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Myanmar’s Resilient Revolution: How non-state welfare is sustaining democratic struggle

Myanmar’s Spring Revolution is now in its third year since the February 2021 military coup. Despite facing brutal repression including arson attacks and aerial bombardment by Myanmar’s state security personnel, ordinary people across the country are continuing to resist the return to dictatorship. What explains the extraordinary resilience of their civil disobedience and armed resistance efforts?

Photo: Visual Rebellion SSR 104.

Roots of resilience

Many in Myanmar are furious about the return to tyranny and the bleak implications for them, their children and their country. These grievances have been channelled into revolutionary struggle over the past two years which has been sustained by a deeply-ingrained culture of reciprocity, charity and philanthropy that has developed over decades. Indeed, many of the ideas and practices of self-reliance, reciprocity and moral citizenship now at the core of the Spring Revolution have roots in the fitful post-socialist market reforms of the 1990s and 2000s.

In my book, ‘Outsourcing the Polity: Non-State Welfare, Inequality and Resistance in Myanmar’, I draw on extensive fieldwork to explore the origins of Myanmar’s vibrant non-state welfare sector. Examining the political economy of provincial economic liberalisation after the collapse of the Burma Socialist Programme Party in 1988, I uncover how state officials encouraged provision of social aid and public goods by non-state actors. Sub-national military commanders suppressed anti-junta and democratic party activity but permitted ostensibly ‘apolitical’ welfare-oriented village and neighborhood groups to flourish. Meanwhile, regional junta officials issued commercial licenses and tax exemptions to businesspeople who assumed roles as informal civilian administrators and often became patrons of both government-sponsored and grassroots welfare groups.

Outsourcing enabled dire state social austerity; the 1990s junta slashed social expenditure and used the funds to instead double the size of the armed forces. Alongside often fragile commercial ceasefires reached with ethnic armed elites, transferring social responsibility to the non-state sector allowed Myanmar’s military to focus instead on forcefully expanding the central state into restive borderland regions.


Democratic outsourcing

The legacies of post-1988 social outsourcing continued to shape the character of politics after the military initiated partial civilian rule in 2011. Both the Thein Sein (2011-2016) and Aung San Suu Kyi (2016-2021) administrations continued to encourage charities, philanthropists, the private sector and religious communities to perform social welfare and development roles, often in exchange for tax deductions. Rather than turn to the state to deliver social development, communities were told by their elected representatives to rely on each other and the ‘free-market’ to solve social problems. Community groups even ran quarantine facilities and fundraised for the government’s vaccination procurement programme amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at the encouragement of Suu Kyi herself. Meanwhile, after 2010 tycoons sought to remake their public reputations and protect their questionably accrued assets from taxation or redistribution by helping to fill the gaps in social provisioning left by decades of austerity.


Post-coup resistance

The military’s February 2021 ousting of elected civilian leaders has spawned thousands of new groups in neighbourhoods and villages across the country. These networks are helping to support the needy, resource pro-democracy militias, provide education to children fleeing violence and deliver social governance in large areas of the country that are no longer military controlled. They are also at the vanguard of imagining and enacting alternative social ideals and models to dictatorship which reject the militarisation and economic exploitation of the so-called ‘democratic decade’ (2011-2021).

Yet few of these groups receive any funds from the international community – even though they are playing crucial humanitarian and social roles. In one township in Sagaing Region, for instance, an alliance of local social actors including welfare groups, militias, traders and striking teachers are helping to resource and run a network of more than a dozen schools educating thousands of young people. Initiatives like theirs currently receive almost no foreign aid but are delivering essential social governance functions in the wake of what even the junta acknowledges is its administrative collapse in most rural and borderland areas of the country. Foreign governments and humanitarian actors must ensure local networks are far better resourced as the dictatorship continues to cling to power.

The remarkable role of non-state welfare actors and ideals in sustaining Myanmar’s democratic struggle has implications for understanding distributive politics, autocratic legacies and civil resistance elsewhere. For now though it is clear that a new wave of social outsourcing is underway in Myanmar – one that is simultaneously deepening communal self-reliance while also sustaining the fight for a more inclusive and democratic future.

