development & Awareness Training was marketed primarily as a computer class. Slowly Than Zaw Oo would begin to ask open ended questions, like “what is politics?” and introduce more concepts of democracy to his students.

He received substantial backlash from concerned parents. “They were of the mindset that you could go to jail,” Than Zaw Oo recalled.

But the atmosphere of reticence is beginning to subside, gradually, which is evidenced by the turnout in the voter education training Than Zaw Oo gave on Tuesday, November 3rd, to a group of villagers– most of whom were uneducated farmers.

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The group, which numbered about twenty, gathered for the day-long workshop in the religious hall of a local monastery in the village of Min Kone, whose grounds were quiet while the monks were resting, save for the roars of two water buffalos.

They are “the poorest of the poor,” as Hla Nyo, 52, a farmer herself, describes her comrades in attendance. On even their best harvest day, they would only make about 3,500 kyats, or roughly 3 USD. Obtaining a middle-school level education is considered advanced.

But these are Myanmar’s electorate, and on the 8th of November, their votes will count just as much as the political science student in Mandalay, the multilingual activist in Yangon.

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KYD Secretary Zaw Myo Tun, 33, maintains that fear of a host of repercussions and a lack of education remain two of the biggest roadblocks to this election being truly “free.”

“The majority of the public don’t know voting is their duty — they don’t know how much they need to be involved,” he said.

“People are afraid to be involved in voter education training. The military regime was in control of the government for many years,” Zaw Myo Tun continued. “Government was government and people were people. People didn’t know they had the right to build a country themselves.”

Voting has also changed since the last time around. In 2012 it was much simpler; just a tick in a box. This year, there are three different ballots — four for ethnic states — distributed subsequently. Even before the polls, at various stages of the voter list process, wires have been crossed, identity card numbers incorrectly entered, names mangled.

For those who work long hours, live in remote areas, any hitch in the process can prove to be easily discouraging. And even those who stick with it through the bureaucratic hiccups, a scratched or torn ballot can be promptly discounted by the Union Electoral Commission (UEC).

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Proudly supporting her Kadu Youth Development shirt, Soe Myat Thusan, 21, who traveled two hours by motorbike to attend the training will pass on what she has learned to as many people as possible ahead of the elections. “It is now my duty,” she said.

“This election is an important time, and many people don’t care about it because they lack the knowledge. They don’t know every vote is important,” the energetic young farmer said.

Saw Lwin, 30, a farmer, called the late U Saw Hlaing “a guiding star” for the people of the village. While his memory was what long kept people wary of their place in the system, now, he says, the politician’s legacy is starting to change, and, finally, “the fear is starting to disappear.”

Rose Foran is the Senior Writer/Editor at World Learning, an internationally focused nonprofit based in Washington DC. Previously, she worked as a researcher and writer across the Middle East and in Paris.

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