Popular education, cross-border civil society and possibilities for democracy in Burma

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I grew up in Burma and went to the Rangoon Arts and Science University . I participated in the student-led democracy uprising in 1988 and was forced to flee the country to avoid imprisonment or worse. The military regime may have suppressed that and subsequent uprisings, but the spirit for restoring democracy in Burma has remained strong. After the democracy uprising in 1988 was crushed by the military regime, some members of the opposition groups chose armed struggle to continue their struggle for regime change while many have formed organisations outside the country and focus on mounting international community pressure on the military regime to bring about change in Burma. The movement for democracy has taken place not only inside Burma but also among Burmese exile and refugee communities. The most important site outside Burma for the democracy struggle has been Thailand and in particular in the Thai-Burma border region. The purpose of my thesis is to contribute to the ongoing struggle to combat the military dictatorship and work towards a democratic future. While focusing on the particular task of democracy-building for Burma my interest also extends to the wider question of how informal adult education can build democracy in the face of dictatorships. This study argues that the Burmese opposition movement has, by and large, overlooked the value of grassroots social change, community development and education. Successive Burmese military regimes have crushed any possibility of sustained people power. Public space for social action inside Burma is almost nonexistent. The declining Burmese economy since the 1970s, authoritarian rule and ongoing civil war are major push-factors behind unprecedented numbers of Burmese leaving their country. More than one hundred and fifty thousand refugees and over two million migrant workers from Burma are currently in Thailand and the numbers are increasing. In the 1990s, most armed ethnic groups that had been waging war against the ruling regime since the 1950s, entered into cease-fire arrangements. Although these agreements were widely subjected to criticism among opposition groups, they have subsequently provided an opportunity for civil society groups to emerge along the border regions with Thailand. “Civil society” in this thesis refers to traditional, social, welfare, humanitarian, local self-help and advocacy organisations. These cross-border civil society groups initially emerged in response to a humanitarian crisis among Burmese refugees and migrant workers. After a decade, they have transformed into a hub of capacity building for the democracy movement. In here I analyse the nature of teaching and learning democracy in the everyday life of Burmese labourers in Thailand. Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are mostly illegal and face various forms of marginalisation, exploitation and unfair treatment by their employers, local government authorities and human traffickers. Unlike political leaders and activists in the movement, they are pre-occupied with everyday survival and cannot take part in political programs. My findings reveal that teaching and learning democracy amongst migrant workers tends to occur informally, often in unexpected locations and under unlikely circumstances. Informality is an important element in workers learning because it allows them to express deep-held feelings, make use of their practical wisdoms and make critical inquiries about the nature of their exploitation. This study also found that workers develop capacity for active citizenship as a result of participation in small and unlikely social spaces. The challenge to bring about democratic change in Burma is far greater than replacing an oppressive authoritarian regime with a democratically elected government, since the legacy of more than six decades of oppressive rule has led to the building up of internalised fears amongst people and passive attitude toward collective actions for changes. Many of these anti-democratic characteristics are deeply embedded in social and cultural practices. The oppressive military rule is not the only barrier to democracy in Burma because, in addition, there are non-political factors such as the top-down spoon-feeding education system and hierarchical socio-cultural practices that breed patron-client relationships amongst people which are equally destructive to the development of democracy. The military dictators have built on such cultural traits and led the people to be so passive about their own power to make democratic changes. Enabling common people in and outside Burma to become active citizens remains perhaps the great challenge to, and represents the most sustained possibilities for, the Burmese democracy movement.
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