Burma/Myanmar has been ruled by a military dictatorship for almost five decades, which caused the country to be isolated and in a state of constant conflict with its ethnic minorities.
In November 2010, a slow process of military lead reform resulted in the first general elections for 20 years. However, these elections were not free and fair according to international standards, and the outcome can not be seen as a genuine reflexion
of the wishes of the people. The main opposition party, the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi did not participate, the military backed USDP secured a large majority of the seats in parliament; 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military (whose representatives are not chosen but appointed).
Though some ethnic and democratic parties succeeded in securing a number of seats in the central regional parliaments, power structures remain as yet dominated by the previous order.
BCN supported the (ethnic) democratic parties who participated in the elections through a training program and facilitated a voter education program.
After the elections, the nominal civilian government under president U Thein Sein surprised everyone by initiating a reform agenda, including talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.
April 1st, 2012, by elections were held. These elections were relatively free and fair and resulted in the NLD securing 43 out of the 44 contested seats, and brought Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.
Talks with ethnic minorities and armed groups about cease-fire agreements and negotiations on peace agreements are under way with most minority groups, with the notable exception of Kachin State, where the situation continues to be grave.
Though the political situation in Burma is more hopeful than ever before in the last two decades, there are still many issues that need to be addressed before Burma qualifies as a nascent democracy.
Therefore BCN has, in close cooperation with partners in Burma, designed an integrated three year program, running from 2013 up to 2015 (when the next general elections are being scheduled).
Democracy doesn't come overnight. It is a slow process of transformation to change a society dominated by a brutal dictatorship into an open one where all people are included in the process of creating a democratic nation.
As freedoms that are an essential basis for this process (e.g. freedom of information, of expression, of political activity, of assembly ) have been repressed and education had been neglected, many skills needed to partake in the political process are lacking. BCN 's program targets these issues, focusing on political actors as well as capacitating civil society to take up their specific role.
Access to information and empowerment of people at community level is vital to create a stable base for participatory democratic processes. Through its programs, BCN, together with local NGO's, will facilitate communities to strengthen their capacity to contribute to the democratic process and empower them to claim their human, economic and civic rights within the framework of new laws and regulations adopted by the government.
The Union of Myanmar consists of many different ethnic groups. These groups have had a challenging relationship with the central - Bamar dominated - government, resulting in long lasting armed conflict and distrust among communities. BCN considers it crucial to address the ethnic issues, both from societal as well as political perspective.
In its decentralization and participatory democracy program, BCN strives to create a base for discussion on stable state and nation building efforts, and stimulate a policy framework that leads to power sharing with local (ethnic) government.
Throughout all its programs, BCN will take care to ensure participation of women and will address gender related issues.
In the coming years, the course of Burma's/Myanmar's history can be changed.
Now that the reform agenda initiated in 2011 is being continued, primarily through the central government and the opposition based in Yangon, it is of vital importance to include the ethnic communities in the transformation process and make sure all hostilities are ended and genuine negotiations can bear sustainable political results.
Though several cease fire agreements have been drafted or accepted and the Myanmar Peace Center has been established (with international support), there exists widespread mistrust between different ethnic (minority)groups and the majority community. For sustainable peace and a stable base for inclusive development, it is essential to ensure that all citizens of Burma/Myanmar are granted equal opportunities to participate in the nascent democratic structures.
Especially in the light of continuous fighting in Kachin State and (more recently) also in Northern Shan State , as well as with regard to the crisis in Rakhine State and rising tensions between religious communities, it is plainly obvious that there is still a long way to go before all Burmese citizens can enjoy the fruits of democracy and prosperity.
The Burmese government has adopted new laws that regulate Foreign Direct Investment, as well as several other new laws that are of importance to the development of the country, such as a media law, a land law and a NGO law. Though these laws are improvements with regard to the laws they are replacing, they do have some serious flaws, and especially the land law and the FDI regulations can (and already do) lead to conflict which might endanger the still fragile process of reform.
Now that the country has opened up towards the rest of the world, many international organizations are setting up shop in Yangon and (some) other parts of the country. A sheer continuous stream of foreign delegations are visiting the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, to meet with president Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, now universally recognized as leader of the opposition.
Though foreign support is both wanted and needed, the speed and size of the influx also causes concerns for the level of local influence on the development agenda and the level of participation of the (grasssroots) population, also because government capacity is sometimes lagging behind expectations.
There are many challenges ahead, as most power stuctures, expecially in the States and Regions, are still unreformed and the people in power remain the same as under the military government.
The relative freedom in Burma/Myanmar also gave birth to interreligious conflict, with violent eruptions, mainly in Rakhine State, but also in other parts of the country, causing strive and mistrust throughout the country. In some areas, notably Kachin State and parts of Shan and Karen States, armed ethnic resistance has flared up again.
Fighting continues till today, resulting in civilian casualties, thousands of IDP's and widespread worry about the sincerity of the peace process.
Yet, the general feeling is still one of hope. If the reforms continue and change substantiates in Burma/Myanmar, the 2015 general elections are expected to be more free and fair and might see a result that is more differentiated than the manipulated result in 2010.
BCN's program aims to contribute to a more inclusive democratic society in Burma/Myanmar, to sustainable peace with the ethnic peoples, and a more inclusive and participatory development model for the country.
BCN will continue to be involved in the development of democratic skills in Burma/Myanmar by building on the foundations created during the pre- and postelection period.