Aid Should Support the People, Not
the Government in Burma
The arrest of DVB video
journalist Zaw Pe for “trespassing” and
“disturbing a civil servant” in August 2012 and his
one-year imprisonment in April 2014 is indicative of human
violations that still occur in Burma.
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
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
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
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.