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An article from BBC Media Action in Myanmar Making a World Debate Local which explores the view of ordinary people in Myanmar about the current changes in the country.

The changes over the past eight months in Myanmar seem to mostly manifest themselves in the form of new apartment blocks, shopping malls, extra cars of the roads and meetings about the change.

“What is really changing for ordinary people?”

This article discusses an event in the World Economic Forum where recordings by BBC Media Action researchers were put to members of the government, NLD and Mizzima.

Here is an extract from the article with some of those voices and those questions:

“If we work, then we eat”

….A motor-cycle taxi driver in Rangoon … said that Burma’s much celebrated economic transformation has had no positive effect yet on his own daily life.

“For people like us, there is no change,” he said. “No change because if we work today, then we eat today.”

The government representative on the panel was challenged by questions on issues of corruption, lack of investment in rural communities and energy supply. A day labourer, for example, asked,”Myanmar doesn’t get enough electricity so why do you sell [energy] to our neighbours? When will Myanmar get electricity?”

A woman who runs a flower stall in Htauk Kyat Market on the outskirts of Rangoon also took the chance to urge government ministers to find out what was really going on in the country.

“In order to help people who really suffer,” she said. “The country minister should come down, check and analyse every quarter (of the township). They should share the feeling of what is happening in the quarter.”

Just a quick post to share this link to the New Internationalist where they share the five shortlisted stories for the Caine Prize 2013. All the stories can be downloaded in a pdf version in full and bloggers are invited to join the discussion on which should be picked to win.

I’m looking forward to reading the stories!

“After the official results were announced on May 28, revolutionary groups protested in Tahrir Square, contesting the results and particularly calling into question the success Shafik, who was nominated prime minister by Mubarak’s during the 2011 revolution. It is still early days for democracy in Egypt and for the grassroots revolutionary movements – credited as the catalysts for the revolution – just the start of a process to convert street activism into the political leverage needed to lay the foundations for a democratic culture.”

Read my full article on The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East’s Egypt Source Blog.

Egypt: The Fight for the Right to Shout

Freedom of expression and assembly are becoming much debated rights in Egypt. With the Presidential elections looming, the issue is even more critical. The military violence against protesters such as that seen in Abbaseya at the beginning of May highlights the different actors involved in this discussion. Rights groups claim that it is a constant struggle to keep freedom of expression and assembly alive in Egypt, highlighting the multi-institutional and multi-armed attack on these rights from courts, parliament and military alike.

As Noor Ayman Nour, No Military Trials states: “from January 2011, we were under the impression that things would forever be different. But by February of the same year freedom of assembly was already being attacked and protests dispersed…It is getting much worse.”

Follow the above link to Think Africa Press for my full article discussing the situation of freedom of expression and assembly in Egypt.

Democracy is the word of the moment in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In the past three months elections took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and calls for democracy were heard from Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. The EU Development Days also recently delved into the use of democracy in development. This article intends to continue this discussion of democracy in the context of these recent events. Indeed, as development professionals we often advocate for democracy without fully considering its consequences and implications.

To go back to source, democracy is an ancient term, first coined in Ancient Greece. However, it has no specific definition (even its essential terms are disputed), various different facets (elections, freedom and rule of law) and also takes various forms (ex: representative, direct and liberal). Indeed, democracy is not one concept; it is a complex notion. Seen through the eyes of the media democracy is elections. In development terms it is financing elections, rule of law projects and political participation. Yet, the broader issues it encompasses go much wider and much deeper into social fabric.

The recent events in the MENA highlight some of the concerning aspects of democracy as a developmental process. Democracy has been expressed in the MENA in the past month, in terms which can be described as violent. While Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco citizens have proudly shown up to stand in queues, crossed ballot papers and painstakingly counted votes, other incidents have been less peaceful. Some uglier aspects are also clear in unprincipled and unregulated campaigning strategies; propaganda which warned of a fast ticket to hell for supporting other parties; selling votes and smear campaigns against other candidates.

