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Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Produced by R. Michael Feener

American evangelical Christian organizations comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement, and mobilize considerable financial resources around a moral objection to prostitution and sex trafficking. In this interview, we talk with Elena Shih about her ethnography of missionary vocational training rehabilitation projects that train sex workers in Beijing and Bangkok to make jewelry that is sold in the United States, and what this can show us about transnational dynamics of religious activism and non-governmental organizations enacted through the corollary motives of salvific evangelism and social entrepreneurship.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, pocket knives, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks

Podcast with Elena Shih (27 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Shih- Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-Trafficking Networks 1.1

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the fourth installment in our series on religion and NGOs. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect of religion as an international aid in development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs, or faith-based organisations, has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how their engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

CS: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North American Christian NGOs have become increasingly visible actors in the humanitarian sector. One particularly prominent area of attention and interventions for such organisations has been in the global movements against human trafficking. In this interview we talk with Elena Shih about her multi-sited research on US Evangelical NGO’s involvement in the global anti-trafficking movement, and specifically on their projects in Thailand and China. She will explain how her findings contribute to our understanding of the role of US-based Christian actors in this specific field of rights, advocacy and development. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. So speaking with us today is Dr Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also Faculty Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Dr Shih is a Sociologist specialising in gender and sexuality, transnational race and ethnicity, social movements and labour in the Global South. Giuseppe would you like to go ahead with the first question?

GB: For sure. Thank you very much Elena for being here with us. So in your book, Manufacturing Freedom, you shed light on the role played by Protestant NGOs in the Global anti-trafficking movement, looking at long-term fieldwork in the US where the NGO’s are headquartered as well as in China and Thailand where they have projects. So, what led you to specifically focus on these Christian organisations, and how do you position yourself as a researcher in relation to both these organisations and those that you work with in the aid projects?

Elena Shih (ES): Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this podcast and for the wonderful introduction and really provocative first question. I actually didn’t begin this project hoping to understand the role of Christian organisations, and I think that understanding the genesis of the methods that led to this project, maybe, sheds light on some of its ultimate findings. So I began this project in 2007, having just begun graduate school in Sociology at UCLA, and having also just returned from three years of living in China; first working with a women’s legal aid organisation in Beijing and subsequently working with ethnic minority youth on the China-Burma border. And at that time I was very concerned with how the growing American interest and investment in trafficking, globally, didn’t really resonate on the ground in China. And so, when I returned back to the United States for graduate school I wanted to understand some of the gaps between the global and the local in manifesting things like the 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol and 2000 United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So I began by attending a series of anti-trafficking conferences and anti-trafficking fairs that were increasingly prevalent in Southern California around 2007. And we saw an enormous response by American civil society, responding to what the United States had called over and over again a “growing scourge” of human trafficking (5:00). And, week after week, I would go to these different fairs and I started to see a pattern of numerous organisations that were working in different parts of the world, but had centred on social enterprise as their way of intervening. And by social enterprise, what I mean is that they were trying to turn to the markets and sell goods – often what they termed “slave-free” goods – as a way of raising funding around human trafficking, but also bringing money and jobs back into the very communities that they claimed people were trafficked from. I happened to get to know two organisations very well – one that was working in Thailand and one that working is China. Both happened to have offices and activist home-bases in Los Angeles. And I began volunteering with them, doing everything from helping them sell jewellery – which was the good that they were selling – to liaising with customers, to processing inventories, and to just generating different kinds of awareness around their cause. And it wasn’t until maybe eight months of volunteering with these organisations – when I travelled to Asia to see their production sites in Beijing and Bangkok – that I began to understand how important Christian faith was for these organisations. What that looked like on the ground is that for sex workers who are recruited to become jewellery makers in this project, across both organisations, Christian worship – an hour of Christian worship or Bible Study – was a mandatory and populated part of their wage, as were different kinds of spiritual and moral rehabilitation. So, I had workers comment to me that they often-times felt like maybe their promotions or salary bonuses were dependent not so much on their labour output making jewellery, or how they were doing on the shop floor, but more in terms of their spiritual growth and how much they had grown to accept Christianity in their lives. So I think, looking back now, in over a decade that I’ve been working on that project, it still is fairly striking to me that, a lot of times, when this jewellery is sold, a consumer or slavery activist doesn’t necessarily know that it’s attached to highly missionary goals. And, for many people, even the fact that it is a Christian organisation or it is a missionary organisation would not be problematic because it is ultimately serving a development goal in the end. Which is that of bringing jobs and economic alternatives to sex workers in Asia.

