Axe-handles or willing minions? International NGOs in Burma


Australian Council for Overseas Aid


The issue of  how International Non Governmental organisations (INGOs) should approach  operating in Burma is a thorny one. This was particularly so in the early 1990s. Many development workers and the expatriate democracy movement felt that an NGO presence would provide the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)[i], with much needed legitimacy. Warnings were sounded: INGOs would fall prey to the SLORC's manipulation, aid would be stolen and sold to profit the government, INGOs would be used in SLORC propaganda and meaningful development would not reach those it was intended for. They would become “willing minions”  executing the SLORC’s agendas.  INGOs were urged that their priority should be the large refugee populations in neighbouring countries who were the most visible and accessible victims of the SLORC's misrule.


Despite the heat of the debate in 1993, some fifteen INGOs have entered Burma and more continue to arrive to explore the environment (and some have  subsequently withdraw).[ii] What has their experience been? As Burma approaches its thirty-fifth year of military rule, what are the issues for INGOs wanting to work with Burmese? What possibilities could be explored for facilitating the growth of civil society? What attitude should INGOs adopt towards the democracy movement inside Burma? This paper examines these questions, with a focus on INGO experience, and begins by outlining a theoretical model for understanding the variety of INGOs and how their approach to operating in Burma might be categorised.


The aim of this paper is to stimulate discussion, raise issues and flag some ways forward on the role of INGOs inside Burma. A substantial part of this paper is descriptive as it is an attempt to document the experiences of INGOs and is based on interviews with INGO staff - expatriate and Burmese. There are some caveats to this paper: I have not examined in detail the difficult question of how INGOs presence affect the root causes of  endemic political conflict; this is an area which needs further research and analysis. Secondly, this paper is not a judgement upon the valuable work that INGOs in Burma do or hope to achieve; rather this paper attempts to address some overarching issues surrounding the INGO presence.



Generations of NGO strategies


The development theorist David Kortens distinguishes between four different “generations” of NGO strategies. [iii] I would like readers to see this as a tool rather than a hierarchy, and the point has been made elsewhere that most development agencies attempt to span the first three generations in the scope of their work.[iv] Thus there is a fair degree of overlap in this typology. Kortens traces an evolutionary pattern from traditional relief activities towards greater involvement in catalysing larger institutional and policy changes for social development.


First generation INGOs strategies involve the direct delivery of services to meet an immediate deficiency or shortage experienced by the beneficiary population, such as food, health care and shelter. The focus is welfare based with a strong emphasis on logistical management. Many of the agencies on the Thai-Burma Border: BBC, MSF- France originally had this focus of providing food and health assistance and were constrained from education and infrastructure work by their agreements with the Thai Government. In Burma too, many agencies, such as Medicine San Fontieres entered on a clear humanitarian relief focus such as immunisation programs that targeted populations and worked under a clear mandate of providing curative assistance, although this has changed over time.


Second generation strategies attempt to develop the capacities of communities to better meet their own needs through self-reliant local action. INGOs working in this field commonly identify themselves as development INGOs. Activities might involve initiating village self-help actions with the development of health committees to carry out preventative health, digging wells  or improving agricultural practices. The concepts of sustainability and community development are crucial to their modus operandi and there are different emphasis placed on empowerment of people. It is important to note that second generation approaches often grow out of first generation NGO responses to humanitarian need. The projects are often micro focused on villages or sub-groups such as women and limited to short funding cycles tied to government donors. The role of the development NGO is to be a mobiliser and to assist in dissolving social inertia. Some critics argue that such a developmental approach inherently creates a dependent community. Further, such an approach requires countless repetitions to bring about broad social change. 


Many of the agencies that have entered Burma, World Concern, World Vision, Save the Children Fund UK are attempting to use these second-generation strategies. They may incorporate first generation strategies into their work too. The approach is broad, from working with Government departments and government controlled NGOs (GONGOs) in areas such as capacity building, to identifying needs and working with grassroots communities with as little government input as possible.  Many smaller INGOs on the Thai-Burma border that don’t have an agreement with the Thai authorities attempt this kind of education and capacity building work - often cross border. Currently most INGOs in Burma are struggling with the constraints that the SLORC places upon this work, particularly in terms of sustainability. One INGO explained:


Myanmar is extremely bureaucratic, and following the mode of government since 1962 there are few people who fully understand the mindset of “bottom up” participatory development which is so important to NGOs working in community development.[v]


Second generation strategies can actively target Government and institutional oppression - but none of the agencies currently in Burma do this. The BBC in Thailand plays a strong but discreet advocacy role on behalf of refugees with the Thai government and international governments. This is despite the fact that it predominantly uses first generation strategies of  humanitarian assistance for communities.


