The INGO Forum Myanmar sat down to interview our DRI Myanmar Country Representative Eva Gil. This interview was originally published in the INGO Forum’s September newsletter and is shared again here.
Eva has been with Democracy Reporting International (DRI) for 10 years already. She started back in June 2011 with DRI as Programme Officer in the organisation’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany. From July 2014 to July 2015 she was DRI’s Regional Manager for Asia and then moved to Yangon to take over her current role as Country Representative for DRI in Myanmar. Eva is an elections and governance expert and studied International Business at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. She also observed elections around the world including Egypt and Mongolia with international organisations.
Eva, please tell us a few things about yourself: How did you make it to Myanmar with Democracy Reporting International (DRI)?
I was working for DRI in its headquarters in Berlin where I was the manager for the Asia region. In 2013, when a parliamentary committee was formed in Myanmar to look into a possible review of the Constitution, I flagged this development to my managers and said that it would be interesting to travel to the country to understand the situation on the ground and to explore if DRI could do something useful over there. So that was the first time we went to Myanmar. We met with members of parliament and discussed possible advice on comparative constitutional processes, but we also met civil society organizations that were looking into democratic reforms, advocacy, and who were interested in the comparative experiences and the expertise that DRI had to offer. So that is how we started designing a program and started to explore possibilities to implement some activities in the country. We have about ten staff in Myanmar now, mostly local staff and right now we have three internationals here.
Please tell us also a bit more about DRI globally. You are the most recent member organisation of the INGO Forum, so some of the other members might not know you yet.
The DRI headquarters are in Berlin, Germany. We are quite strong in the MENA region, the Middle East and Northern Africa region. But we are also present in other countries in Asia, most notably Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Our work promotes civil and political rights and inclusive democratic institutions, although we might not be as well-known as some other organizations working on human rights, as we focus more on technical assistance to stakeholders rather than public advocacy. In other words, we provide technical expertise and hold dialogue events, but we are not speaking out in campaigning sort of way, like, for example, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.
We do however publish all recommendations we provide and use our own research and publications in our work. In Myanmar we are focusing on elections and constitutional reforms, the normative framework and the expertise we provide consists mostly of options and suggestions to implement the provisions of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, the ICCPR. All of this follows a non-prescriptive approach, meaning that we provide suggestions, but we don’t say that a country should follow a certain election system or should amend the Constitution in a certain way. We simply illustrate, for example, what the right to participate in political affairs means and which would be the available options to protect this right through amendments in the constitution or election laws.
Who are the main stakeholders you work with on these issues in Myanmar?
In Myanmar, the primary stakeholders are civil society organizations that engage in democratic reforms, advocacy and election observation. What we want to do — or what’s our mandate as per our biggest program, which is EU-funded — is to strengthen CSO voices in democratic reforms debate. We want to do this by strengthening civil society organisations to be an authoritative resource on institutional reforms, being able to suggest concrete, legal or constitutional amendments and to justify these proposals with international standards and comparative expertise. For all the topics we discuss with civil society, we also work with elected representatives. We do that as a way of strengthening our convening power so that we can hold dialogue activities where we invite our civil society partners as well. That would translate more simply into bringing in international expertise, for example, an academic on a particular issue, working separately with elected representatives and civil society to have a common understanding of the issues that are being debated and then bringing them together into a dialogue session, ideally, leading into a consensus on things that should be changed or that should be improved. We tailor the advice to the situation in the country and bring experts that have been here many times so that the discussion is about pragmatic and realistic steps. Frankly, however, I have to admit that we have seen little appetite for improving the protection of civil and political rights within the current framework in these dialogues.
Why do you think there is little appetite for change? Is that due to the political history of Myanmar? And did this come as a surprise to you or was it expected?
Of course, the ambitions and the expectations are always high. In Myanmar as well as in other countries that are building their democracy after military or autocratic rule, nothing can change overnight. Our main challenge here is the institutional framework, as for instance the thresholds for amendments of a very important piece of the democratic system, which is the constitution, are high and the approval of a huge number of stakeholders is required to implement even small changes. That is to say: Yes, the expectations are high, but the challenges are high as well.
I know there are many competing priorities and Myanmar is facing a lot of challenges at the same time, so it’s not only building a democracy, but also dealing with economic or social development issues at the same time. The government is always drawn into many different things and trying to juggle many different priorities. Still, in our view, there are ways to strengthen democratic participation, accountability and representation that do not require drastic changes. One area that we have been working on are election laws, a key pillar of any democratic system. But there was no interest — not even from the opposition or extra-parliamentary parties — to fix the problems with the framework, as the focus of the agenda was more on major questions, such as federalism or the peace process.
