This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...

Since the “Arab Spring,” which mainly grew out of spontaneous demonstrations by disenchanted youth loosely connected to each other through the internet, research on civil society and democratic change—both in the MENA region and beyond—has begun to focus increasingly on informal networks of resistance.[1] Much of this nascent research links activism in informal spaces to online activism and communication on the internet. Moreover, such activism is often associated with highly flexible and horizontal mobilizational networks and forms of communication.

When reflecting upon activism in informal spaces of resistance, which are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated, and how it might differ across national contexts, the case of Burma under military rule (1962–2011) is extremely interesting to look at. The Burman military regime severely limited formal civil society activism through restrictive laws, such as the Unlawful Associations Act, rigorous publication censorship, and the creation of various governmentally-controlled NGOs (GONGOs).[2] In this context, much of the activism exercised by a citizenry that remained rather politicized had to, and, in fact, did, take place under the radar, a phenomenon that Christina Fink has described as “living silence.”[3] However, with military-controlled Burma being one of the few countries in the world where internet penetration remained close to nil, and all existing internet connections were controlled by the military, the role of online activism did not play a big role this regard.[4] Furthermore, activism in informal spaces of resistance in Burma took a large variety of forms, which often differed from horizontal, inclusive, and democratic modes of mobilization. To illustrate this, the present essay sketches three of the most relevant examples of such informal activism.

The Underground Student Movement: Democratic in Orientation but Hierarchical in Organization

Next to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s main democratic opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the student movement long constituted the biggest challenge to the Burmese military junta. In 1988, large-scale popular uprisings led by student activists nearly brought the regime to its knees. The military reacted by violently cracking down on the demonstrations, suspending university classes, and closing down campuses or relocating them to satellite towns. Numerous student leaders were arrested, harassed, and tortured. The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), which had played an instrumental role in the 1988 uprising, was driven underground. Along with other politically engaged students, the ABFSU continued to challenge the regime at various points in time, and many student leaders risked their lives fighting for social justice and democracy. In 1996, for instance, student activists linked to the ABFSU again organized public protests in the center of the then-capital Rangoon.[5]...

However, while its leaders and activists were clearly committed to democratic change, the underground student movement was not democratic internally, owing to the context of repression and insecurity in which it operated.[6] The statement of an exiled ABSFU leader illustrates how clandestine organization, the need for secrecy, and mutual distrust led to the emergence of highly fragmented and, at the same time, highly hierarchical and leader-centered structures within the underground student movement:

ABFSU is still active as an underground organization […] not as a big body, but as […] small students units. […] Each smaller unit doesn't know the other units. So no one can see each other, no one knows each other. […] If I am an underground organization member, I have to follow the underground organization’s principles. I don't need to know … and I have never been known by the other members, if the time is not appropriate. And I have to follow strictly the leader. … If … your unit leader asks you not to go [somewhere], you have to follow. If your unit leader asks you not to wear this color of shirt, you have to follow. If you want to know, you can ask your unit leader. But if the time is not appropriate, your unit leader will not tell you, and you have to accept this.[7]

In what can be seen as an attempt to create a counterbalance to the NLD as the main formal political opposition party and, thereby, split the opposition movement, the regime in 2004 released well-known student leaders of the 1988 uprising from jail. The military’s divide-and-rule strategy failed, however, given that the student activists largely remained loyal to the NLD.[8] In 2006, they set up the “88 Generation Students Group.”[9] When the regime massively increased the price for fuel and natural gas on August 15, 2007, this group was the first to stage public protests calling on the regime to revoke the price hike.[10] While the state security forces rapidly arrested most of the 88 Generation Students Group’s leaders, public demonstrations continued, finally snowballing into the “Saffron Revolution,” which, after the arrest of the “88 students,” was mainly led by the country’s revered Buddhist monks and amounted to the biggest challenge to military rule since the 1988 uprising.[11] Since the beginning of the political liberalization process in 2011, the “88 students” have mostly been operating under the banner of the “88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group,” advocating for political reforms, free elections, and a reform of the education system.[12]

Intellectuals, Artists and Comedians: Between Subversion, Isolation and Co-optation

