Stopgap or Change Agent? The Role of Burma's Civil Society after the Crackdown

  • Jasmin Lorch (Autor/in)

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In summer 2007, Burma experienced the biggest popular demonstrations since 1988. What particularly took the international community by surprise was that the protests were led by Buddhist monks. What does the uprising suggest in terms of civil society development? Does it signal the re-emergence of political civil society in Burma? Or does the violent crackdown following the demonstrations prove that civil society cannot exist in such an authoritarian regime?
State weakness has led to the emergence of civil society spaces in presentday Burma. Welfare state failure in particular has been the key factor enabling the existence of civil society in the country. Is Burma’s civil society thus just a stopgap for welfare state failure or does the 2007 uprising rather suggest that it can act as an agent of political change as well? This article tries to find a preliminary answer to this question. Mainly, it argues that even though the demonstrations showed that parts of Buddhist civil society have an enormous political potential which hardly anybody had expected, most civil society groups remain apolitical. Moreover, under the current political circumstances – i.e. with the continuing crackdown on dissidents – civil society in central Burma can only survive if it goes back to where it started from: to serving a stopgap function in welfare provision.