GB: Right.

CS: Wow. That is a very long-term engagement and it is fascinating to hear how you have really encountered, or kind-of bumped into the religious aspect of these organisations, and how your own experience reflects what the customer sees or doesn’t see in a very interesting way. Now, a question more specifically about these American Evangelical organisations. They comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement and mobilise considerable financial resources around the moral objection to prostitution, as you point out in your research. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which these organisations situate themselves within this global movement of anti-trafficking, for instance, in relation to non-faith-based organisations? And also how do they influence the movement’s lines? And how are they influenced by this more general global anti-trafficking movement?

ES: Yes, I think that there’s a really fascinating and particularly American history of the Christian Right, in particular, in the formation of anti-trafficking protocols in the United States and there are definitely scholars who are far better positioned to talk about that than I (10:00). So I would definitely direct listeners to work by two scholars in particular: that of Yvonne Zimmerman, who has a book under the title Other Dreams of Freedom, and then one of my own advisers, Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she called the sexual politics of neo-abolition, that documents a really interesting strange-bedfellows-coalition between Evangelical Christian and radical feminists, particularly on the issue of trafficking. But inasmuch as my work is concerned, I think that this actually is a good opportunity to talk about how the work fits into your wonderful volume on religion and the techno-politics of development, because I’ve really seen that religious organisations used the secular politics of rights and development alongside evangelical goals of proselytisation, so that the two are almost mutually interchangeable.

GB: Right

ES: And I think that vocational training has become a really, really popular technical solution for human trafficking, and particularly around something like prostitution, which is framed as a hugely moral problem, and which is framed as an absolute worst choice for a woman in the Global South who has no other options. And so, you see everybody from USAID to these grassroots religious organisations trying to think of ways to retrain people, to provide vocational training, as way of offering other alternatives to sex work. The main problem around it is that when you’re still training people in menial and manual low-wage labour, it still is not much of an alternative. So jewellery is one such menial low wage job, but it’s just one of the numerous commodities that’s now sold as a part of the anti-trafficking movement. You see everything from bedspreads to silk pyjamas being made in India, to traditional Henna craft and silk scarves coming out of Mongolia. And I think these are all part of a concerted attempt among anti-trafficking organisations to, what they call, “leverage the market-place”, to raise funds and awareness around the issue of trafficking. And I think one of the reasons why religious organisations have had to turn to social enterprise is, for the United States as an example, faith-based organisations are often excluded from certain kinds of federal or government funding when religious proselytisation is a core goal of theirs. And also, as religious organisations, they’re able to tap into huge bases of church-goers, parishioners, who see social justice goals as inextricable from Christian theology. And so I think that there’s been a real turn, on the part of churches, to recognise social justice in a reasonably complicated world. And – in a more shrewd, market-based, calculated turn – to find ways for faith-based organisations to fund themselves when they can’t seek other sources of funding.

GB: Right. So we’ve been talking about faith-based organisations, Evangelical movements in the United States, but it’s interesting to see what is happening in the other two field sites you chose which are Thailand and China. And Thailand and China provide two very different legal contexts for the work of Christian NGOs. So, Elena, how do these different juridical and policy frameworks influence the ways in which these NGOs implement their projects on the ground, and how do local perceptions of the articulation between aid and Christianity take shape in these very different contexts?

