Doctrine divides, Action unites


  May 2014


Aid Should Support the People, Not the Government in Burma

Zoya Phan

The arrest of DVB video journalist Zaw Pe for “trespassing” and
“disturbing a civil servant” in August 2012 and his subsequent
one-year imprisonment in April 2014 is indicative of human rights
violations that still occur in Burma.
(Photo from

There are many different opinions on the nature of reforms in Burma in recent years. It is doubtful, however, that the reforms are part of a genuine move towards democratization. The 2008 Constitution did the opposite of moving Burma towards democracy. Rather, it gave the military power at every level of government. Almost all repressive laws remain in place, and many human rights violations continue.

One area though where there has undoubtedly been some improvement is in the creation of more political space and more opportunity for debate, discussion and organization. Although this space is limited, and if you cross certain lines you could end up back in jail, more political space does exist.

No one knows how long this space will last though. It seems unlikely that the government will ever be able to reimpose the kind of fear and control that existed prior to 2010, but some people had a similar opinion around the time of the 1988 uprising.

There are already many worrying signs. There is the failure to deliver on promises of media freedom, and the jailing of journalists, including most recently the jailing of DVB journalist Zaw Pe, have occurred. Moreover, last year hundreds of people were arrested for peacefully protesting. The number of arrests has not been this high since 2007 and 2008. It has also been announced that candidates in the 2015 election will not be allowed to campaign outside their own constituencies—a severe limitation on political freedom.

Thus, while we have this political space, the opportunity must be seized to make the people of Burma stronger and more able to stand up to the government and the military and to demand our freedom and rights. In doing so, we will increase our political understanding, come together as civil society and work together and organize together more effectively. It is for this reason that it is so important for international aid to strengthen and support civil society.

It is very sad therefore that more isn’t being done to support genuine grassroots civil society organizations and seize this chance while we have it. While I support international aid, I am concerned that aid money is being directed in ways that are making the government, not the people, stronger.

The British government boasts that it is giving US$18.5 million for projects to strengthen civil society in Burma over a period of five years, but it is giving almost double this figure, US$33.6 million, for projects helping to build the capacity of the government of Burma. This amount is separate from US$16.7 million being spent on the recent disastrous census and further money being spent on training Burma’s military.

Helping the Burmese government to become more efficient and effective makes sense if it is working for the people, but it isn’t. We still have a military-backed government that is not democratic and that is not accountable to the people. We didn’t choose this government. It wasn’t elected. It doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t prioritize our needs. It spends billions on the military and far less on health and education. Military spending is probably equivalent to US$30 for every person in Burma.

There is a transition in our country, but not to democracy. What we have thus far is a move to a more modern style authoritarian regime rather than direct military rule. This political system still isn’t democracy. International aid is in danger of helping Burma’s government move from being an inefficient and badly run military dictatorship to instead becoming a better run and more efficient authoritarian government with a civilian face.

The problem is not just that British and other international aid is helping to modernize the workings of a government that continues to oppress us and deny us genuine freedom. Even the aid that is helping civil society is often only done in a way that the government approves of, and it can undermine genuine civil society groups.

International donors are acquiescing to the Burmese government’s effective veto of grassroots civil society organizations by almost universally only funding civil society groups which are registered with the government. Often the most support for which genuine civil society groups can hope is attending a training course conducted by a government-approved group.

For most civil society organizations, especially those based in ethnic states or those more critical of the government, getting official registration is almost impossible and comes with restrictions on what they can do. Registration, and international support, goes to less critical civil society organizations which tend to be based in Yangon and, for example, don’t fully understand the situation in ethnic states in which they get funded to work. This is not to criticize Yangon-based or government-registered non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which do important work. Many of them are also frustrated at limitations on the work they can do and the limited range of activities that international donors are willing to fund them to undertake. Civil society, however, is diverse, and international donors should support this diversity.

Local groups which managed to survive and do essential work for many years under the military dictatorship are now being starved of funds. Instead, Yangon-based groups are moving in, imposing their own priorities and often avoiding controversial issues. They don’t document and report on human rights abuses by the government, for instance, as do local organizations, such as members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB). In some cases, international aid for civil society is actually undermining genuine civil society and instead is strengthening government-approved civil society groups which are not going to speak out and advocate for people’s rights in the same way and are less critical of the government.

I am sure that these negative developments are not intended by international donors, but they are real, and an opportunity to strengthen the people of Burma so that they can one day hold the government to account is being lost. Furthermore, there are already signs that the window of opportunity may be closing.

* Zoya Phan is campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography has been published as Undaunted in the United States and Little Daughter in the rest of the world. She has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

This article was first published by Mizzima Business Weekly on May 8, 2014.


Home | School of Peace | Faith and Peace Archives | Photos and events | Who are we

e-mail :