*Featured image: A group of teachers stage a sit-in protest against military dictatorship in Shwedaung township in Sagaing Region, Myanmar (Photo: Visual Rebellion SSR 104).

Video interview courtesy of International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and photos courtesy of Visual Rebellion (https://visualrebellion.org/).

Tax deductible donations to non-state welfare organisations can be made via Mutual Aid Myanmar: https://www.mutualaidmyanmar.org// Burmese-subtitled version of the attached video available here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Soz46aqzKuI&t=1s

This article has been originally published by the Centre for International Studies at Cornell University and The Diplomat.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Dr Gerard McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (part of Erasmus University of Rotterdam). He specializes in the politics of inequality and development in Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar where he has researched democracy, welfare and authoritarian legacies since 2013.

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Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where projects have been initiated. But why don’t aid interventions also focus on the localization of research? This blog post intends to stress the importance of critically assessing the localization strategies of the international community in the research space in Myanmar, requiring an honest introspection in how social science research is being conducted and funded, and who are the actors at play and its implications.

The localization of aid has gained considerable attention in both the humanitarian and development spaces over the last few years (Kumar 2015). The conventional definition has been criticized for being too narrow, centred on channelling more aid directly to local state and non-state actors without a focus on supporting their capacity to effectively absorb and manage more aid. While donor and UN agencies have been pursuing greater localization of their funding, in practice, it has merely been operationalized as a set of best practices for them to better engage with local stakeholders.

With the renewed engagement of the international community since its 2010 democratic transition, Myanmar research actors have been catering to the rising demand for donor-driven knowledge production. Recently, we completed a study with the Global Development Network, funded by the International Development Research Centre, to assess the social science research ecosystem in Myanmar. The study found that the vast majority of donor-funded research places little decision-making power in the hands of local research actors, where local researchers are often relegated to liaisons or assistant roles in research projects. It is mainly justified on the grounds of allocating roles based on current levels of expertise, and few Myanmar researchers have experience to match the required level of expertise or experience.

The need to critically assess localization efforts in the development industry is important and urgent. Similar to the debate within humanitarian aid, more direct funding from donors into local research systems can contribute to increased capacity, promote independent research that produces longer-term research studies, and shape ‘big ideas’ of the country. At present, the research ecosystem in Myanmar can only be optimistically described as nascent. Its current state is the result of deliberate actions undertaken by the successive socialist government and military rule (following the 1988 Uprising, initiated by university students) to dismantle the higher education system.

Universities today are severely under-resourced – teaching is based on top-down rote learning, while professors are poorly paid and have little financial support or incentives to undertake independent and high-quality research. What further compounds the issue is ‘anade’, a sociocultural value still prevalent in Myanmar that prevents students from speaking out or raising questions to their professors in fear of offending them. These factors severely limit the development of analytical and critical thinking skills among young graduates.

The gap left by universities in research production is then filled by international NGOs, think tanks, development consultancies, and market research firms, which are largely funded by donors. In fact, donors have been very successful in controlling the ‘value chain’, guiding what is problematized and which research is commodified in the marketplace of ideas (McCombs & Shaw 1993). While the abovementioned dynamics could be considered successful localization practices, understood in the conventional sense as practices to channel direct aid to local actors and a focus on capacity building, this reality also shines light on the complexity of these collaborations.

In Myanmar, we have found that funding is often concentrated on specific areas that are in line with the priority areas that donors deem important for the country’s development. During our in-depth interviews, local researchers frequently complained about the lack of power in deciding the research topic and research design. They stressed that they were often relegated to positions of boots-on-the-ground or local partners, typically as data collectors, translators, or liaison officers. On the other hand, analytical tasks and report writing were assigned to bigger international NGOs or international consultants.

Amid the lack of supply of experienced researchers in Myanmar[1], donors have focused on building capacity to meet the standards required for the localization of aid, mainly by adding short-term capacity building workshops in their projects. However, such an approach is myopic because it merely focuses on enhancing research skills sufficient to contribute to their commissioned studies. Moreover, power dynamics inherent in the aid-donor relations accord considerable leverage for the uptake of these donor-driven research studies, which can reduce the space for local researchers to explore thematic and methodological options in their pursuit of their research endeavours. Instead, local researchers are constrained in providing single-minded policy responses to overstretched policymakers. As aid practitioners, we have to critically assess these approaches and ask, how “local” is “the local”?

