Paul Low: Race-based Politics is Unavoidable

May 12, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

MInister Paul Low is right in pointing out that race-based politics is unavoidable in Malaysia. That is the first decent and realistic comment he made since he assumed his ministerial post in Najib’s Cabinet. But apart from saying that “the people” want it and Malaysian politicians are driven by “political survival”, he did not say why this was so. If  politics is not about serving the people, then what is it?

Hudud2For Survival, Najib plays Race and Religion Card

It is going to take time, that is true. There is caveat to this. Malaysian politics will not change unless we start  doing away with raced-based political parties like UMNO, MCA, MIC and  the Islam based PAS.  That is ideal but UMNO does  not  want to be seen to be “abandoning the Malays and Islam”. Remember Dato Onn Jaafar tried it. When he could not, he resigned to set up Party Negara, which did not take off because this great Malaysian was too ahead of his time.

UMNO is still a major player  today. It is backed by racist NGOs like PERKASA and ISMA and others. That is why under pressure from Malay nationalists and pressure groups UMNO has been playing with race and religion to galvanize Malay support, especially in the rural heartland.

UMNO President Najib Razak is not a reformer of the Onn Jaafar mold. He will not do anything that will sacrifice UMNO and  run the risk of being remembered in history as the UMNO leader who abandoned the Malay cause. Maybe he is concerned about his political survival.  But if he continues with mismanaging the economy which is burdening the Malays in particular, he will find that he will lose the support of his party and his UMNO presidency. He will  be humiliated and his premiership  will end as well.

Najib with MCA LeadersMCA Leaders with the Boss

Both the MCA and MIC are losing support of the respective communities. The reason for this clear. They are seen to be lackeys of UMNO. To survive they must reform. That is not possible in the immediate future. The current leaders are perceived to have benefited from UMNO largesse, being content to play a subordinate role to UMNO warlords. Both MCA and MIC must too deal with internal problems. Looking ahead to the next few years as GE-14 approaches, they  could face rejection from Chinese, Indian and other voters.

Pakatan Rakyat did well in 2008 when they fired the imagination of Malaysian voters. In 2013, they received more than 50 percent of the popular vote. We thought we were heading towards a two coalition party system in our country. That prospect grows dim by the day.

Following the Khalid Ibrahim saga and the incarceration of Anwar Ibrahim, we witnessed the political game played by PAS President Ustaz Hadi Awang, who resurfaced as the champion of Hudud Law. His erratic and flip-flopping conduct has put Pakatan Rakyat in a quandary as UMNO seeks to entice PAS away from the opposition coalition by the playing the Islam and Malay unity card. PAS has reached a turning point in its history with a clash between the conservative hardline Ulama faction and the Erodogan moderate group very much in the works. There is now a strong likelihood that should the Ulamas win the contest, the Erodogans may form a new party, PASMA.

Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has problems of its own. Who will succeed Wan Azizah as President. It is going to be clash between a young and ambitious group led by party led Secretary-General Rafizi Ramli and Nurul Izzah and others who want to keep  the recently elected Permatang Puah Member as party president for as long as they, and the supporters of Azmin Ali, the  dyanmic incumbent Menteri Besar of Selangor;  the Azmin faction wants to see a change in party leadership so that the party can be a strong coalition partner again.

The DAP, on the hand, has no serious issues within its ranks. Party elders are gradually  paving the way for a new generations of very qualified and professional leaders like  Teresa Koh, Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong, Ong Kian Ming, Anthony Loke, Gobin Singh Deo,  Zairil Khir Johari, Dr. Ariffin Omar, Kula Segaran, just to name a few.  The party is not short on talent. But it must recruit more non-Chinese members to eliminate the stigma of being perceived as a chauvinistic party.

Sanjung-keris-Datuk-Seri-Hishammuddin-Hussein2Malay Supremacy

As far as politics is concerned, Malaysia is into exciting yet uncertain times. The ruling UMNO- Barisan Nasional regime is under threat. Its leader is fighting for his political future. One should not be surprised, in his struggle to survive, he will take his case to the Malay rural heartland, where he can be expected to play the race and religion card. Minister Paul Low is right. We should not expect politics of race and religion  to go away anytime soon.  But that does not mean we must not strive towards an issues-based politics–Din Merican

Paul Low: Race-based Politics is Unavoidable

By Elizabeth  Zachariah @

Race-based politics is unavoidable because politicians rely on it to ensure their survival, a minister said, despite research showing that such voters are increasingly against such politics.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low said that politicians had to satisfy the wants of the people in rural areas who still voted based on race.

