Civil society in the context of authoritarianism and state weakness: some theoretical reflections

Civil society under authoritarian rule

According to normative definitions, the sphere of civil society is characterised by its extensive autonomy from the State and the market, and by voluntary participation, tolerance, discursive procedures of decision making and horizontal networks. Correspondingly, it is assumed to generate trust and democratic values and to consequently promote democracy.[7] In order to identify and understand civil-society developments in authoritarian Burma/Myanmar, such normatively highly loaded concepts are not very useful. Compared with the theoretical ideal type, Burma/Myanmar’s civil society is still embryonic in nature (Lorch 2006). This study therefore relies on a broad, empirical definition of the term:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women’s organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups. (LSE 2008)

As I have argued previously, civil society generally bears a relation to the state in which it operates.[8] A strong, democratic, constitutional state is the sine qua non for an autonomous and democratic civil society to flourish. In Burma/Myanmar, however, as one of the longest-enduring military regimes in the world, civil-society organisations usually mirror the ‘dark sides’ (Lauth 2003) of the authoritarian state in which they operate, such as hierarchies, exclusiveness and patterns of cooption. In order to be able to run their self-help programs, civil-society actors in authoritarian states frequently have to maintain functional ties with members of the ruling establishment—or even let themselves become partially coopted by the latter (Perinova 2005). Moreover, vertically structured relationships or religious and ethnic cleavages in society as a whole are usually found in civil society as well (Croissant 2000; Howell 1999). This general finding is especially relevant for religiously and ethnically segmented states such as Burma/Myanmar.

Spaces for civil society in areas of state weakness

Weak states are states that fail to deliver positive political goods—such as security, health, education, a reliable legal framework and functioning infrastructure—to their people (Rotberg 2002). Schneckener (2006) has attributed three core service-delivery functions to the State: first, the function of territorial control and the provision of public security; second, the function of welfare provision; and third, the function to establish a democratic constitutional state and a reliable legal system. In the service delivery view, strong authoritarian regime features and state weakness are not mutually exclusive (Schneckener 2004). As Rotberg (2004:5) puts it, ‘There is a special category of the weak state…That is the seemingly strong case, always an autocracy, that rigidly controls dissent…but at the same time provides very few political goods.’ Burma/Myanmar certainly falls under this category.[9]

More recent studies on the phenomenon of state weakness have shown that if the State fails to perform one of its core service-delivery functions, other actors can move into the gaps that exist. While Rotberg (2004) refers especially to warlords and other criminal non-state actors, Risse (2005) also identifies economic actors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), family clans and other local groups that practise alternative forms of governance in areas of state weakness. Some of these groups account for civil-society actors in line with the definition that forms the theoretical basis of this chapter. As civil-society theories and the research on weak states have so far remained largely unrelated, theory does not tell us how precisely civil society constitutes itself in the context of state weakness. Ottaway (2004), however, has made the interesting point that in weak states ‘modern civil society’, which usually comprises secularised and formally organised groups such as NGOs, tends to be rather weak. At the same time, ‘traditional civil society’, which comprises mostly informal groups such as religious and ethnic organisations, can be quite strong as it provides coping mechanisms for state failure such as alternative, community-based schooling.

The State of Burma/Myanmar can be considered particularly weak with regard to the core function of providing for the welfare of its population. The failure of the state-run education system constitutes but a subcategory of this general failure of the welfare state. Furthermore, certain ethnic minority areas are not under the direct control of the central state, which limits its territorial power monopoly. Since 1989, the regime has concluded cease-fires with most of the armed ethnic resistance groups, thereby granting them some degree of autonomy. As a result, some room for manoeuvre exists for civil-society actors in the welfare-provision sector and in certain territories with a degree of ethnic autonomy.

[7] For a good overview of normative conceptions of civil society, see Edwards (2004).

[8] In my previous studies on civil society in Burma/Myanmar (Lorch 2006, 2007), which have a more theoretical focus, I have outlined a relational approach to civil society. For this purpose, I have linked the empirical descriptive definition of civil society of the London School of Economics (LSE 2008) cited here with the civil-society definition of Gosewinkel et al. (2003), who define civil society as specific types of action and interaction. As the present chapter focuses on the case rather than the theory, the LSE definition is chosen for the sake of brevity.

[9] Regarding the categorisation of Burma/Myanmar as a weak or failing state, see, for example, Englehart (2005); Foreign Policy Failed States Index (2007); Pedersen (2000); and Will (2006).