Strengthening civil society in peace building: evolving perspectives from South East Myanmar

Strengthening civil society in peace building: evolving perspectives from South East Myanmar

One of the speeches I delivered last year after the Ramon Magsaysay Awards was at a forum where the theme was to review the prospects for peace and the reintegration of displaced persons in South East Myanmar. I have always believed that for peace to be truly established, strengthening civil society in peace-building works is a vital subject.

  Although I am from the North (or some may say North East) of Myanmar, I believe our concerns in our region are relevant to all other parts of the country. I am sure that you will agree that progress must be matched across the country, across all ethnic groups. In this regard, the Kachin situation can be viewed as a test case for the government, politicians, the Kachin community, the tatmadaw and all other armed groups as well as the international community. This was especially true when all armed resistance groups were negotiating with the government as one.

  Creating peace requires the involvement of all parties. Everyone needs to build it and experience it. Consequently, strengthening civil society should be our priority at this point in time - that is, if we are truly seeking ‘eternal peace’.

  Years of mismanagement by successive governments and the unabated armed conflicts impacted adversely on the people and paralysed them; and there is no short cut to reverse this. But getting civilians to make their own choices and having their voices back in the forefront of discussions, I believe, will be a key deciding factor in the transformation process.

  We all need to focus on enhancing ways to regenerate civil communities, as “strengthening civil society” refers to the flourishing and effective delivery of NGO-CBO groups.

  This does not need to be a particular end goal; but simply the meeting of needs and challenges that will ultimately help strengthen communities, society and the country.

  Let me give you a Kachin example of how local NGOs are advocating and making the voices of civil society heard, in this case that of the IDPs:

  Since November 2012, 7 local NGOs Bridge, Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), Kachin Relief and Development Committee (KRDC), Kachin Development Group (KDG), Karuna Myanmar Social Services (KMSS), Metta Development Foundation (Metta), Shalom Foundation, and Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) have facilitated protection surveys in camps for internally-displaced people. They have completed surveys assessing IDP protection needs and concerns during displacement and at the time of eventual return to their former homes.

  Besides initiating the emergence of this kind of humanitarian policy, the local NGOs also work in collaboration with the IDPs to formulate current and future plans to be implemented and managed jointly by the IDPs and the local/national NGOs. These local NGOs have come up with certain conditions pertinent to the IDP issue, hoping the KIO and the government will discuss in their negotiations, so that some kind of agreement may be reached.

  Humanitarian Response
To ensure agencies can safely undertake humanitarian response without restriction, avoid overlapping and gaps and to provide effective support, there should be effective coordination among international agencies and local organisations providing humanitarian support.

  Return and Resettlement
Ensuring respect and adherence to international humanitarian laws, ethics and principles that there is a voluntary, safe, and dignified return and reintegration of the IDPs; requires thorough and systematic consultation. The IDPs should be provided with all necessary information before their return; while return and resettlement support should be sustained for at least five years.

To ensure that an independent monitoring group, composed of individuals and organisations acceptable to both sides, conduct objective and unbiased monitoring.

  Unfortunately, before formal discussions could be conducted, renewed armed clashes can further increase populations – such as the attacks in October last year. Even governments like the United States, through its Embassy in Rangoon, admitted back then that clashes like this “affirms the need to establish a monitoring mechanism to oversee military movements and ensure the security of civilians, including IDPs.”

  So then we ask: will donors accept and support IDP returns led by local leaders and national NGOs?

  Rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs and refugees should go in tandem with addressing and resolving the root causes of the conflict. For peace, stability and sustainability, there must be political solutions where people are properly represented and consulted on all social and political issues that affect their lives. Otherwise the cycle of armed revolution, ceasefire, civil conflict, displacement, and resettlement will go on. Besides, what is progress when refugee numbers decrease but IDP numbers increase?

  Moving forward, it should be interesting to note that the Metta Development Foundation’s community-led development work has never encountered constraints in the operational context in such areas as strengthening civil society. Successive governments and the various ministries as well as local authorities have always been supportive of our efforts in that aspect. But all too often, our work had been hindered by donor focus on short-term service delivery of projects that limit the time and resources available, resulting in failure to reach our goal of local ownership. This in turn reduces the opportunities for wider civil society strengthening.

  To this day, many international donors and policy makers see Myanmar NGOs as purely instrumental. Thus, I urge the many donors who will provide support to the peace process and development of our country, to be considerate in the strategic design of your funding mechanisms.

  I would encourage the provision of smaller grants; for donors to enter into direct relationships with local groups; design systems and formats in local languages; and avoid complex and blue-printed mechanisms that preclude support of the communities’ own efforts. Finally,

it is essential to recognise that local NGOs need core funding as much as international agencies.

  In short, donors should apply a positive discrimination policy and give priority to local NGOs for whom the playing field is not at the same level as that of international NGOs. Our appeal is to respect our conditions, our context and our relationships. Let us give space for civil society to be empowered and local NGOs to become stronger and not undermined by ill-considered programmes – however well-intended they may be.

  It is also important to keep in mind that in the Myanmar context, strengthening civil society and peace-building are intertwined. The latter will be a long inclusive process; and it is not possible to prioritise issues in sequence due to the complexities and uniqueness of our country’s situation.

  But some of the issues to be addressed in the comprehensive peace process include the following: withdrawal of troops, de-mining, IDP and refugee rehabilitation and settlement, time to plan for and carry out political dialogue, time for leaders to freely interact with constituents, and constitutional reforms. And let’s not forget: as we are rebuilding a common future and peaceful co-existence, there is a need to document the facts and origins of past violence.

  We are therefore looking at a comprehensive Peace Process that involves grassroots people and civil societies – not just military and political leaders. Successful transformation relies on the extent of communities empowered, and the support local organisations receive, as they are undoubtedly the foundations of a new peaceful society that will regenerate the country.

  Peace agreements, of course, cannot last unless demobilised soldiers from all sides find worthwhile livelihood opportunities to re-integrate them into society and receive help to support their families and communities. I have discussed this with armed personnel from the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) about their visions for civilian life when peace eventually comes. Many expressed the desire for a small piece of arable land to work on, be independent and provide for their families – as many foot soldiers in the frontline armies on all sides are from rural families. Such fundamental desire should not be difficult to achieve, providing that real social and political agreements are achieved.

  I want to emphasise the need to acknowledge the difference between ceasefires and peace. Armies can agree to ceasefires between themselves, but they cannot make peace. Peace requires the people. It is a social state and cannot be developed by military men; and cannot be developed without the leadership and will of the people - the civil society.


  Laureate of the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awards for “quietly inspiring an inclusive leadership in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict” in her home country Myanmar, Lahpai Seng Raw co-founded the Metta Development Foundation, the country’s longest-running NGO.She began her work with refugees in the 1980s and has since then set up Metta to help rehabilitate war-torn communities along Myanmar’s borders. Under her leadership since 1997, Metta has established over 600 farmer field schools, trained more than 50,000 farmers in effective farm and forest management, built schools and training centres in early childhood education, introduced community water and sanitation systems, and funded technical support for livelihood projects.





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