“The last election had shown that race and religion in the rural areas were key factors behind the support for the government in power today,” he said at a forum, The Great Debate: Everything in Moderation, held in Kuala Lumpur last night.

“Suppose politicians say they want to change now, then the question they will ask is, ‘will I receive votes from the people in the rural areas if I change?’ So to politicians, it is a risk. Why should they take a risk?”

His comments caused the moderator, Sharaad Kuttan from BFM, to interject and ask Low if there was no political will to do away with race-based politics.Low replied: “No, it is political survival.”

Another speaker at the forum, writer Niki Cheong quipped that he was “depressed” with Low’s contention.”So the reason why we’re not moderate is because politicians want to win the elections and therefore they tell these people that they have to think along racial lines as this is the only way they can survive.If these people are the ones leading our country, then sorry, I’m depressed,” Cheong said, to laughter from the crowd.

PKR Youth chief Nik Nazmi says the popular vote won by Pakatan Rakyat in the last general election proves that race-based politics is not necessary anymore in Malaysia. .PKR Youth chief Nik Nazmi says the popular vote won by Pakatan Rakyat in the last general election proves that race-based politics is not necessary anymore in Malaysia.  Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad who pointed out that 52% of voters who voted for Pakatan Rakyat in the 13th general election had in fact rejected race-based politics.”So there is a possibility to eliminate race-based politics if there is political will,” he added.

Speaking to reporters after the forum, Low said that there were still many who subscribed to race-based politics and who vote based on that. “The parties are still based on race because there are people who support such parties,” he said.

“People are still ingrained with that mentality. This is why politicians are still catering to it. In the end, it is for their political survival.”

In March, a survey carried out by independent pollster Merdeka Center found that Malaysian voters overwhelmingly want political parties which take care of all Malaysians, rather than ones that fight for just their own race and religion.

The survey, commissioned by The Malaysian Insider, found that the racial rhetoric these parties thrive on was not consistent with what Malaysians want. The major component parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional government – UMNO, MIC and MCA – rely heavily on race-based politics to drum up support.

Low, the minister in charge of governance, integrity and human rights, also claimed that Malaysia needed more time to tackle race and religion issues despite almost 58 years of independence. “We are still a young nation. 53 years (sic) is not enough for a transition period. We are a very young country.

“The United States took some 300 years to tackle racial issues. So 53 years is not enough,” he added. – May 12, 2015.

Cornered Prime Minister Najib comes out fighting

May 11, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Cornered Prime Minister Najib comes out fighting

by Terence

COMMENT:  After months of parrying broadsides aimed at him by Tun Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamad, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak yesterday came out counter punching at his tormenter-in-chief. It was a clear sign of the Prime Minister’s desperation at finding the ground shift from under his feet, requiring a switch from defence to offence in the battle to stay alive politically.

Mahathir-Vs-NajibWeeks of carefully choreographed support from UMNO divisions, BN components and cabinet ministers is beginning to fray at the edges and even at the centre, what with top-tier UMNO leaders starting to voice misgivings about the shenanigans in 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and its cascade of ill-effects on other bodies, amid public unease over the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Former Finance Minister and Najib critic Daim Zainuddin’s (photo) surmise that the array of support for Najib is more form than substance is turning out to be prescient.

Pegged against the ropes, Najib has had to come out fighting, an uncharacteristic reaction given the tenor of his leadership that has inverted the manual on the art – that it is possible to lead from the rear than from the front.

Najib chose Sabah as the venue for the delivery of a direct counterattack not only because Sabah Umno and the state’s BN, despite the quavers of a few, have been steadfast in support of him throughout his current travails, but also because the state has been a bugbear to Mahathir during his 22 years as PM.

Sabah’s unwieldiness continued to dog Mahathir long after he left prime ministerial office in 2003. The festering problem of ‘illegals’ in the state had escalated to warrant the setting up of a Royal Commission (RCI) whose inquiry traced blurry lines of responsibility for the problem up to the federal Home Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Mahathir was the occupant of both offices when the problem began to metastasise in the 1990s. Its eventual report, whose release was delayed, did not finger Mahathir directly and chose to gloss the issue of who was responsible in an attempt to avoid blame-fixing.