Is the reason for this a lack of understanding of the processes?
To be honest, I actually don’t like saying that there is a lack of understanding, because that appears to me to be a little bit condescending. I think there is no lack of understanding as such. People have a vision and know what they want to achieve, including a clear image in mind of the Myanmar they want to see in the future. However, when it comes to institutional design, the details and nuances matter, so I think the main challenge is to develop a concrete description of Myanmar’s future political system as well as a step-by-step approach to build it. As this is not there, all dialogue and negotiation become a little bit of a zero-sum game.
And this not only affects decision-makers, you see that also on the civil society side: It’s very difficult for some activists to accept meeting half-way or to accept a small step and to then continue working on that small step to further improvements in the future, because they have so many demands, and so many grievances, in particular, when are you coming from the human rights based advocacy scene (“too little, too late” is often quoted as a motto here). I think that in fact more patience or a gradual approach would be more successful and would also help facilitate a more constructive discussion between different stakeholders. To come back to your question: I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of understanding, but the lack of nuances also means there is a different interpretation of terminology. For example, there appears to be a lot of discussion around constitutional reform and federalism being a way to proceed for Myanmar, but then what exactly those constitutional reforms would entail or what exactly a federal system would look like is not being discussed in detail. So it all becomes an “I’m in favour vs. I’m against” discussion and the nuances are totally lost.
Let’s stay with civil society for a moment: In your field of work, in the field of democracy, how would you rate the capacities of the local CSOs in Myanmar?
The work of capacity building for CSOs is a multi-dimensional issue. We have on the one hand the technical capacity and the CSOs that we work with are mostly working on research, democratic reforms and advocacy. That is one element. On the other hand, we have the organisational capacity, meaning the capacity of establishing a team, establishing internal procedures, financial management and all of this. Of course, our primary aim is to strengthen their advocacy capacity. But to do that, we also have supplementary programs to support the CSOs in terms of fundraising, donor and budget management and all these other things, because that will ultimately sustain the advocacy capacity building that we want to provide.
One thing that I see is maybe not so much related to capacity, but rather to the understanding of what it means to be a civil society organization advocating for change. One big issue is trust building and relationship building with decision makers. As they come from a history of resistance, opposition and confrontation to an authoritarian regime, although many are trying, I think it’s difficult for many CSOs to switch from being a “revolutionary” force to become a constructive player and establish themselves as reputable source of knowledge and expertise on reform options or as watchdogs that collect data and evidence on the government institutions’ performance as a basis for recommendations for improvement.
Of course, institutional stakeholders, such as Government or Members of Parliament also need to change their attitude towards consultations and inclusive policy-making. There is this very important element of relationship building and trust building, so that civil society will become a resource for government or institutional actors. Many CSO leaders are extremely knowledgeable and have developed great analytical skills. Actually I am amazed at how in particular the younger generation has absorbed a lot of knowledge in a relatively short period of time. But I think more needs to happen — on both supply and demand side — for them to establish themselves as an authoritative and non-partisan voice on democratic institutional reforms.
Sounds like you have a lot of work to do in terms of, let’s say, “diplomacy”.
Yes, there is a lot of mediation involved in the work that we do. We try to encourage coalition building, meaning uniting CSO voices behind reform messages, in particular around electoral reforms, which are normally a rather technical issue that does not capture decision-makers’ attention until it’s too late and elections are too close to fix the flaws in the system. There is a lot of politics involved in this, not only the politics between civil society organizations and decision makers, but also between civil society organizations themselves. That is not a criticism as such. I’m just saying that a lot of “shuttle diplomacy” between our partners is part of our work to strengthen CSO voices in this advocacy process, talking to each organisation individually and helping to identify common grounds before facilitating dialogues on joint advocacy points.
DRI publishes quite a number of reports and one of the recent reports was on social media. What can DRI do in this field in terms of suggestions for social media users in times of elections in Myanmar?
DRI is working on social media as a topic, because it’s part of our election work as social media are playing an increasing role in elections all over the world. We started to explore this phenomenon and developed a standard methodology to monitor online election campaigning in social media in order to understand what is the political discourse online and how that plays a role in elections. We support election observation in the classic sense as well, where we train domestic observer organizations to follow a standard and solid observation methodology so that their findings about the election process are reliable and based on the ICCPR. We have a similar methodology for social media monitoring and we’re implementing that in Myanmar at the moment with partner organizations and hope to issue a series of reports on the campaign and later on also issue a series of recommendations on the online campaign in Myanmar.
What we can expect for the current elections, of course, is a steep rise in using Facebook for campaigning as opposed to previous elections. And this is not only because the candidates and parties have become more aware of the tools they have available in Facebook to reach their audience, but also because we have a pandemic. In fact, online campaigning appears to be the only form of campaigning possible in many areas at the moment.
Do you think the elections go ahead as planned on 8 November? There have been some reports recently in the media saying that elections might not be possible with the COVID-19 numbers skyrocketing in many places in Myanmar now.
We know that elections are very sensitive political moment. It is very important that all concerned stakeholders view the framework for the elections as legitimate. Any discussion around postponement of elections should thus be held in an inclusive manner involving all political parties and a wide group of stakeholders, so that everyone together would agree on the best way ahead. You need the buy-in of everyone if you want to preserve stability and the legitimacy of the process to prepare yourself against accusations of biased decisions around election date.
What I can say is that not only parties and candidates are facing challenges, but also domestic election observers. The campaign has already started and such domestic observers have also started their work. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re suffering additional challenges, for instance, internal travel restrictions and the need to obtain permissions for the travel, not being able to hold physical meetings and having to (re)design the trainings for their volunteers online, where in rural areas, some of the volunteers perhaps do not have the means to participate in online training.
Another point is that there is an increasing fear among the volunteer community that by participating in domestic election observer efforts, they would expose themselves to contagion. With all these challenges, we really hope that there would be an inclusive discussion of concerned actors, meaning candidates, political parties, the Union Election Commission (UEC) and civil society to discuss these challenges and to agree on the best way ahead. No one is an expert in holding elections in times of pandemic, so the more people are discussed in the discussion, the more creative solutions can be found.
But looking at the situation right now, don’t you think that it will be extremely difficult to run the elections with the current restrictions around COVID-19 and also the conflict in some areas of the country and still have the election results internationally recognised?
For me, the most important part is that the elections are domestically recognised. This concerns Myanmar and Myanmar’s candidates and Myanmar’s voters. The international recognition is perhaps secondary if the process is accepted by all national stakeholders, as after all, it’s their process.
That is why I was highlighting earlier that it is important to have a dialogue with all stakeholders on the election process on whether to go ahead or not. It’s not impossible to hold elections during a pandemic and they have been taking place in other countries over the past months. But what is important is that all stakeholders consider the process legitimate and a way to achieve this is to allow them to raise all their challenges and to hold an inclusive discussion of ways to mitigate those.
Possible ways to hold elections during the pandemic are: informing the voters, candidates and media about health and sanitary standards, extending some of the time lines to avoid queues, allowing for more campaigning in public media campaigning and expanding free for candidates, being transparent about criteria for holding or delaying elections, extending advance voting possibilities. Unfortunately, at the moment, we haven’t seen a lot of discussion and a lot of extra provisions for the elections during the pandemic in Myanmar.
The UEC issued a campaigning directive, instructing candidates to respect the Ministry of Health and Sports’ provisions, but there was little open discussion with parties and candidates about it before it was announced, and this happened only two days before the official campaign period started. Communicating some of the extra measures well ahead of time and also getting feedback from stakeholders on the extra actions that are being taken to facilitate the election process during the pandemic would also increase stakeholder buy-in. It would probably also improve the measures, because the more voices are present in a dialogue, the more ideas we can have about possible challenges that we anticipate and possible ways to overcome them.
With regards to international election observation, there have also been some creative ways to go ahead with such an observation at least from the Carter Center, which will still deploy an observation mission despite the restrictions for entry of big groups of international observers.
DRI just joined the INGO Forum in Myanmar this September. Why did you decide to sign up for it, what do you expect from it and what do you plan to contribute to it?
I think it’s a very useful forum to exchange information about operational questions of our work in Myanmar and the framework for INGO work in the country. I also think that it’s really interesting that there are thematic discussions which I would hope will also lead to synergies and cooperation. Before joining as a member, I was forwarded a discussion on social media and elections, the ICJ presentation on Facebook and the Gambia vs. Myanmar case and the archiving of information that was taken down on Facebook but that is being used as evidence now. Really interesting and really helpful online discussions and presentations that are being organised by the Forum.
What we would like to contribute, hopefully, would be information about our work and insight into our work and any kind of report that we issue, we’ll be happy to share. If we can be a resource on questions relating to democracy or elections including social media, we’ll be happy to share that with all other members and increase their knowledge and insight this way.
Thank you very much, Eva, and looking forward to more insights from DRI coming soon!