Winner Dissertation Prize 2018
Constructing civil society in Myanmar: Struggles for local change and global recognition.
Supervisor: Prof. dr. H. Schulte Nordholt
Co-supervisor: Dr. F. Colombijn
Nomination: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences
Report of the selection committee
When we embarked upon reading the PhD thesis of Dr Matelski, we were expecting something different. In a new book about Myanmar/Burma one expects a description of the terrible plight – if not genocide – of the Rohingya and an analysis of the root causes of this tragedy. But, as we quickly discovered, this is not what the book is about. Partly because the thesis was defended in 2016, before the repression of the Rohingya escalated, and partly because Dr Matelski had a different focus. And, as it turned out: a very interesting focus.
Dr Matelski describes how people in Myanmar organised under the banner of civil society during a period of cautious and unprecedented political transition from military to civilian rule. The findings suggest a great diversity of Burmese civil society actors rather than a coherent, single-minded group of actors seeking to democratize the country by overthrowing the government. Dr Matelski also shows that international images and expectations – of human rights NGOs and developmental agencies – were often very different from the ideas and ideals of local organisations. This led to all sorts of interesting interactions. Some local actors simply rejected the universal values promoted by the international community. Others carefully framed their positions towards an international audience in order to ensure foreign support. Yet others were simply overlooked by the international community, because their activities were not recognized as relevant.
The book delineates processes, contestations, and fault lines around civil society work during a highly important transitional period in Myanmar.
But Dr. Matelski’s study also contains valuable lessons of more general application, relating for instance to universality of human rights and donor impact. The jury praises the sharp and light pen with which this in depth research of very serious material was brought to life.