Third generation NGO strategies are focused on sustainable systems development. They look beyond the individual community and seek changes in specific policies and institutions at local, national and global levels. The strategies aim to produce a supportive national or international development system and aim at working with national agencies “to help them orientate their polices and work modes in ways that strengthen broadly based local control over resources.”[vi] These initiatives arose out of frustration with second generation strategies where the benefit to a community may be dependent on a continued NGO presence and availability of donor subsidies. Moreover the limited coverage of NGO programs to clusters of villages and hostility of national institutions to sustainable community development meant that broad social development seemed very distant. Kortens elaborates:


“The underlying theory of third generation strategies is grounded in the assumption that local inertia is sustained by structures that centralise control of resources, keep essential services from reaching the poor, and maintain systems of corruption and exploitation. Creating the necessary changes often depends on working simultaneously to build the capacity of the people to male demands on the system and working to build alliances with enlightened power holders in support of action that makes the system more responsive to people.”[vii]


There has been a concerted push by some INGOs to develop this form of macro level change on the issue of HIV/AIDS, and they work closely with the willing staff of the  Department of Health to develop national strategies. However, those working on the HIV/AIDS epidemic have realised the limitations of a national approach as any potential action is subordinated to the imperatives of the  political system and also the personal vagaries of the (recently removed) Minister of Health who refused to acknowledge that Burma had a HIV/AIDS crisis. To be truly effective, a macro approach needs to go further and tackle the dysfunctional nature of military government. Such a broad strategy accords with the position advocated by the NLD and the many critics in the Burmese community of INGOs in Burma, which urges that NGO programs reach all of the people - not just those in favour with the government, that development must tackle the systemic nature of oppression in Burma if it is to be meaningful and that co-operation with an oppressive government and its agencies can fatally compromise meaningful development.


Development INGOs in Burma feel that while this is may be the ultimate goal, they are constrained by the SLORC’s scrutiny from this approach. Their focuses has been  to position themselves inside Burma and learn about the country, build up relationships and be in a good position to carry out more participatory development when conditions change. Many have recent experience of working under restrictive conditions in Thailand in the late 1970s, Cambodia (in 1988-1993) and in Vietnam (in 1991-1997) and then experiencing a change in conditions as government control relaxed and they were able to reach communities more effectively. This experience informs their current activities and hopes for community development in the future when devolution of power comes in Burma.


The fourth generation strategy, according to Kortens, is an outcome of dissatisfaction with institutional resistance or hostility to third generation NGO initiatives. Forth generation theorists argue that INGOs must look beyond “repair work” and adopt a decentralised action towards development and become "facilitators of a global people’s development movement.”  How does this high sounding rhetoric align with reality?  How do INGOs move towards fourth generation strategies? Korten specifies that INGOs must seek to facilitate “social movements” which mobilise people for social change. He describes them thus:


“Social movements have a special quality. They are driven not by budgets or organisational structures, but rather by ideas, by a vision of a better world. They move more on social energy rather than money. The vision mobilises independent action by countless individuals across national boundaries, all supporting a shared ideal. Participants in successful movements collaborate in continuously shifting networks and coalitions. They may quarrel over ideological issue and tactics. But where they have been successful, their efforts have generated a reinforcing synergy.”[viii]


Examples of social movements are women’s, peace, environment, and consumer affairs and human rights movements. Korten believes that “development”, as such, has not generally been viewed as a social movement and development INGOs are not attuned to fully working as facilitators of social movements, although clearly efforts have been made in the areas of women and the environment in recent years.