During the time of military rule, free speech was banned, and the regime imposed strict censorship, not only on the press but also on belletrist literature, films, and the fine arts.[13] In this context, many writers, filmmakers, and artists attempted to convey their messages through symbols and metaphors, while the population grew adjusted to “reading between the lines,” both literally and figuratively.[14] More specifically, several writers and artists used hidden messages to create public awareness for fundamental social and political problems. For instance, as of early 2007, when reporting about the many child soldiers who were forcefully recruited into the Burmese army was met with harsh penalties, including imprisonment, a journalist/novelist stated that he/she had just finished a story about child soldiers in Congo. When asked whether he/she knew anything about this country, the writer answered in the negative, elaborating that he/she had mostly reflected upon the topic in a general way.[15]

In some cases, such hidden messages appear to have contributed to raising the political consciousness of ordinary citizens. For instance, Michael McGuigan, an actor and managing director of the Bond Street Theatre who conducted research on theater in Burma in 2009, has written about the example of a children’s play performed in schools, which tackled the subject of freedom by using the metaphor of a man who finally decides not to keep his bird in a cage anymore.[16] Nevertheless, it is unclear whether regular citizens without access to education always understood the secret messages transmitted by public intellectuals, writers, and artists. In addition, “readers […] used to reading between the lines” sometimes read into publications “meanings never indented”, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) has noted.[17]

The regime, for its part, took great efforts to prevent regular interaction between the country’s intellectuals, artists, and comedians on the one hand and the broader population on the other. For instance, the comedy trio, the Moustache Brothers, who challenged the regime both through jokes directly referring to the situation in Burma and through metaphors, such as allusions to an omnipresent and infamous “KGB,” were allowed to perform only in English and only in front of tourists.[18] The comedians reacted by directing their messages outwards, hoping that the tourists would act as their “Trojan horses,” informing the world about the political situation in Burma.[19]

In addition, the military regime tried hard, and often successfully, to divide the intellectual and artistic community through a combination of repression and co-optation. Disagreements over how much adjustment to the regime’s constraints was still acceptable sometimes led to severe conflicts and mistrust among former colleagues and friends.[20] Some singers, actors, and filmmakers also contributed to the regime’s propaganda films or songs in order to gain the confidence of the authorities and, thereby, carve out for themselves some room to maneuver for more independent and critical works.[21] Moreover, several formerly critical artists even let themselves be co-opted by the regime after having been blacklisted, so as to be re-allowed to perform in public. As Christina Fink has argued, such examples of co-optation often demoralized young grassroots activists, because “[w]hen students see their favourite star belting out propaganda songs, they lose confidence in their own ability to resist the generals.”[22]

Community-based Organizations (CBOs) and Informal Religious Groups: Between Apolitical Service-delivery, Social mobilization, and Regime Maintenance

While the Burmese military regime was highly authoritarian and repressive in nature, it was largely unable to provide basic social services, such as food, health care, and education, to the population. Consequently, unregistered community-based organizations (CBOs) and informal religious groups often moved to fill the gaps that existed, performing important welfare functions that would normally have been the responsibility of the state.[23] In Buddhist communities, many of these informal self-help initiatives centered on individual monks, who acted as their main leaders and decision-makers.[24] Similarly, in Christian communities, both Catholic and Protestant churches often acted as protective umbrellas for such initiatives.[25]

While most CBOs and informal religious groups remained strictly apolitical and focused on tackling the concrete social needs of their constituencies, a few of them also developed a political potential.[26]For instance, one such CBO interviewed by the author in summer 2004 trained social organizers in the analysis of social problems and conducted regular discussion circles for its members.[27] Similarly, a small Buddhist monastic initiative led by a couple of progressive monks, which the author visited around the same time, educated young people from their community about the concept of democracy and the history of the 1988 uprising. Moreover, the group maintained a library with books and publications which were unavailable in regular bookshops.[28] Correspondingly, Richard Horsey has suggested that small groups of “social activists” who voiced socio-economic grievances and staged public demonstrations played a significant role in preparing the ground for the “Saffron Revolution,” along with the “88 students,” although—in contrast to this latter group—they avoided placing explicitly political demands on the regime.[29]

