TNI works to strengthen ethnic-based CSOs’ engagement with policy developments in respect to land and related natural resources, investment and drugs policy and in the context of a fragile ethnic peace. We help to build the capacity of opium farmers and other rural working people (including fishers) – with an emphasis on women, youth and internally displaced people (IDPs) – to develop their own policy positions; to normalize dialogues with Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) towards achieving a social compact; and to facilitate people-to-people exchanges between different regions to collectively strengthen their engagements with the Myanmar national state on common policy areas. TNI works in Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Mon, Shan and Kayah States and Tanintharyi Region, and at the national level. It brings international context and experiences to bear on the process, and helps CSOs to analyse national legal proposals and understand their implications for grassroots communities while encouraging them to develop their own positions and articulate their own perspectives.

Over the last 5 years, TNI has supported the formation or strengthening of nine local networks of farmers and activists working on drugs policy, land and natural resources, and investment. We have facilitated the active participation of farmers and local activists in many policy development meetings convened by ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), political parties and the government. This includes the establishment of five platforms for informal dialogues, as well as active participation in meetings of the UN, with diplomats and with European parliamentarians. As a result, there have been three changes in national policies on drugs and land which reflect civil society proposals; eight policies of EAOs and ethnic political parties that reflect CSO proposals; and two joint positions endorsed by ethnic CSOs, EAOs and political parties. TNI’s ideas, analysis and voices on Myanmar were also sought by key media in Myanmar as well as internationally, including in the Myanmar Times, The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, DVB, BBC, VOA, Time, Economist, New York Times. Activists, internally displaced persons (IDPs), drug users and opium farmers all published their own analysis and positions in commentaries on TNI’s website. CSOs, EAOs, political parties, diplomats, and government officials have requested copies of TNI’s publications and/or briefings on their content. TNI has also contributed to a broader understanding of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar with briefing papers and commentaries, involving many local voices.

In 2020, TNI continued to support ethnic-based CSOs to develop their own proposals for improved and more inclusive land policies; drug policies consistent with human rights and development principles; and stimulated informed public debate on mega infrastructure projects funded as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, we worked to build greater cooperation and solidarity among the various ethnic groups in the context of a fragile peace and the impending national election, and to prepare CSOs for the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Land and natural resources

After several years support from TNI, local partners finalised a joint position paper on customary land tenure, addressing the fact that Myanmar’s current national land policies do not take into account customary land practices in ethnic areas which results in land losses for communities. 90 farmers, activists and members of political parties and EAOs benefited from a five-part online course on ‘Political Structures and Federalism’ organised by TNI. This helped participants to better understand how alternative land and natural resources might be formulated under a federal arrangement. TNI also facilitated multiple ethnic groups coming together to identify key elements for a federal land policy, resulting in a draft joint federal land discussion paper – a significant first step in the process of developing a proposed Federal Land Law.

Meanwhile, the Salween Peace Park in Karen State, developed by local communities and CSOs with TNI support, won the UNDP’s prestigious Equator Prize. An innovative people-centred alternative for forest conservation and livelihood development managed on the basis of self-determination and ecological sustainability, it provides an alternative model to top-down, militarized development and conservation.

On the investment front, TNI’s 2019 briefing on the BRI in Myanmar proved a useful contribution to public debate following President Xi Jinping’s visit in January 2020. During Xi’s visit, media including from The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Times and BBC Chinese, cited TNI’s report. TNI co-organized workshops on the report in several regions for Myanmar CSOs to better understand the implications of the BRI projects and to jointly develop advocacy strategies.

We continued to research links between drugs and conflict, and the changing drugs market in the region. TNI co-organised workshops on the subject with civil society groups, including opium farmers, drug users, youth and development organisations.  TNI also co-organised a drug policy workshop with the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC). Including questions of alternative development, the dialogue provided a rare opportunity for members of the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum and other CSOs to have informal discussions with representatives from various government departments. In April, the Drugs Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG) issued a Joint Call for Action  concerning the need to protect prisoners from COVID-19, which was supported by TNI and many other groups.  Soon thereafter, the government released 25,000 prisoners – the largest release in recent years.

When COVID-19 broke globally, TNI sought to help CSOs understand the global challenges and impact. We published several commentaries and a critical review of the government’s COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan. We also facilitated two workshops on COVID-19 for seven EAOs to provide them with reliable information about the potential impact of the pandemic; government policies; options for testing, treatment and vaccination; as well as possible policy responses in their respective areas. These online workshops also served as an informal platform for participants to share experiences and responses.

With the support of 20 local civil society groups in the Dry Zone, Mon State and Shan State, TNI researched the impact of COVID-19 on migrants and their families. We interviewed over 100 people, recently returned to Myanmar from China and Thailand due to the pandemic. The subsequent report, co-published with many local organisations, describes who the cross-border migrant workers are, the conditions that led them to become migrant workers, and how they perceive their situation. The research will help social movements in Myanmar to understand better what kind of action is needed to address the issues confronting migrant workers today.

Meanwhile, TNI’s  report on the history of armed and political Buddhist and Muslim organisations in Arakan State continued to draw attention. In December 2020, we co-organised an online seminar with the embassies of the Netherlands and Sweden to discuss the report. It is among the first to put forward an inclusive history of Arakan State and helps to build bridges between the different religious and ethnic groups that live there. TNI also published a briefing on ethnic politics and the 2020 national elections, looking at the faltering of the ethnic peace process; the freezing of the constitutional reform process; and escalation of armed conflict in several parts of the country under five years of the NLD government. The briefing received good press attention and was quoted in The Economist.

Results

The key results to which TNI contributed significantly in 2020 include:

  • Representatives from multiple ethnic groups developed a draft joint federal land discussion paper, a significant first step in the process for a Federal Land Law.
  • Multiple ethnic CSOs finalised a joint position paper on customary land tenure.
  • 25,000 prisoners are released following a broadly supported Call to improve conditions in Myanmar prisons and detention facilities in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Representatives from seven EAOs joined two TNI workshops on COVID-19 to receive reliable information on prevention, treatment, testing and vaccination options in their areas, and to be able to share experiences.
  • TNI’s analysis on the 2020 Myanmar National Election received strong media attention, including from The Economist print edition.
  • Local media use TNI’s report on BRI in Myanmar during President Xi’s visit to the country.