In the case of Burma, I would suggest that the struggle for democracy, ethnic rights and respect for human rights by the Burmese is developing into an international social movement. The arrival of 10 000 students on the Thai-Burma border and in other countries in 1988, has led to alliances with the ethnic peoples who have had a symbiotic effect: increasing international awareness about the democracy struggle and abuses against ethnic peoples. A wide range of advocacy INGOs and peoples organisations have focused on different aspects of the political situation in Burma and the movement for social change such as human rights organisations (eg. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Asia) women’s organisations (eg. the Indigenous Women’s Centre, NGO support for Burmese delegates to Beijing Women’s NGO Conference), ethnic rights advocates and development bodies (eg. the Karen Human Rights Group and the Burma Relief Centre) and the environment movement (eg. Green November 32, Earthrights). The BBC recognise the importance of advocacy and employ elements of this strategy in their information role and lobbying based in Thailand. Crucial to the success of social movements is the flow of information. The development of the Burmanet e-mail news group dramatically increased international awareness and the information produced by organisations located in Thailand fans out across the world.[ix]  Burma advocay centres exist in nine European countries, the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. They reinforce and bring consistency and depth to international awareness of the nature of life under the Burmese military. They foster an impetus for change.[x] The holding of the 1990 elections and the failure of the SLORC to honour its results further alerted the international system to the nature of Burmese authoritarianism.  The election results were given international endorsement in successive UN General Assembly Resolutions and human rights abuse in Burma was scrutinised by the international community through the establishment, in 1991, of the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar to inform the Secretary General of the United Nations about human rights abuses and political developments. Since 1993 there have been increasingly strong resolutions passed unanimously by the UN General Assembly, the ILO has commenced a Commission of Inquiry into the SLORC’s use of forced labour and the attention and policy of many governments’ human rights policies is well focused on Burma.  Other  political networks focusing on Burma include the trade unions (eg. ICFTU), and  European, American and Korean political foundations (eg.Fredrich Naumann Foundation, Open Society Institute and the Forum of Leaders in the Asia Pacific).


If we accept that the struggle for democracy in and around Burma is a social movement, then meaningful development is not accomplished by an exclusive focus on first, second or third generation development strategies. Rather it would entail development agencies undertaking advocacy and resourcing those bodies which practice advocacy. It could incorporate second generation community development, capacity building, and institutional strengthening, but in the context of an overall strategy of facilitating and strengthening the broader social movement for change.


The fourth generation approach has yet to be fully explored by INGOs inside Burma and many outside Burma, and it would necessitate a rethink of the roles and limited foci many INGOs have in their work. At the end of this paper, I will make some general comments about models for INGOs wanting to facilitate a fourth generation approach to development in Burma. The following section provides a brief historical account of how development INGOs came to enter Burma.


The debate


Prior to 1988, as a result of the autarkic nature of the Ne Win junta, the lack of civil society, and the restricted visas of twenty four hours, INGOs had little relationship with the Burmese Government, but there were funding relationships between INGOs such as World Vision, OXFAM etc, churches and Burmese church partners and some other organisations such as hospitals. Many of these relationships lapsed in the wake of the 1988 uprising. INGOs effectively boycotted Burma.


The impetus for the debate as to whether INGOs should re-enter Burma came from a number of changes. Firstly the SLORC made it clear in 1989, that accompanying their more open policy to foreign investment, was a willingness to have humanitarian organisations work with the Burmese people. Secondly, UN bodies such as UNICEF entered Burma and called for INGOs to enter en masse and take advantage of the changed conditions. The 1992 paper, “ Possibilities for a United Nations Peace and Development Initiative for Myanmar [Burma]" by James Grant, the Executive Director of UNICEF, had the catalytic effect of drawing attention to the appalling social indices of underdevelopment in Burma and stirring up a debate as to whether agencies should enter.[xi] In the heat of the debate about whether INGOs should or shouldn’t enter, many of Grant’s more interesting ideas about a comprehensive approach to development - particularly initiatives to tackle the political situation were missed. In hindsight, perhaps ideas such as a the creation of a temporary regional and international police and observer force in Burma to supervise a transition of power where far too optimistic.  Nevertheless his comprehensive approach to development, tackling  political conditions, as well as the social and economic conditions, was sound.


Thirdly, amidst controversy, two INGOs originally working with refugees in Thailand,  Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) - Holland and World Vision International opted to enter Burma to explore opportunities in 1991-2 and 1989-92 respectively.


In response to these events, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), an association of INGOs, decided to send a mission to Burma in 1993, led by their Chair Russell Rollason.[xii] The purpose of the two-week mission was several-fold:[xiii]


·        to assess the humanitarian situation in Burma;

·        to meet local Burmese INGOs;

·        to discuss with the Government and agencies mechanisms for INGOs operating in Burma; and

·        to assess the situation of Burmese refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh.