Where previous dictatorships controlled society, emerging from such a regime has required challenging its power and breaking down old structures. In Libya, Syria and Bahrain democracy has been represented as guns fired; attacks on regime buildings; occupations of public spaces and numbers shot down. A frightening side of democracy, this is felt as instability, injury, disintegration and death. Yet this does not mean that this disorder is all negative. While it has some undesirable effects, it also produces some very positive ones. As the old state structures crumble, as the Presidents fall, their ashes create a fertile landscape. On this landscape new ideas, values and movements quickly take root in a disordered, tangled yet healthy growth of something new.

This can be remarked across the region. In the Egyptian and Tunisian elections vast numbers of parties and candidates were on offer to voters. The celebration of individual activists and other individual voices highlights this trend. Movements and regimes disintegrated and once the debris was brushed away, faces and voices took their place. Where there were only a few figureheads, now there are many people, citizens, humans. As Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and computer engineer, stated about the Egyptian Revolution: ‘no one was a hero, because everyone was a hero’.

As the different phases of elections and protests continue, the Arab Spring demonstrates a sustained and determined approach to democracy which challenges social and institutional barriers. The Egyptian protests against military governance are one such example; the continued pressure against Al-Assad in Syria is another; the questioning of the Islamist strategies and aims in elections another; the discussions online, in academic and other fora yet another. Indeed, the MENA revolutions remind us that democracy is not a guarantee but a daily practice which must be tended like a garden.

The buds of the Arab Spring have started to appear and as they do they reveal a social situation which both reflects and differs from the old monolithic structures of tyranny and control. Old trends are seen in repression of Egyptian activists or the familiarity of Islam, albeit given a new political form. New trends also emerge in representation, expression, discussion and participation. Indeed, public participation through protest, on and off line debate and social movements has remained a key feature of life in the MENA across the past year.

Democracy in the MENA concerns the actions and decisions of citizens. This is a reminder that the Arab countries gives to development practitioners. The citizens of the MENA demonstrate that democracy is not a vote, neither does it start and end with elections, parliaments, political parties, courts or other state institutions. It demonstrates that power is not granted during elections or renounced in a new term. The democracies being built in the MENA are not an end result, but a constant and sustained social and institutional discussion and renegotiation.

Democracy currently concerns our whole lives as citizens and we have a daily choice to give or deny it the light it requires to grow. The buds of the Arab Spring show promise of societies composed of multi-coloured movements and peoples whose roots are firmly entwined in their demands for freedom. Those gardens must be carefully tended so that these buds may flower. In developmental terms, democracy or elections are an end goal, yet, in the MENA suggests this is not the case. Indeed, democracy, elections and other associated formalities are not an end product for the Arab Spring movements; rather they form only one part of a much bigger project of social growth.

This article was first published in Global South Development Magazine in January 2012.

I am just back from a very rich event by the American University in Cairo about the Tahrir graffiti. Artists involved in the mural design discussed the meaning behind the murals as well the nature of public art. They offered some very interesting insights into identity in art and the role art plays in informing the public.

One point which struck me was the issue of freedom of expression. The artists were largely critical of the media and interested in using art to display a truth about the Egyptian Revolution. In this sense they sought to develop their art to respond to issues evolving within the country. They felt that the media distorted events and that their graffiti offered also the chance to interact with citizens and tell the truth in a way which newspapers did not. Their stories of their experiences painting in the streets reflect how citizens changed their response to events following visiting the murals and speaking to artists. Their expression is a conversation, whereas print media largely stops with the reader, offering no place to dispute or discuss the ideas and information which it provides.

The murals are also a continuation of the revolution and demonstrate freedom of expression through the claiming of public space for citizens. One artist told the story of a controversial work which he produced over a number of days. Each morning he said he would come back and there would be paint splashed over it. He would begin the day touching up his work, re-shaping and continuing the work. This is a strong allegory which speaks both of discussion between different revolutionary voices and the creative process.


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