Burma election: Are activists the new Third Force in politics?
The Burma election this year is widely expected to reinforce the junta’s power. But some nonprofits support the vote, and dozens of political parties are taking part, in hopes of chipping away at military rule.
Inside a humid room, rows of neatly dressed Burmese students are quizzing their guest lecturer. The class is Social Entrepreneurship and the topic is the European Union, where the lecturer comes from.Skip to next paragraph
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Why is Switzerland not in the EU? Why is marijuana legal in some countries but not in others? “Good questions,” the teacher nods.
The class is run by Myanmar Egress, a nonprofit organization that has become a one-stop shop for civil society activism in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar). Founded in 2006 by academics and businesspeople, it offers paid courses from Development Economics to Public Speaking Skills to Team Building. It also has a public policy research arm and conducts humanitarian relief assessments, while quietly extending into political education.
But the group also takes a conciliatory stance toward the unpopular junta, raising hackles among some democracy activists. It allegedly has close ties to the regime, and supports the controversial elections set for later this year, part of a seven-stage road map toward a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
Critics say these elections, the first to be held in 20 years, will simply perpetuate military rule behind a civilian facade. The US has warned that voting is unlikely to be free and fair.
Some analysts have identified Myanmar Egress and other moderate groups as a new “Third Force” that seeks to steer a path between the regime and its opponents, including detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy is boycotting the vote.
Others doubt that Myanmar Egress is a force for democratic change because of its alleged close ties with the junta, says Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, a magazine published in Thailand by exiled Burmese activists. “It’s a very controversial group of people. They appear to be supporting the regime’s road map and the elections.”
Tin Maung Thann, a co founder of Myanmar Egress, says it would be naive to expect a swift reversion to democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule. He argues that reform can begin at the margins, then move into the mainstream once the rules of the game are established.
Training young people in fields like rural development, and securing the best and brightest to study overseas, is one way to seed this change, he says. “We know how to create the (political) space.”