Amongst other things, the ICVA mission sought and was denied an interview with (the then imprisoned) Aung San Suu Kyi, but did meet with opposition groups in Thailand and considered the human rights situation. It found a strong moral argument for trade sanctions and called for an international arms embargo. However it did not recommend aid sanctions - on the basis that the Burmese people would suffer and that there were opportunities to slowly change the practices of the regime.[xiv]


The report portrayed a humanitarian crisis in all social and economic areas in Burma and focused particularly on the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic. While necessarily an overview, the report made a valuable contribution by bringing together a snapshot of the human cost of years of military rule and the neglect of social services and the entrenchment of poverty. The main weakness of  the reports was its section on “Three Burmese INGOs”  which was misleading, in placing emphasis on the network of social services apparently provided by them, while failing to take notice of the highly politicised nature of Burmese society and the level of control over these organisations. While it may not have been possible to study in detail the compromised nature of these Burmese “INGOs”, who are really Governmental Non-Governmental Organisations (GONGOs) at the time, the level of governmental control could have been more vigorously raised. I will discuss this issue further later in the paper.


The mission made twelve recommendations focused mainly on multilateral responses to the political situation and the refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh.[xv]  The report stirred up strong debate. In Australia for example, it was the mission’s nine point guidelines for INGOs desiring to enter Burma, and by implication the mission’s endorsement for INGOs to enter Burma, that overshadowed the other recommendations and was controversial within the Australian Burmese community.[xvi] In response to the report, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid and the Burma NGO Forum held a conference: Burma: The Silent Emergency in May 1993.[xvii]  I’d like to cover the arguments put at the conference as they mirrored similar debates elsewhere.


ACFOA brought to Australia Saw Ba Thin, the General Secretary of the Karen National Union and Jack Dunford, the Chairperson of the Committee to Co-ordinate Services to the Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT). They argued strongly that it was not the right time for INGOs to enter Burma, giving the ongoing conflict on the border and the steadily increasing number of refugees as the principle reasons. They recommended aid should be channelled to the refugees and that further exploration of cross-border assistance be made.[xviii] They argued persuasively that INGOs should support the ethnic peoples and provide them with legitimacy.


In addition to this perspective, the peak body for Burmese pro-democracy community groups, the Australia Burma Council (ABC), produced a response critiquing the ICVA report.[xix] The ABC argued that aid should be targeted to the border, that aid inside Burma could not be accurately monitored, that a resumption of aid would give the SLORC international credibility and that there was evidence that increasing international pressure from the UN was beginning to affect the regime (the latter was a correct assumption as Aung San Suu Kyi was released eighteen months later).


In response to these arguments,  Roger Walker, the Policy Adviser of World Vision Australia (WVA),  made the core argument for INGOs entering Burma.[xx] He made a passionate plea that the political arguments condemning the SLORC shouldn't blind people to the social costs of denying aid:


            “I do not intend to convey an impression that World Vision regards human rights or democratic reform as unimportant; they are important; but they should not be a cause for the poor to be punished for the acts of others.

            The growing child cannot wait until the right government comes along or until the war has ended. There is a principle that the suffering child has a right to development - to health, to education. They cannot wait until tomorrow.”[xxi]


Russell  Rollason of ICVA also argued against INGOs ignoring the humanitarian needs inside Burma.[xxii] He also relied on an argument of not “punishing the poor” and pointed out that valuable time was being lost. He asked rhetorically:


“Is the time right for NGOs to consider involvement in Burma? I believe the time is right.

The choice is “now or wait”. It is three years since Aung San Suu Kyi won the free and fair election in Burma and the SLORC rejected the people’s democratic choice. In those three years trade with the SLORC has increased significantly, as have, regrettably, arms sales to the SLORC, yet little has been done to build links with people and NGOs in Burma. NGO involvement will open up new flows of information, broaden people to people links, offer solidarity and draw increased attention to the silent emergency in Burma.”[xxiii]  


However, not all  INGOs were persuaded by the “ human need” or “now is the time”  arguments. The result of this debate in may countries was that, with a few exceptions, most agencies were persuaded to assist the refugees on the Thai-Burma border and some facilitated small advocacy INGOs and initiatives to promote the democracy and ethnic groups.[xxiv] Opposition to INGOs operating in Burma from the politically active Burmese community, and some INGO workers (buit not the wider community) has remained strong since then.[xxv] The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma  urged development agencies to focus on the “external situation” of refugees, trafficking and HIV/AIDS (despite the many causes needing to be addressed internally) and  provide training to those in the “liberated areas” of Burma.[xxvi] Drawing on this community concern, a number of useful guidelines were produced for INGOs considering operating inside Burma.[xxvii]