Mahathir had denied all responsibility for creating the Sabah ‘illegals’ problem, but his disavowal has been less plausible than, say, Anwar Ibrahim’s denial that he is a sodomite.

Ironically, the latter sits languishing in jail for the commission of a sexual crime while the former, susceptible to a charge even more grave in the moral calculus of wrongs, plots to cut the ground from under the feet of a second PM to have sauntered into his cross-hairs.

A ‘Waterloo’ for Mahathir?

That Sabah has been a ‘Waterloo’ of sorts for Mahathir has been true since the late 1980s when Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan was recalcitrant to Mahathir’s behests, and extending to the mid-1990s when a stampede of support from the state’s UMNO divisions for Anwar’s quest of the Deputy Presidency rattled Mahathir into retreating from an initial endorsement of incumbent Ghafar Baba.

Also, in yesterday’s campaign swing through Sabah, Najib chose to bring up a crucial chapter in UMNO’s history – its internal elections of 1987 – and used it to inveigh against Mahathir’s alleged ingratitude.

A few weeks ago, Mahathir got the gratitude stakes going by reminding Najib that he had written a letter to his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, urgng him to choose Najib as his Deputy when Abdullah dithered over a choice he had wanted an UMNO elective assembly to make rather than make it himself.

Mahathir forced Abdullah’s hand in January 2004; this was to prove costly to Abdullah because the disregarded contender, Muhyiddin Yassin, helped end Abdullah’s Mahathir-pressured retirement in early 2009.  Now it is the turn of Najib to remind Mahathir of what he did for him in the crucial 1987 UMNO polls: an eleventh-hour switch of support by Najib to Mahathir in that election saw the incumbent ghost past challenger Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah to retain the party presidency by a whisker. Both Mahathir and Najib are now simply saying to each other, “I’m owed big time.”

Mahathir’s debt to Najib is the weightier because his then six-year premiership received a 16-year extension; it could have been unceremoniously ended in April 1987.

By contrast, Najib still stood a good chance of being Deputy Prime Minister even without Mahathir’s letter of support – his chances of beating Muhyiddin in a contest for the Deputy Presidency were better than even – if Abdullah were allowed to leave the choice, as he preferred, to UMNO’s elective assembly of 2004.

Najib chose to side with Mahathir in 1987 not from principle but out of  naked self-interest: a vacating Anwar handed Deputy Najib the UMNO Youth presidency on a silver platter in return for Najib’s support for Mahathir.

In the 1987 UMNO polls, Najib was ideologically closer to challenger Razaleigh’s Team B than to incumbent Mahathir’s Team A.

Trying to find ‘principle’ in the now periodic UMNO wars of replacement and succession is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

The politics surrounding these wars confirm the truth of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of politics: “The strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

Democracy at work in the United Kingdom

May 11, 2015

 Phnom Penh by The Mekong

COMMENT:  Public duty? Yes, in the United Kingdom, the cradle of democracy. Why? Because politiciansDin Merican lastest there treat politics as a call to public service. Men and women  who enter politics are individuals with outstanding credentials and generally clean record of service to Britons. They are part of the system that is open, transparent and accountable. The 2015 British Elections is shining example of true democracy at work. It was conducted peacefully and there is no talk of rigging and cheating. Clean and fair elections  was the order of the day.

In Malaysia, politics in recent years has become an opportunity for politicians to further their self interest. We no longer have leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tun Sambanthan and Tun Hussein Onn, who gave their lives in the service of the country. Today, our politicians are thieves of state, to whom the idea of public duty and national service is not their ethos.

Tunku, Razak, IsmailWe started out as a democracy with a  strong constitution which treats all citizens as equals under the law, guarantees freedom of  assembly, expression and speech, freedom of religion,  and clear separation of power between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. The British left us with an outstanding civil service , an education system which was second to none, a judiciary system that we all can be proud of , and a dedicated Police Force. But the British were no angels. They also left with draconian laws like the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act.  But democratic politics was their legacy.

After nearly 58 years of UMNO-Barisan, our democratic system of governance has broken down and is in need of urgent reform. Over the last 6 years, we have seen our fundamental freedoms taken away from us. Our Parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent led by a bunch of apple polishers;  our Police Force  which is headed by an Inspector General of Police treats us like enemies of state, not as taxpayers and citizens who should be protected from criminals; our fiscal management is in a total mess because we have a Finance Minister who regards our national coffers as if it were his own and mismanages our economy.  We  have rampant corruption and abuses of power.