ES: I think that one of the greatest empirical paradoxes of this project is still that you could have the exact same American Evangelical Christian jewellery project operating in both Thailand and China, which we understand to be vastly different in terms of their political economic regimes. And so, one might classify as Thailand officially as a democratic monarchy, whereas China is more often understood as post-socialist authoritarian (15:00). The way that this plays out is that concretely, on the ground, Thailand offers over three hundred missionary visas to foreigners every year. And that means that foreign missionaries constitute one of the largest sources of tourist income – expat populations – and that their comings and goings are very rarely monitored. But it’s completely legal to be a foreign missionary in Thailand and it’s absolutely prevalent. You know, if you show up to any of the large cities there are public gatherings, churches, Christian churches that foreigners can attend. You contrast that to China which is notoriously restrictive of religious practice and which absolutely would see the presence of American Christians as a threat of imperialism. There are very few places for Chinese Christians to practice. They are almost completely relegated to what are called “home churches”. And as a foreigner, there are like single-designated places where Christian who are foreigners can practise in China. So that’s just the religious atmosphere. Combined with their atmosphere towards foreigners, it’s vastly different from China in Thailand. How this plays out within vocational training organisations for sex workers is, in Thailand sex workers who’ve chosen to work as jewellery makers are able to treat that more as any other kind of job that they might choose. So they’re not required to live on site. They rent an apartment, in Bangkok. A lot of them have part-time jobs, or are actually on full-time jobs working up to forty hours a week because of the pay cut that they have to take from being sex workers to becoming jewellery makers. It just doesn’t provide them with a living wage. And by contrast, in China, because the organisation has to be more careful about the scrutiny of the local police and government censorship, they require all workers to live on site in a mandatory dorm and there’s no way that any of those workers would be able to have a part-time job. And workers definitely feel a bit more stifled in China. And I think one larger difference in how this affects workers’ experience of religion is that in Thailand, given that freedom – or relative freedom – of religion, about 30% of people under rehabilitation have actually converted to Christianity. Whereas in China, where a history of conversion isn’t as prevalent, there are very, very low – it may be one or two people converted in the decade that I’ve studied these organisations.

GB: Right.

CS: Well, thank you very much for these very insightful and precise answers that can give us a grasp of what is going on in those countries. Just, maybe, a last question that is more general: is there anything that you would like to add, as a kind of concluding note, about what we have learned about faith-based activism in this field?

ES: I think the takeaway that I would love listeners to have is hopefully not that faith-based organisations in particular are flawed in their approaches, but that it really is anti-trafficking or human trafficking or sex trafficking as a concept that is flawed and misunderstood, and needs to be interrogated more clearly. Because, ultimately, my work argues that by transforming sexual labour into low wage manual labour these organisations are able to meld Christian ideas around good morals and salvific evangelism within secular development goals around decent work. But these should not be satisfying because we’re living in a world without decent work options (20:00). And I think the last thing that I’ll say about this, or that I’d further caution, is that there’s a growing trend moving away from the Palermo Protocol and definitions of human trafficking, shifting to an increasing number of people wanting to use the term “modern day slavery”. And I think what modern day slavery signals is a gesture towards pinpointing extreme and absolute cases of human suffering. Faith-based organisations and secular rights-based organisations both need to expand their purview of work into maybe taking a little bit of morality out of what we understand is good work, and listening to migrant workers, sex workers around the world who are telling us the different conditions that they’re looking for. So I think what I was saying was that by looking at, and fetishising theses extreme cases of human suffering – the one-off cases in brick kilns or in full sexual slavery – we don’t get to understand the hundreds of people who are seeking to have better lives, working in those areas, where there can be incremental changes for worker health, safety and better access to labour rights and working conditions across the board.

GB: This was really inspiring. Thank you very much, Dr Shih, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

CS: Thank you, Elena.

ES: Thank you so much to both of you, and for all of your hard work. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.

GB: Thank you Elena.

Citation Info: Shih, Elena, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-evangelical-organisations-in-global-anti-trafficking-networks/

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Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

Read more

Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, canned peas, apple juice, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

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