Despite this NGO focus on refugees and the civil and political human rights situation inside Burma, a shift has occurred in Burma (of which more later) and amongst donor governments who maintained restrictions on ODA. Some INGOs who did want to enter Burma to respond to the needs there, lobbied donors for funds. For example, in Australia, World Vision and Australian Red Cross lobbied the Government and in September 1993, a funding window was introduced for HIV/AIDS and in  March 1994, this funding was expanded to include support for maternal and child health services. These government donor and also UN funding windows for INGOs were designed to meet vulnerable sections of the Burmese populace and to be non-controversial in that they were crosscutting issues; the battle against HIV/AIDS could not wait for a change in the political order. Moreover  HIV/AIDS in Burma, if left unaddressed, represented a glaring hole in regional strategies to combat it spread in the Asian region. As a result of the social needs in Burma and new donor funding windows some INGOs went in to explore the situation.[xxviii] This fact raises questions, which I won’t address here, about the converse situation of donor utilisation of INGOs as a tool of diplomacy.  INGO resources do come from different sources: donor governments, public contributions and from multilateral bodies like the UN.  INGOs in Burma draw upon all three sources and it can be expected that the source can and does influence their decision to do a project and the tenor of that project.


Burma Programs:


The UN agencies in Burma are far more important in scale and level of funding that INGOs. UN agencies, such as United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), World Health Organisation (WHO), World Food Program (WFP) and United Nations Development Program  (UNDP) are taking a lead roles in development, in the areas of:

·        water supply and sanitation

·        primary education

·        refugee repatriation

·        HIV/AIDS

·        health and nutrition


The issue of how UN agencies operate in Burma warrants far more analysis. The funds that INGOs deal with is paltry in comparison to UN agencies (and small in comparison to funds provided to INGOs in emergency situation in Somalia and Sudan), and critics of INGOs should bear this in mind. Bodies such as UNICEF provide the bulk of the funds for the Burmese Government’s education and health programs as nearly the entire Government of Burma health and education budgets goes towards salaries, with little or nothing left for maintenance, and program development. UNDP operations differ from many other country operations as under UNDP Governing Council Resolution 93/21 it must work outside government structures and at the grass roots level (and it remains to be seen how successfully they can do this), while other UN bodies work closely with the Ministry of Health; Basic Education and Social Welfare. These UN bodies, acting on the macro level of management and assessment, are increasingly  looking to INGOs to act as implementing bodies for development programs at a community level.


The program focuses of INGOs are varied but often originate in a response to the health situation and a snapshot of a few of the activities of just five INGOS gives a sense of the health needs in Burma. Many have  focused on maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS programming. For example, WVM has worked with the Ministry of Health in an Urban Integrated Health Project, assessing needs in urban community (Hlainghtaya Myothit) which was forcibly relocated in the late 1980s.[xxix] WVM claims success in developing community outreach services through the Myanmar Maternal Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) for children under five. This type of assessment is important in building up a picture of needs in communities that hitherto have been undocumented. WVM utilise Participatory Learning and Action survey techniques to build a community map of knowledge and needs.[xxx] WVM has focused on HIV/AIDS counselling and prevention awareness building and works with communities, township medical officers and MMCWA in targeting high risk groups like commercial sex workers, truck drivers and fishermen in areas such as urban relocated communities, and cross border trading routes to Thailand: Kwathaung/ Ranong in Southern Burma, Tachilek/Mai Sai, Myawaddy/Mae Sot and a new project in Kengtung in Shan state which will develop strategies and  networks to assist vulnerable communities to avoid entering sex work, and assist communities affected by HIV/AIDS.


The identification of the satellite town communities was also made by MSF Holland who run their own health clinics outside the government system in Rangoon, Arakan, Chin and Kachin state. MSF Holland focus on Primary health care, HIV/AIDS and STD education, Malaria control, treatment and research and tuberculosis control. MSF Holland rejects working with GONGOs.