As a result, we are far being a democracy as originally envisioned  by our founding fathers. In stead, we have become a nation divided by class, race and religion with a Prime Minister who answers to no one and who acts with impunity and in defiance of what you and I think of him and his Cabinet of incompetent, inept, mute and self serving Ministers. In short, we have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty–Din Merican

Democracy at work in the United Kingdom

by Mike Tan @www. the
The UK elections are over, and the Conservatives, under David Cameron, won an overwhelming 331 seats, its first such victory since 1992.
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, David Farage

While David Cameron takes his time to select his Cabinet, his rivals lost no time in taking responsibility for their parties’ poor showing in the elections. Three UK political party leaders – Ed Miliband of the Labour Party, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of the UK Independent Party (picture above) – all resigned after their parties suffered big losses in the election.

All four men may have different political perspectives and ambitions, but they share one thing in common – the wisdom of knowing when to step down when their time is up. They neither hesitated nor shied from their final act of duty as leaders of a political party, announcing their resignations the day after the results were known.

They leave with the knowledge that their parties will continue with the political struggle, that there will be others who will take their place and helm the respective parties in the future. Their parties are full of ambitious and knowledgeable politicians, not mere sycophants and yes-men. This is why democracy is alive and well in UK.

Contrast that with MCA president Liow Tiong Lai, who recently announced that MCA will work hard to reform the party. “MCA needs to work harder in the future. We need to effectively show the party’s role as part of the government to gain more support from the Chinese community,” he said.

It is no secret that support for MCA is at an all-time low, with the once-mighty party now only having seven parliamentary seats and 11 state assemblymen. MCA had suffered consecutive defeats in the previous two general elections, and is close to becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the Malaysian public.

To be fair, MCA was helmed by Dr Chua Soi Lek at that time, who had declared that MCA should not accept any government posts following its worst electoral defeat ever. In doing so, Chua did something no Malaysian political leader had ever done before.

Perhaps Malaysian politicians feel they have earned the right to ministerial positions in other ways than a good showing in elections, unlike their counterparts in the UK.

Chua ultimately made way for Liow in December 2013.Liow quickly reversed Chua’s decision, taking the much-coveted Transport Minister’s post for himself. Chua’s son, Chua Tee Yong, became deputy finance minister as well. Yet MCA remains as it always has been – doing the same thing, or rather, not doing anything at all, if you listen to its critics.

Liow has yet to lead MCA as president into a general election, and thus he remains untested. His track record thus far, however, has not been good.Under his leadership, MCA avoided contesting the Bukit Gelugor by-election and lost the Kajang by-election, both held in 2014. In all honestly, MCA had little if no chance of winning, so it made the right move to avoid contesting against DAP, but had to put up a fight in Kajang, where it predictably lost.

Liow would argue that he and MCA have not been given a chance to prove themselves in a general election. He might even claim that his call for reform will be the first step to a drastic change in MCA and ultimately lead to Chinese voters supporting the party once again.

It’s true, Liow hasn’t proven himself yet. But rest assured, nothing will stop him from taking a ministerial position after the next general election, unless he is forced to step down, like his predecessor.

In UK, political party leaders lead their parties to victory before becoming ministers. In Malaysia, they become ministers before leading their party into elections, and even if their parties suffer humiliating defeats.

That is the difference between the democracy practised there and what goes on here in our country. And in a way, this somewhat explains why Malaysia will never ever be great like Great Britain. – The Ant Daily

Mr. David Cameron: The Next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

May 8, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: The Conservatives led by Mr. David Cameron won the 2015 UK Elections with a clear majority of 330 seats. Labour finished with 232 seats while the Scottish National Party got 56 seats. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats won 8 seats.–Din Merican

Mr. David Cameron: The Next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

The Interviewer is giving the Leader of the Conservative Party, Mr. David Cameron a rough time. This can only happen in the cradle of democracy. In contrast, our media is tame and too polite to ask our Prime Minister tough questions about his record of governance. When will we change and make our Head of Government accountable and responsible for his policies and decisions?

Listen to the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party, Mr Ed Mlliband,the main contender for the post of Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Leader of Liberal Democrats, and Nicola Sturgeon, Leader of Scottish National Party.


