Hence, rather than constructing powerful political narratives that can then be channeled into real political maneuvers, it is likely that civil society groups will continue to quietly deliver social services as junior partner to a state struggling to absorb the flow of funds. Indeed, many civil society leaders are terrified of explicit politics. Zin Mar Aung, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science, puts it this way: "Young people talk about participating in civil society, but they do not dare to participate in politics." She goes on to critique such a binary way of seeing domains that should be intertwined. But she and many others who echo her sentiments are correct that, if there is nothing to pull civil society groups and citizens into the political realm, most of the organizations and individuals will simply continue to do what they did under the previous status quo.
So who can politicize them? The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is now in parliament, doing the important work of learning how to govern. Myanmar Egress, the indispensible technocratic civil society group, is assisting with the state's governance reforms.
In this vacuum, some non-traditional social movements have recently emerged, suggesting a different route for politicizing and mobilizing civil society. Take the contentious issue of land displacement. At first glance, the state of affairs looks grim, a perfect example of the limits of top-down reform: President Thein Sein has explicitly stated that the land holdings of average Burmese people must be protected. Despite this, land grabs have been occurring with relative impunity, and not only in remote areas, but right on the outskirts of Yangon. In fact, on the same day last month that Thein Sein declared land's sanctity, businesses connected to parliamentarians bulldozed farmers' paddy fields.
And yet, in response, a land justice movement is coalescing behind mobilized citizens' groups and an increasingly free media. In a forthcoming study in The Journal of International Affairs, SiuSue Mark, of the British-financed Pyoe Pin Program, outlines how "NGO workers, lawyers, journalists and average concerned individuals [have] freely come together after hours and weekends" to organize advocacy and lobbying work. Advocacy efforts in parliament succeeded in making minor but meaningful changes to the land bills. More importantly, mobilization has brought the issue to national recognition, as the media have given attention to (and hence protection for) farmers protesting displacement. Though this movement has not yet achieved a resounding victory, it has shown many what is possible. Thomas Kean, an editor for the Yangon-based Myanmar Times who has reported extensively on the land movement, says, "I don't see why [this kind of advocacy] can't be replicated on other issues."
SiuSiue Mark analyzes this movement as being led by civil society, but perhaps a distinction must be made here: These individuals contesting regressive policies are explicitly outside of structured groups. As Mark's colleague Lyndal Barry puts it: "Artists mobilized outside of the civil society groups, and these people have a huge amount of social capital. They are acting because it's their role and their desire and their compassion, not just their job." The insight here is that the state, the opposition, and civil society have become insular domains that rarely interact with one another. It took these figures, who routinely cross the borders between the three spheres, to mediate among them and innovate citizen political participation.
The quintessential intermediary is the former political dissident, and many of them are looking for creative ways to re-engage the political sphere. They appear poised to capitalize on this space and to keep these kinds of movements expanding and deepening. The 88 Generation Students Group, an increasingly active affiliation of former political prisoners, is holding rallies, conducting civic education, and militating for pro-poor policies. If anyone can politicize civil society groups, it's them, given the vast social capital they hold as a result of their decades-long struggle.
These evolving dynamics indicate what Burmese democracy can look like. Reform should encompass these actors as well. To the extent that resources and advice will come from outside, the same countries that have unleashed their corporations upon Burma by ending sanctions have an added responsibility. They must work though civil society and their interlocutors who are committed to preventing elite capture of the spoils of capitalist liberalization. But as this is unlikely to happen, it may fall to the Burmese themselves. Artists, journalists, and political activists must pry open political space and demand that civil society join them there.