The US based World Concern,[xxxi] is focusing on maternal and child health care in forty villages around Myitkyina and Waing Maw townships in Kachin state.[xxxii] World Concern works closely with the Kachin Baptist Convention as a partner and has local staff under a foreign director with a great deal of local knowledge. World Concern believe that their presence provides Kachin professionals with much needed resources and  latitude to work. World Concern, organises and distributes its own supplies without restriction. It aims at rural grass roots development with villages, which it believes is achievable with an emphasis on health education, childhood immunisations, early diagnosis and basic treatment. Many INGOs, like World Concern, found that Military Intelligence, District and Village Law and Order Restoration Council (DLORC and VLORC respectively) monitoring of their projects, while close at first, has decreased (but not disappeared) as time progressed.


CARE  Australia established a presence in 1993 and has a small staff overseen by an expatriate manager. CARE’s focus has been on HIV/AIDS in conjunction with the UNDP, the National Aids Program and local NGOs. Additional projects have been research on the sexual behaviour of street children and youths in Rangoon and a Community Forest Project, under UNHCR mandate in Arakan State. CARE will focus in future in developing what it calls “micro integrated development”, village level interventions based on community priorities which take in a variety of health strategies, agro-forestry, pest management, income generation activities, watershed management, management of natural forests. CARE is interested in working with local NGOs and building their capacity and funds several local NGO projects such as the YWCA street kids drop-in centre in Dawpon. It does not feel that the government encourages such contact except with the GONGOs,  MMCWA and  Myanmar Red Cross - with both of whom CARE also works.[xxxiii]


Association Francois Xavier Bagnoud (AFXB) was working on HIV/AIDS awareness with  Burmese sex workers in Thailand and moved into Burma in 1995 to set up skills development programs with returned sex workers so they could find alternative employment. They employ locally engaged staff and have an expatriate manager who visits from Thailand regularly.


Problems and Practicalities


Most INGOs wishing to operate in Burma must have an agreement with the SLORC. The exceptions are Red Cross country branches, which can sign directly with Myanmar Red Cross, and a few agencies, which went into Arakan State under the UNHCR, mandate for the Rohingya repatriation. The SLORC does not encourage this latter model however.


Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) allow INGOs to operate inside Burma and are generally the result of lengthy and frustrating negotiations with Government ministries, such as the Ministry of Health. There is no central body for MOUs.  INGOs must approach the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) made up of senior SLORC officers, such as Lt.Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary of the SLORC and Head of Military Intelligence and  Gen. Than Shwe, Prime Minister and Chief of Defence for the penultimate decision, before final approval is given by Cabinet. INGOs must have a representative from a ministry make their case to the committee. By the nature of authority in Burma, it helps to have good, sympathetic contacts within the government to facilitate the process. Because of the personalised nature of governmental rule, there is a degree of  “capriciousness” and INGOs are dependent on whims of officials in this process and for the final decision. It helps, for example, to cultivate the favours of  Daw Khin Win Shwe, the Vice President of MMCWA and wife of  Khin Nyunt. Khin Nyunt personally intervened on behalf of one INGO ordered out in 1997, and in doing so overruled the Minister of Health One agency noted that,


The top leaders in Government are constantly reassessing the roles of NGOs in Myanmar and any organisation operating in country must therefore be adaptive and have a high tolerance for ambiguity.[xxxiv]


One agency noted that there appeared to be a de-facto, two stage process developing:


1.      being permitted to register a presence in Burma, establishing an office, fax license, hiring local staff and then a delay, sometimes between 12 - 24 months, before projects or MOUs could  be undertaken, while SLORC observes the agency;

2.      finally the MOU process of negotiation takes place with the relevant ministries and approval by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Some INGOs now believe that the MOU is not the outcome, but rather a letter of understanding which gives permission to operate.


Another agency noted that there seems to be a freeze on western INGOs; two had been rejected from obtaining MOUs in 1996 and the Government had a preference for Asian INGOs which were considered more politically quiescent. The Ministry of Health has now five years experience in dealing with INGOs and is generally on side with project proposals. However, the Ministry of Health is relatively low in the SLORC’s pecking order, as are other non-income generating ministries, such as Basic Education, and Social Welfare that INGOs commonly want to work with. 