PKR Lily Wan Azizah wins Permatang Pauh but with reduced majority

May 8, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

PKR Lily Wan Azizah wins Permatang Pauh but with reduced majority

by Sheridan Mahavera and Looi Sue-Chern

wan azizah 1

With a smaller voter turnout, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) had its absolute majority slashed by more than 3,000 votes in Permatang Pauh yesterday, but analysts dissecting the by-election said Barisan Nasional (BN) was still the bigger loser.

There are also warnings for both sides, as BN’s losses came from among Malay votes, while Pakatan Rakyat (PR)Dr Wong Chin Huat appeared to concede some Chinese votes to BN. BN’s failure to get more votes in Permatang Pauh, especially from Malay areas, mirrored the cold shoulder it got from the largely Malay seat of Rompin in the by-election there three days ago, said political analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat (right). Although BN was the incumbent in Rompin, its support level went down by 5% from 2013 levels.

BN failed to take advantage of the infighting between PKR and ally PAS, and despite a strident machinery, did not manage to erode support for PKR’s Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. She won by a margin of 8,841 votes against BN’s Suhaimi Sabudin.

Given the lower voter turnout, her win translates into 57% of all ballots cast, roughly the same vote share PKR had in the 13th general election. In the national polls two years ago with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as candidate, it took 58.56% of votes.

In contrast, BN received 40.1% of all votes cast in Permatang Pauh this time, slightly less than the 40.3% it received in 2013.This is despite BN pouring vast amounts of resources into its campaign and the disunity in the PR machinery, which saw some PAS allies threatening to boycott PKR.

“BN campaigned hard and we expected PR to suffer. But they did not increase their votes even with all the PR infighting,” said Wong, of the Penang Institute. Noth BN and PR have internal struggles, the former from attacks against its chairman, who is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and the opposition from discord over hudud and threats of sabotage by some segments of PAS against PKR in Permatang Pauh.

Yet, even with internal strife in both camps, BN was the weaker of the two, Wong said. It failed in this by-election to capitalise on the chaos and disillusionment with PR to garner more votes.

PKR outpolled Suhaimi in Permatang Pasir and Penanti, constituencies with majority Malay populations of 72% and 76% respectively. Dr Wan Azizah won 63% of the popular votes in Permatang Pasir and 57% of all votes cast in Penanti.She won majorities in 16 out of 19 polling districts in those two constituencies. In at least eight of those districts, she managed to beat Suhaimi by a vote margin of 2 to 1.

Dr Wan Azizah said after the results were made official last night, that Malay votes went up by 4% to 5%, mostly among young voters.“At the end of the day, people may not like the PR but they hate BN more,” said Wong.

Wan Saiful Wan JanTaking a different view was Wan Saiful Wan Jan (left) who said PR had nothing to shout about since it did not increase its vote share even with all the issues plaguing BN, such as the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) and scandals involving government-owned fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

PR’s infighting prevented it from getting more support from a public disenchanted with BN, Wan Saiful said. (Permatang Pauh) showed that even if people are angry with BN, they are not convinced enough to vote PR. This is why PR really needs to resolve its internal squabbles soon.”

Those squabbles, he argued, were starting to eat into its support base among the Chinese.In Sungai Lembu, a polling district which is 98.7% Chinese, BN managed to increase its support of the popular vote to 30.4% compared with the 16% it garnered in 2013, according to Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang.

Wong, however, said this did not represent a true swing of the Chinese vote towards BN but more of a reluctance to vote for PR this time. This is based on lower turnout – 75% of Sungai Lembu’s 533 voters came out to vote in the by-election, compared with the 90% in 2013.

Also, there was no swing apparent in Seberang Jaya, a constituency with a 23% Chinese population.“There were ads in a Chinese newspaper that said that ‘both sides are disappointing’, so it could have swayed Chinese voters to stay home and not go out and vote,It is unrealistic to expect Chinese voters to go back to BN, but realistically, they could stay home and not vote.BN does not need the Chinese to vote for it, all it needs is for the Chinese to not vote for PR.” .” said Wong.

Either way, if PR’s internal discord continues and makes voters feel it is no better than BN, it could hurt the opposition pact’s ability to hold on to marginal seats.

Myanmar Engages Civil Society

May 7,2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Myanmar Engages Civil Society

by Andrew Morgan

MyanmarWith the “opening up” of Myanmar in 2011 after decades of repressive military rule, domestic civil society organizations, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and aid organizations, have been eager to increase their activities inside the country. Corresponding with this ramp up, a remarkable occurrence unfolded between the summers of 2013 and 2014: the nation’s formerly authoritarian government opened its doors to a rigorous debate on the state of civil society in Myanmar and abandoned a restrictive law in place since the infamous 1988 crackdown.

