Myanmar Civic Space:
A ‘Home Sweet Home’ for Human Rights Defenders?
A Glimpse on Local Human Rights Activism
In today’s world, the concept of human rights is inextricably linked to global peace, justice, and equality, as a fundamental universal freedom.
On the 10th of December 2019, we stop to celebrate 71 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR has inspired a multitude of international human rights treaties and declarations around the world and has propelled the human rights debate onto the international stage.
The UDHR has been a key enabling platform for human rights defenders (HRDs) to advocate, promote, and fight for their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Without the concerted activism of HRDs, we will find ourselves in a far more troubled world, where imbalances of power, and corruption, further add to the plight of the world’s most vulnerable people. This effect will inevitably stifle progress toward human rights and freedoms for many societies. This risk is no different for Myanmar.
HRDs in Myanmar play an active part in every level of this political debate. Such defenders include international multilateral organisations, local civil society organisations (CSOs), activists, lawyers, journalists, and individual citizens.
Pandita Development Institute (Pandita) are an active local CSO in Myanmar, taking part in enabling a healthy civic space so that HRDs do their job well. Pandita, being borne from the foundations of pro-democracy activism, understand the challenges and opportunities of HRDs, particularly amongst those within civil society. Pandita have observed the positive and negative trends in Myanmar affecting the voice of HRDs. These trends reveal the increasing challenges for HRDs, and the hopeful opportunities to support HRDs within the civic space.
In recent years, the voice of HRD organisations has amplified significantly. Local rights-based organisations are more easily able to register as formal associations. This progress has added to their acknowledgement in high-level policy and decision making. Once formally recognised, organisations are legally protected to perform their daily operational tasks and demand their rights. Consequently, registered organisations can increase their organisational capacity to receive official international funding and receive greater recognition from state institutions.
We would like to see a future where both international donors and civil society itself incorporate alternative approaches to funding legitimacy measures, and accountability and transparency. This future will foster a ‘home sweet home’ for HRDs, particularly in Myanmar’s civic space.
While there has been notable progress for HRDs in Myanmar, two significant obstacles still stifle their operations. These obstacles have ultimately threatened their power and voice:
Firstly, HRDs are frequently subject to unfair persecution. Historically, HRDs around the world have been subject to discrimination, abuse, unjust detainment, torture, and even execution. This unfortunate situation is no different for HRDs in Myanmar.
Secondly, HRDs in Myanmar, specifically within civil society, have experienced limited access to resources and limited capacity to advocate for their cause. As a result, their missions and goals can be influenced or compromised in some cases. Consequently, the external audiences could view their work with suspicion and irrelevance, ultimately influencing the public perception of their brand or cause.
Ways Forward - Enabling civic space for human rights defenders
As discussed in this article, HRDs are experiencing various challenges and risks in the complex landscape of human rights in Myanmar. We would like to see a future where both international donors and civil society itself incorporate alternative approaches to funding legitimacy measures, and accountability and transparency. This future will foster a ‘home sweet home’ for HRDs, particularly in Myanmar’s civic space:
Firstly, the funding policies within which donors and intermediary organisations operate, have had significant effects on the recent trends relating to the defence of human rights in Myanmar. Such policies create an enabling (or disabling) environment for a variety of locally initiated HRDs.
For funding policies to be effective, the focus should not be narrowed to specific priorities. Alternatively, the focus should maintain breadth, to create an inclusive, yet specialised environment, whereby HRDs can enjoy an enabling funding environment while increasing their legitimacy and sustainability.
Secondly, HRDs among civil society can assert control over their legitimacy, thereby positively influencing the public perception of human rights activism in Myanmar. To achieve greater legitimacy, HRDs must strengthen their own accountability and transparency mechanisms. As a result, human rights actors will create more authentic collaboration between HRDs in civil society, and enjoy stronger and more genuine alliances amongst their peers. This solidarity will deepen the trust of the public, and ultimately enhance the legitimacy and increase the influence of these groups.
This article highlights distinct challenges being faced by human rights representatives, particularly in the civic space of Myanmar. However, amongst these challenges, there are definite positive trends and opportunities for HRDs.
When considering the above recommendations, we would like to recognise the impactful work that HRDs are undertaking on a daily basis; tirelessly advocating for the most fundamental rights and freedoms for the entire human population.
And as we celebrate the 71st year since the adoption of the UDHR, we can pause to reflect the outstanding progress of the HRDs that have come before us. We look forward to the next year, as HRDs in Myanmar work toward inclusive development and successful political transition.
Note: This article does not reflect the particular interests of individuals, donors, partners, or alliances of Pandita Development Institute (Pandita). Rather, this article reflects the views, thoughts, and informed opinion of Pandita.
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