At the same time, both purely apolitical and more politically (or, at least, socially) vocal CBOs and informal religious groups also contributed to the maintenance of the regime, as they fulfilled basic social needs not met by formal state institutions and, thereby, contributed to preventing the emergence of more broad-based social movements.[30] Since the beginning of the political liberalization process in 2011, CBOs and informal religious groups have sometimes been marginalized by, or even transformed themselves into, formally registered NGOs with access to foreign funding. Given that many of the international donors, who are currently rushing into Burma, rely on a highly technocratic approach to development, this tendency bears the risk of (further) weakening, rather than strengthening, the political potential of these formerly informal welfare groups.[31]

Lessons for the MENA Region and Beyond

Political activism in hidden spaces did not bring down the authoritarian regime of Burma. While the “Saffron Revolution,” which occurred in 2007, can be seen as having partly originated in informal spaces of resistance, the military brutally cracked down on these protests, replicating the repressive tactics it had also employed in the context of the 1988 uprising.[32] The political liberalization process, which is currently underway, was initiated by the military from a position of strength.[33]

Nevertheless, the case of informal activism in military-controlled Burma holds a number of interesting general insights. Specifically, it suggests that activism in informal spaces of resistance can take a large variety of forms, ranging from underground activism to individual subversion and informal engagement around seemingly apolitical issues. Relatedly, the Burmese case also shows that while the internet certainly played an important role in the social mobilizations of the “Arab Spring,” it is only one among the many means through which informal resistance against authoritarian rule can be orchestrated and coordinated.

Although Burma under military rule was, in many respects, different from the countries of the MENA region, similar forms of informal resistance might exist in this and other regions of the world as well. Writing about civil society in the Mediterranean after the “Arab Spring” Francesco Cavatorta has noted, for instance, that “there are plenty of […] modes of engagement that can emerge to challenge authoritarian rule, ranging from individual writings to mass participation to non-political events to artistic expression.”[34] Taking a too narrow perspective on the phenomenon of informal resistance may lead observers to overlook forms of social activism which might someday form the basis for social and political change.

Furthermore, the three examples of activism in informal spaces of resistance in military-controlled Burma sketched in this essay also show that such activism often comes with its own problems and dilemmas. Specifically, the forms of communication and social interaction, which occur in such unregistered, unregulated, or otherwise hidden spaces, might sometimes be rather exclusive and hierarchical in nature. Moreover, activists who engage in informal resistance can become subject to repression or co-optation and, consequently, end up in isolation. In other words, even if it aims at democratic change, informal activism may in several respects mimic the authoritarian political setting in which it emerges.


[1] Francesco Cavatorta, Arab Spring: The Awakening of Civil Society. A General Overview (Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean [IEMed], 2012); Bert Hoffmann, “Civil society in the digital age: how the Internet changes state-society relations in authoritarian regimes. The case of Cuba,” in Francesco Cavatorta, Ed., Civil Society Activism under Authoritarian Rule. A comparative perspective (London, New York: Routledge, 2012): 219-244; and Sean Yom, “Arab Civil Society After the Arab Spring: Weaker but Deeper,” Middle East Asia Project (MAP) Series: Civil Society and Political Transitions in the MENA and Southeast Asia, October 22, 2015.

[2] See, for example, Zunetta Liddell, “No Room to Move: Legal Constraints on Civil Society in Burma,” in Burma Center Netherlands (BCN) and Transnational Institute (TNI), (Ed.), Strengthening Civil Society in Burma. Possibilities and Dilemmas for International NGOs (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999): 54-68; Emily Rudland and Morten B. Pedersen, “Introduction,” in Morten Pedersen, Emily Rudland, and R.J. May, Burma Myanmar: Strong Regime Weak State? (Adelaide: Crawford Publishing House, 2000): 4; and David Steinberg, “A Void in Myanmar: Civil Society in Burma,” in Burma Center Netherlands (BCN) and Transnational Institute (TNI) (Ed.), Strengthening Civil Society in Burma, 1-14.