At present,  social science research continues to be driven by the international community who sets its own agenda, with localization merely a tick on the checklist to ensure that the local context and participation are acknowledged. Such research is not co-developed or nationally owned, nor does it incentivize the government to pursue a longer-term strategy to build up the research system.

The discussion presented here does not suggest that donor-funded research cannot contribute to the development of a stronger research and policy-making environment. Rather, we argue that the narrow definition and application of the localization principle when it comes to pursuing research agendas is overly focused on achieving targeted narrow programmatic outcomes. This has been justified through partnerships with and training of local researchers to contribute to the strengthening of overall research capacities of Myanmar.

[1] According to UNESCO UIS, Myanmar had 29.07 full-time equivalent researchers (per million inhabitants) in 2017 (UNESCO UIS n.d.)

Capie, D. (2012). The Responsibility to Protect Norm in Southeast Asia: Framing, Resistance and the Localization Myth. The Pacific Review, 25(1), 75–93.
Kumar, R. (2015). What’s new with localization. [online] Devex. Available at: https://www.devex.com/news/what-s-new-with-localization-86094 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda-setting research: Twenty-five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of communication, 43(2), 58-67.
UNESCO UIS. (n.d.). Data for Sustainable Development Goals – Myanmar. Available at: http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/mm?theme=science-technology-and-innovation [Accessed 16 Mar. 2020].


About the authors:

JanaJana-Chin Rué Glutting is a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic and Social Development. She is an MA graduate in Economics of Development Studies at The Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University. She is interested in industry policy research in Myanmar, and currently engaged in various projects related to the garment sector, trade and macroeconomic research, and social research systems.



Anders Lee is a researcher at the Centre for Economic and Social Development, and Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. He is currently working on research projects looking at political violence in China and Hong Kong, and internal and international migration in Myanmar. He holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


Holding Myanmar accountable for acts of genocide is just the start of a long process of justice for the Rohingya by Lize Swartz

Public hearings are currently underway at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Myanmar stands accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya minority after violent crackdowns since 2012 left thousands dead and forced more than one million Rohingya to flee the country. This follows shortly after the Minister of Justice of The Gambia at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya held at the ISS in October declared that what has transpired in Myanmar over the past years must be named genocide and that The Gambia would lead efforts to hold the Myanmar state accountable through international legal mechanisms. However, this is just the first of several steps to ensure justice for the Rohingya—the human side of what has become a ‘refugee crisis’ needs to be acknowledged, writes Lize Swartz.

The desire to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes committed against the Rohingya[1], to improve the living conditions and well-being of Rohingya refugees[2], and to ensure their eventual safe return to Myanmar was unanimously expressed at the recent International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya. At the conclave, a number of high-level dignitaries and specialists working on justice for the Rohingya at both the international and local level came together at the ISS in October this year to discuss key short-, medium- and long-term objectives in ensuring the eventual safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar and ways in which to reach them.

His Excellency Abubacarr Marie Tambedou, Minister of Justice of The Gambia, at the conclave declared to a sizeable audience that The Gambia would lead the process of holding the Myanmar state accountable—a declaration that was enthusiastically welcomed by attendees as an important first step in ensuring justice for the Rohingya. The Gambia accordingly instituted proceedings [3] against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, the principal judiciary organ of the United Nations, in November this year. Laetitia van den Assum, an independent diplomatic expert who was previously part of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and who also attended the conclave[4], told a Dutch news website that The Gambia had launched the application because the UN Security Council due to resistance from Russia and China had not undertaken any action in this regard over the past few years.

While the declaration of genocide and the filing of the recent application are steps in the right direction, the complexity of processes of ensuring justice and accountability have not been sufficiently recognized at the conclave, where discussions focused on holding perpetrators accountable and returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar under safe conditions. Bangladesh, who has assumed a leadership role in housing Rohingya refugees, was praised at the conclave for its hospitality, while representatives of Bangladesh highlighted the difficulties of housing almost a million refugees.