In recent decades Myanmar has enacted and carried out among the most draconian and repressive policies toward civil society organizations in the world. In this light, the fact that it allowed a representative body of 275 such organizations to air their criticisms of a recently passed law is virtually without precedent. Perhaps more remarkably, the government then revised the proposed 2013 law in response to these criticisms, and subsequently published the final version of the Association Registration Law in July 2014 thereby fundamentally altering the people’s right to freely associate.

Civil society has a long and controversial history in Myanmar, and its reemergence is among one of the recent and rapid changes occurring in Myanmar. It could be argued that no truly democratic society is complete without an open and flourishing civil society. As long time Myanmar expert and academic, Professor David I. Steinberg noted, “[c]ivil society is . . . an essential element of political pluralism—the diffusion of power is the hallmark of modern democracies.” The significance, Steinberg posited, lies “in the hypothesis that if civil society is strong and its citizens band together for the common good based on a sense of community or programmatic trust and efficacy…[that] translate[s] into overall trust in the political process of democracy or democratization and lead[s] to diffusion of the centralized power of the state. It is precisely this characteristic of civil society that makes it a threat to autocratic governments.” Noting a brief period where civil society flourished between independence and the first military coup, Steinberg then asserts flatly that “[c]ivil society died under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (“BSPP”) . . . more accurately, it was murdered.” It is in this context that the recent changes must be placed.

Under the infamously restrictive rule of General Ne Win, he and his advisers managed to smother democracy in Burma, jail hundreds of political leaders without trials, replace Parliament with a military dictatorship, and implement a drastic program, called the Burmese Way to Socialism. In the ensuing years, the military built the BSPP from a relatively small cadre of loyal followers of Ne Win to a vast following even as it introduced an extremely rigid socialist system that eliminated private business and brought all private organizations under state control. Consistent with this new system, the BSPP virtually closed the state to all outside influence. As Steinberg put it:

No one legally left the country without authorization, visas for foreigners for a period were limited to 24 hours, internal travel was greatly restricted, and foreign and domestic news [sic] subject to complete control or censorship. Foreign missionaries who left on leave were not allowed to return. Private foreign assistance organizations were ordered to depart, and ties between internal groups and their foreign counterparts were truncated as far as possible. Burma had turned from neutral to isolationist, and an official policy of virtual xenophobia was introduced. Thus, the relatively open society that flourished in post-independence Burma was effectively crushed and brought under the control of the extremely isolationist regime of Ne Win from the years 1962 to 1988.

Food shortages and widespread economic discontent inspired mass protests in 1988, led by the country’s student activists and revered Buddhist monks. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the then-capital, Rangoon, calling for a transition to democracy in what was the largest mass protests in the country since independence in 1948. The army seized power in a coup, abolished the 1974 constitution, and silenced the protests by opening fire on unarmed dissidents, leaving more than 3,000 dead, according to official figures. Following the bloody crackdown, the military regime attempted to quell criticism by making cosmetic changes. The ruling BSPP party changed its name to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and adopted modest economic reforms.

Thein-Sein-and-Hun-SenNevertheless, the military regime’s control of civil society continued as before, albeit subject to more external scrutiny and criticism due to the international media attention given to the country following the bloody crackdown of 1988. Indeed, at the time of his report on civil society in Burma in 1997, Steinberg wrote that there was “no letup in the attempt to prevent the rise of any pluralistic institutions in the society that could offer avenues of public debate or disagreement over state policies and the role of the military . . . the immediate future for civil society remains bleak.” During this period, then, civil society went underground, remained dormant, and waited for its chance to reemerge.

The legal basis for such restrictions was established when the SLORC passed a restrictive association law in the wake of the 1988 crackdown that governed the process for NGOs and civil society organizations to legally operate in the country. The Law Relating to Forming of Organizations No. 6/88 contained broad, vaguely defined restrictions that effectively banned any civil society organization from registering (and thus, legally operating) unless it maintained close ties to the government. Under the law, a member of an organization that was deemed to “disrupt law and order, peace and tranquility” could be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment, while someone found to have any link to an unregistered organization could face up to three years in prison. These draconian policies violated the Myanmar people’s right to freely associate – a right that is nearly universally recognized as foundational to human rights.

The current Constitution of Myanmar, published in a 2008 referendum, enshrines the freedom of association. Paragraph 354 of the 2008 Constitution states as follows:

Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality: 1. to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions 2. to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession; 3. to form associations and organizations . . .

Despite this guarantee, the laws and processes put in place by the regime in 1988 hampered the free association of individuals, in particular those related to the formation of civil society and non-governmental organizations. This led many NGOs to criticize and pushback against the opaque and cumbersome registration process and the harsh potential punishments for not properly doing so.

Although still restricted in many important ways, civil society groups in Myanmar began to reemerge in larger numbers even prior to the reform measures of the summer 2013. As of 2011, Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations reported that the government continued to stifle an emergent, but weak, civil society through tight controls on media and threats to punish or restrict organizations that engage in political activities. Nevertheless, the report found that the government began to allow the growth of independent groups that they perceived as useful or innocuous, especially social services providers—likely due to the reformist attitude of the Thein Sein government. In the midst of this modest growth came most critical event for the growth of civil society in recent Myanmarese history: Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Amidst the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis, which left more than 84,500 dead and roughly 53,800 missing, according to official figures, international pressure led the government to eventually alter its draconian response and allow aid organizations to operate with greater freedom in the country. Many recognize Cyclone Nargis as something of a turning point for the humanitarian and civil society space in Myanmar. According to one report, there were only forty international NGOs operating on the ground in Myanmar prior to Cyclone Nargis. In the following year alone, the number grew to over 100. Because most local civil society groups were not registered, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of their numbers and thereby project their growth. Nevertheless, international organizations operating in Myanmar at the time that were interviewed by the Hauser Center observed a rise in the number of local groups as well as their overall level of activity post-Cyclone Nargis. The response to the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis represented a sea change for civil society in Myanmar where government policies took a backseat to humanitarian imperatives, and, perhaps, were altered indefinitely.

Perhaps in response to criticisms during the Cyclone Nargis response, the Thein Sein government began to signal its willingness to adopt reforms, and Parliament began to legislate in the spring and summer of 2013. On July 27, 2013, the Public Affairs Management Committee of Myanmar released a revised law called the Draft Law on Associations. The Draft Law raised several concerns, including restrictive constraints on unregistered associations, overly-burdensome registration procedures, re-registration requirements, and troubling ambiguities on several issues that would make it difficult for domestic and foreign NGOs alike to carry out their programs without fear of reprisal.

In an unprecedented show of collaboration, however, on August 15, 2013, representatives from more than 275 civil society organizations (local and foreign), community-based organizations, and networks, met with Myanmar MPs and the Parliamentary Affairs Committee regarding the Draft Law. The organizations made a slate of recommendations and presented a civil society-developed alternative version of the Draft Law on Associations. On August 19, 2013, the lower house issued a revised version of the Draft Law, with a new title, the Association Registration Law, and the revised law was posted on Parliament’s website (in Burmese only) a few days later.

Despite the remarkable occurrence of the government meeting with and responding directly to concerns raised by civil society organizations given the military government’s historically repressive treatment of them, the law still included several harsh policies, including punitive measures that were not in line with international standards. Perhaps even more remarkably then, on November 4, 2013, another revised version of the Draft Association Registration Law appeared to abandon some of the more draconian measures and reflected substantial improvement over prior versions, including the July 27th and August 19th versions of the draft law. After much delay, the Union Parliament enacted the new Association Registration Law on June 25, 2014, and it was soon signed by the President and officially ‘gazetted’ in the newspaper on July 20, 2014.

The new law marks a dramatic shift from the draconian legal constraints that had become status quo for Myanmar government policy toward civil society. Likewise, the process undertaken in which civil society was invited to the government’s table to revise and draft the more progressive law is a marked shift from the frosty reception civil society found in recent decades. Indeed, one cannot help but hope that the collaborative process in the case of the association law is much more broadly illustrative of the changing winds of reform in Myanmar – just one step on the long journey of enshrining the international rights and freedoms its people so desperately crave.

Andrew Morgan serves as in-house counsel at an international NGO in Washington, D.C. He received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Washington School of Law where he was an editor for the Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, where a previous version of this article appeared. Morgan also obtained a Master of Public Service degree from the University of Arkansas – Clinton School of Public Service in 2012.