At the margins of a ‘development darling’: intersections between civil society, governance, and development in Karen State, Myanmar

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Shona began her DPhil in human geography in October 2017. Her research on the politics of state-making and development in southeast Myanmar is jointly funded by the Clarendon Fund Scholarship and the Christ Church Graduate Scholarship.

Shona holds a B.Soc.Sci. with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, majoring in Geography and minoring in English Literature (2012-2015). She also completed her M.Soc.Sci. in Geography at the National University of Singapore (2015-2017). Her Masters dissertation was entitled 'From Battlefields to Marketplaces: Geo-economic Hope and Displacement along the Thai-Myanmar Border'. It focuses on how international responses to Myanmar's political transition are affecting the lives of undocumented and semi-documented Burmese migrants residing in a Thai border town.

Current Research

After decades of isolation, Myanmar is now the world's seventh largest recipient of development assistance, with $1.83 billion in commitments over the last year. Shona's research asks how this influx of aid is reshaping the relationship between state, civil society, and other non-state actors, in Karen State, southeast Myanmar. After seven decades of civil war, Karen State is fragmented into areas controlled by the Myanmar government, the Karen National Union (KNU), and a mixture of several authorities. What does the influx of development assistance mean for these varied forms of governance?

Shona's research is based on fieldwork in Yangon, Karen State, and on the Thai-Myanmar border between August 2018 and May 2019. In Myanmar government areas and mixed-control areas, Shona focuses on relatively new civil society organisations, which have flourished in the last five years due to a gradual — if tentative — loosening of civic freedoms in Myanmar. The international development regime stimulates this growth, through grants offered by international development actors eager to enter a previously inaccessible area. If Karen people have long felt marginalised from Myanmar’s centres of power, Shona asks about the extent to which development assistance changes their relationship with the Myanmar government and other authorities.

In KNU-controlled areas, Shona is likewise interested in the relationship between civil society and governance actors. Partnerships between civil society and development actors have a much longer history in these areas, where development actors have used local organisations to provide humanitarian relief in conflict areas for decades, yet resources for cross-border work appear to be drying up as donors shift their attention to in-country assistance. Shona asks how cross-border civil society negotiates these changes, and if they alter civil society’s place in the KNU's means of governing its territory. She also seeks to compare between these two pathways for development assistance, asking about their implications for understandings of Karen ethnicity in Myanmar, and prospects for peace and postwar reconstruction. Conceptually, this research speaks to literature in political geography, development geography, Southeast Asian studies, and related cross-disciplinary fields.

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