[3] Christina Fink, Living Silence. Burma under Military Rule (London: Zed Books Ltd, 2001).

[4] International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, ICG Asia Report, N° 27, Bangkok/ Brussels: ICG, December 6, 2001, i, 8,13; As of 2015, that is, four years after the beginning of the liberalization process, internet penetration still amounted to a mere 2.1 percent; see Freedom House, "Freedom of the Net. Myanmar," accessed August 5, 2016,  

[5] Fink, Living Silence, 53-56; ICG, Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 16-17; Martin Smith, “Our Heads Are Bloody But Unbowed”: Suppression of Educational Freedoms in Burma (London: Article 19, December 10, 1992); interviews with exiled ABFSU leaders, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, October 2004.  

[6] See also ICG, Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 17.

[7] Interview with a leader of the ABFSU, Mae Sot, October 2004.

[8] Interviews and background conversations conducted in Myanmar between 2004 and 2007.

[9] Richard Horsey, “The dramatic events of 2007 in Myanmar: domestic and international implications,” in Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson, eds., Dictatorship, disorder and decline in Myanmar (Canberra: ANU E-Press, 2008): 17.

[10] See especially Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, 2 (2012): 389. See also the references provided in the following note.

[11] On the role of the 88 students in the 2007 uprising see especially ICG, "Burma/Myanmar: After the crackdown," ICG Asia Report N°144, January 31, 2008, 2; Richard Horsey, “The dramatic events of 2007 in Myanmar.”

[12] See, for example, the “88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group,” Facebook, accessed August 5, 2016,

[13] Fink, Living Silence, 197-212.

[14] Ibid., 200; See also Group (ICG), Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 19-20.

[15] Conversation with a journalist and novelist, Rangoon, March 2007.

[16] Michael McGuigan, “Can Laughter Set You Free?” American Theatre 27, 9 (2010): 68-71.

[17] International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 19-20; see also Fink, Living Silence, 198.

[18] See, for example, Michael McGuigan, “Can Laughter Set You Free?”; and Aaron Clark, “Comedians in Myanmar Face Bans,” Washington Post, September 6, 2006, accessed August 5, 2016.

[19] Aaron Clark, “Comedians in Myanmar Face Bans.”

[20] See also International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 19.

[21] Fink, Living Silence, 201.

[22] Ibid., 206.

[23] Jasmin Lorch, “Civil Society under Authoritarian Rule: The Case of Myanmar,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 2 (2006), esp. 20-24; Jasmin Lorch, “The (re)emergence of civil society in areas of state weakness: the case of education in Burma/Myanmar,” in Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson, (Eds.), Dictatorship, disorder and decline in Myanmar (Canberra: ANU E-Press, 2008): 151-176; and Jasmin Lorch, “Stopgap or Change Agent? The Role of Burma’s Civil Society after the Crackdown,” International Quarterly for Asian Studies (Internationales Asienforum) 39, 1-2 (2008), esp. 30-32.

[24] Jasmin Lorch, “Civil Society under Authoritarian Rule,” 23; and Ashley South, “Political Transition in Myanmar: A New Model for Democratization,” Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia 17, 3 (2004): 248-249.

[25] Jasmin Lorch, “Civil Society under Authoritarian Rule,” 26-27.

[26] Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” 389-390; and Jasmin Lorch, “Stopgap or Change Agent?”, 32.

[27] Jasmin Lorch, “Civil Society under Authoritarian Rule,” 25.

[28] Author visit to the monastic education initiative, Burma, summer 2004.

[29] Richard Horsey, “The dramatic events of 2007 in Myanmar,” 16-17.

[30] For a similar point see Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” esp. 390.

[31] Stefan Bächtold, “The rise of an anti-politics machinery: peace, civil society and the focus on results in Myanmar,” Third World Quarterly 36, 10 (2015): 1968-1983.

[32] See, for example, Jasmin Lorch, “Stopgap or Change Agent?”

[33] See, for example, Lee Jones, “The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 44, 1 (2013), esp. 156.

[34] Cavatorta, Arab Spring: The Awakening of Civil Society, 78.


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.