The discussions made me wonder whether the humanity of the Rohingya is sufficiently recognized by those working on ensuring justice for them. In particular, the Rohingya genocide has become a ‘refugee crisis’, gaining increasing attention due to the sheer numbers of refugees residing in host countries. This is transpiring while the Rohingya in fact have been victims of policies of exclusion and direct violence within Myanmar for over forty years. It seems that it is only now that the issue is receiving attention—but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

At the conclave, it became clear that the Rohingya were seen as temporary residents hosted by benevolent neighbouring countries. However, it became evident during the conclave that repatriation is not straightforward, as changes in national policies, laws and leadership in Myanmar are crucial for the creation of conditions of safety and security as a sustainable solution to the long-term crisis. Conference attendees agreed that without such conditions, the cycle of violence and exclusion is likely to repeat itself as it has done before.

While the proceedings against Myanmar at the ICJ are a first step, host countries and the international community all have to come to terms with the fact that the process of ensuring justice could span several decades and that ongoing collaborative effort is required for the entire duration of the process. It is important to recognize the human side of the ‘refugee crisis’ and to ensure that besides holding perpetrators accountable through formal international legal mechanisms, the well-being of the Rohingya should be prioritized now—whether they are temporary or permanent residents of host countries. The following things should be kept in mind:

Bangladesh and other host countries are now the Rohingya’s home, and they may remain so for many years to come.

When humans settle somewhere, they grow new roots that anchor them to a place. The international community may not want to recognize that the Rohingya has already grown roots in host countries and that they will continue to do so until their return to Myanmar, if they choose to return. It is crucial for host countries to accept that the Rohingya might not be going anywhere anytime soon and that their integration into host communities is crucial, whether temporarily or permanently. Host countries have already been generous in providing resources and a safe space for the Rohingya, but they now needs to direct their gaze towards the social dimensions of well-being among the Rohingya, including the creation of a sense of belonging and the creation of education and employment opportunities by doing the opposite that the Myanmar state has done—by acknowledging the Rohingya minority as part of their society and accepting them despite their origin or citizenship status. At the conclave it became clear that the lack of access to education was one of the most pressing problems facing the Rohingya.

The Rohingya should acquire an understanding of the process of change, not only in repatriation, but also in holding the perpetrators responsible.

Importantly, the Rohingya also need to understand that their return to Myanmar, even though desired by some of them, may not take place in the coming year or years, which will help them make long-term decisions about where they could settle. CSOs and local grassroots actors working with Rohingya on the ground can play a crucial role in helping the Rohingya understand why the cogs are turning slowly and why their return to Myanmar is being delayed. In addition, information on the proceedings and outcome of pending ICJ or ICC cases will play an important role in the Rohingya’s gauging of the level of safety and security of Myanmar and, therefore, in their willingness to return to Myanmar when it is possible.

The process of justice and accountability does not end when the Rohingya return to Myanmar – it only begins then.

The long-term objective of helping the Rohingya deal with trauma should be highlighted; this shows dedication to the cause of the Rohingya and not just to addressing the immediate refugee crisis. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was discussed at the conclave, is effective not only in gathering evidence of crimes against humanity, but also in helping victims of crimes against humanity deal with trauma. The wounds that have been created over the last forty years will not heal instantly, but they can heal more effectively with the creation and efficient functioning of such mechanisms and institutions that facilitate dialogue and interaction among all ethnic groups in Myanmar.

[1] Following violent crackdowns on the Rohingya starting in 2012, more than one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, many to neighbouring country Bangladesh.

[2] At present, Cox’s Bazar near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border houses more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in what has become a massive slum.

[3] According to ICJ Press Release No. 2019/47, available at https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/178, The Gambia alleged “violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the ‘Genocide Convention’) through ‘acts adopted, taken and condoned by the Government of Myanmar against members of the Rohingya group’ ”.

Image Credit: Zlatica Hoke on Wikimedia

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS working on the intersection of sustainability and climate crises and the influence of power on understandings of and responses to such crises. She was a conference reporter at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya.