Myanmar Civil Society Going to Lose Another One?

Reports suggest that work on the Myitsone Dam will restart, despite widespread opposition.

Since Myanmar’s reform process began in earnest in 2010, Myanmar civil society activists seem to have won one victory after the next. Indeed, the apparent change in the power of civil society, from before 2010 to today, has been probably the most striking aspect of Myanmar’s transition. Although the political system has opened up, there has not yet been a national general election since 2010; although the military is not as omnipresent as it was before 2010, it remains the central institution in the country, its role as a political actor untouched in many respects; although the business climate undoubtedly has improved, many Western and Japanese investors who have come to Myanmar in the past two years have returned home disappointed that, in reality, graft, poor infrastructure, uncertain regulations, and poor quality labor remain huge impediments to doing business.

But civil society seems to have changed dramatically, in a way resembling Cambodia, which twenty years after the end of its civil war remains stuck with thuggish, pseudo-authoritarian politics yet has a wide range of powerful, vocal nonprofits and media outlets. Four years ago, leading protests of any type in Myanmar could easily get one a long jail sentence, or worse; the domestic media was mostly limited to state newspapers and broadcasters. Now, the media environment has been thrown totally open, with broadsheets, online sites, and the (transformed) old state media all competing for readers and viewership, with the kinds of open, investigative stories that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Unions, aid organizations, groups designed to help former political prisoners, and many other NGOs have sprung up in Yangon in the last year or two, coming up so quickly that every time I go to the city it becomes harder and harder to find the offices of nonprofits I am looking to meet. Meanwhile, protests have erupted around the country over many different issues, including environmental issues. These protests seemed to have made a significant impact on the Myanmar government’s thinking.

Most notably, massive protests over the proposed Myitsone Dam—partly because of concerns that the Chinese companies involved would be environmentally destructive—led the government to suspend the dam. This suspension was taken, by many Myanmar activists, as the most important sign to date that the country was changing—that the government was becoming increasingly responsible to the public, that politicians were developing a democratic mindset, one of having to cater to public opinion and get public support for actions they take.

But maybe civil society in Myanmar, like politics, business, and the military, has not changed as much as it seems. This week The Irrawaddy reports that the suspended Myitsone Dam is likely to be restarted. It reports that, despite the Myanmar government’s suspension—which many civil society activists believed was a prelude to killing the dam altogether—the Chinese investors in the project already have spent more than half the funds allocated for the dam construction, according to what Chinese managers of the project told an energy investment conference. This was the first actually transparent revelation of how much money has already been spent on the dam. The fact that so much of the funds have already been spent strongly suggests the dam construction will be re-started—if it has not already been, since there have been persistent reports of quiet construction activity at the site.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick