Chris Sidoti: ‘Myanmar’s civil society has never been stronger or more effective than it is now’

October 10th, 2022  •  Category News

Chris Sdoti speaks to Bistandsaktuelt

A question of time before the junta is gone

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing and the other coup plotters have lost territorial control – and are unable to deliver public services to the people. But Myanmar “is not a failed state “, because the resistance movement “has managed to maintain a service offer to millions of people”, according to a new note. – Myanmar’s civil society has never been stronger or more effective than now, says human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti to Bistandsaktuelt.


The coup plotters have neither full control over land nor the people of Myanmar. And the junta is also unable to effectively manage government functions or provide public services, according to a recent note from the Special Advisory Council (SAC-M).

Most parts of Myanmar, apart from areas in the east of the country, are experiencing extensive conflict between the military and various resistance groups. Areas free of conflict are largely under the control of the National Unity Government (NUG) and the shadow government’s allies from ethnic groups. Only the NUG and their allies have been able to bring peace to the people of Myanmar since the coup, says Chris Sidoti, SAC-M member and former member of the UN ‘s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar to Bistandsaktuelt.

The think tank SAC-M was formed in response to the coup d’état in February 2021. Then the military took back control in Myanmar. Thousands were arrested, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and all members of her democratically elected NLD government.

The coup was a direct violation of the military’s own constitution.

The junta declared a two-year state of emergency, dissolved parliament and installed army chief Min Aung Hlaing as head of what it called the State Administrative Council. In the recent SAC-M memo – penned, among other things, by the UN’s former special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee – it is stated that the military’s strategy to gain control is “to commit mass atrocities and cause humanitarian suffering”.

A result of the people’s resilience

But despite mass imprisonment and extremely serious violence against civil society after the coup, the military’s leaders have not succeeded with the strategy, according to SAC-M’s investigations.

The junta’s lack of control is a result of the people’s resilience. It gives the shadow government and its allies the opportunity to further strengthen control, says Sidoti.

In terms of aid, the human rights lawyer asks how SAC-M can establish that the junta is not in control, without having set foot in the conflict-torn country after the coup:

Our investigations were done from the ground up. We started in each of Myanmar’s 330 townships ( the smallest administrative unit in Myanmar; journ.anm ) and investigated what happened or had happened since the coup. We collected all available data – on whether there had been fighting, what armed forces were present, whether there had been any reported injuries, what public services were provided, and so on.

Sidoti says that SAC-M used data from a number of sources, including from the military, democracy groups, resistance forces, national and international voluntary organisations, as well as religious organizations and others with valuable information for the collection work.

After examining the situation in each township, we were able to assess who had what level of control. Then we collated the findings, organized them from township to state and division levels. In the end, we got a national image. We are confident that we have managed to obtain a good picture of what is now happening throughout Myanmar, says Sidoti.

NUG delivers education and health services

The Burmese military, Tatmadaw, has been in fierce battles against ethnic groups for several decades. How does the lack of control now differ from the situation five to ten years ago?

In the areas under the control of ethnic groups allied with the NUG, the local population has built up administrative structures that now provide state services, such as schools and health clinics. In some areas they have police forces separate from the armed groups. In some areas, independent courts have also been established. The change compared to ten years ago is that areas under the control of NUG and their allies are far more autonomous, far more secure and far more administratively operative, says Sidoti.

The note states that, despite the “junta’s destruction”, Myanmar is not a “failed state” because the resistance movement “has managed to maintain a service offer to millions”. How would you describe the role of civil society 18 months after the coup?

Civil society is stronger, more resilient and more independent than ever. We see it in the way the democracy movement has resisted the junta’s coup for a year and a half, longer and more successfully than at any time in Myanmar’s post-independence history.

Sidoti says it is ironic to see how the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership has not affected civil society’s ability to stand on its own two feet.

The civilian population has had to develop strategies, adopt and implement policies, and exercise leadership at local and national level. As a result of the junta’s attempt to seize control, and the subsequent brutality in the areas where the military is able to operate, Myanmar’s civil society has never been stronger or more effective than it is now.

On the right side of history?

Chris Sidoti believes that countries such as Norway, which before the coup had broad development cooperation with Myanmar, should intensify cooperation with the democracy movement and with the elected government, the National Unity Government (NUG).

If they want to be on the right side of history, they should recognize NUG, support NUG’s representation in the UN system, in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, as well as provide urgent humanitarian aid to a desperate people in Myanmar. At the same time, they should do everything they can to isolate and put pressure on the junta, says Sidoti.

Can you imagine a future in Myanmar where the military is no longer a political force?

Yes. Of course. The people of Myanmar have had enough of this murderous regime. They say “no more, never again”. The experiences of many other countries – such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and sometimes in Thailand – show that change is possible, that it can be sudden and unexpected when it happens, but that it happens. I am absolutely sure that it is only a matter of time before the junta is gone and the democratic forces regain full control in Myanmar.


This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated into English.