MOUs are relatively standard umbrella documents, which generally state the following:





Memorandums of Understanding


·        permission to establish a presence in Burma and permission to open an office;

·        a government ministry (generally the Ministry of Health) is named to act as an NGO counterpart and assist with visas, IDD telephone lines, clearance of importation of equipment and supplies, internal transport, establishment of a bank account and any other assistance;

·        the counterpart ministry will help with liaison with other government ministries;

·        each NGO project will be implemented subject to a specific written project agreement with the Ministry of Health and be implemented though local authorities;

·        the ministry will grant the NGO the same kind of approvals enjoyed by other NGOs;

·        the NGO will be exempt from government taxes on imports of supplies and equipment, personnel effects and salaries for foreign staff;

·        NGO staff are allowed to use the local Kyat or FEC currency rate;

·        the NGO retains financial responsibility for the projects;

·        the NGO provides a annual report to the ministry;

·        the NGO will train local staff so projects are sustainable;

·        the NGO will develop the capacities of Burmese people and so will collaborate with local organisations; and

·        the NGO will undertake “..That its representative and personnel shall not interfere with the political and religious affairs of Myanmar and shall abide by the laws and regulations of Myanmar.”


These MOUs allow more latitude to the INGOs to branch out and undertake its own activities than in similar MOUS in countries like Vietnam. The last stipulation on political activity is obeyed by INGOs. In response to it, they generally instruct all staff to avoid attending NLD activities, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic weekend talks. Such unofficial discouragement has extended, until recently, to communication with Suu Kyi. The separation between public/work roles and private life does not exist in Burma and INGOs have fallen in with this culture by self monitoring all their actions so they will not be judged harshly by the SLORC. INGOS believed in 1996 that the SLORC viewed INGOs as having too much autonomy and was moving to control their independence. One agency wrote,


The government is highly concerned with control and internal security and is often extremely cautious about the purpose and presence of international NGOs. Therefor international NGOs.... who have chosen to work inside Myanmar have needed patience, perseverance and great care in order to operate in a way that does not compromise the necessary ethical standards, and quality of project implementation, in such a politically constrained context.[xxxv]


 Another NGO felt that INGOs had to work under a “cloak of caution”.  INGOs were:


...reluctant to meet with opposition parties and certain ethnic leaders because such meetings might jeopardise approval of projects, signing of MOUs, or permission to work in certain parts of the country (i.e.) the border areas...staff are cautious of what is said because it could be reported back to the SLORC.[xxxvi]


There was increasing surveillance and most INGOs have had all their mail opened. In 1997 two established INGOs were ordered to leave on the whim of the Minister of Health, but one was able to effectively lobby Khin Nyunt to have the order rescinded and the other continues to operate by having local staff ,and an expatriate enter on a tourist visa. The effect of this SLORC warning, will be to increase the sense of vulnerability for all INGOs and make them keep their heads down.


INGOs meet regularly on technical issues such as HIV/AIDS and have held monthly general information meetings. There are only a small number of INGOs in Burma compared to other countries in the region and the disparate sizes of INGOs and the varied areas and approaches to programming, on the surface level at least, haven’t leant themselves to inter-agency co-operation. Moreover, there is an apparent lack of solidarity amongst the INGO community. They did not (openly at least) rally to defend those INGOs who recently had their MOUs cancelled. Nor have they, as a group, advocated on the part of those INGOs who have been waiting for over two years to have their MOUs approved. Until recently, INGOs were reluctant to present the work that they were doing in Burma to international fora, lest they be criticised for their presence in Burma or the information they present, be used to attack the SLORC and jeopardise their work. They feel somewhat embattled by the other camp of Burma advocacy INGOs outside Burma. Earlier hopes for an increased flow of information from INGOs inside Burma about conditions inside have not born much fruit. This was particularly noticeable in 1996-7, with the lack of news about the recent floods and the fate of internally displaced people. While World Vision, MSF- Holland, and more recently CARE have participated in some Burma NGO meetings outside Burma, many other INGOs in Burma do not. Their absence is noticeable in international forums such as the Burma Donor’s Secretariat, which comprises agencies which are focused on the refugee situation in Burma’s neighbours, but who with much could be shared and learnt to both sides benefit. They do not attend the Thai based BBC information meetings (unless they are outgoing staff) because of its advocacy content. As a result of this gulf between INGOs inside and outside Burma, there is a lost opportunity to have dialogue and build up new a understanding, particularly on technical issues such as education or the crossborder nature of HIV/AIDS.


It is important to note that Burma-focused relief and development INGOs in Thailand do not criticise the Thai Government openly either, lest it jeopardise their ongoing presence and work with refugees, however they do have other discreet means of raising their concerns not available to their colleagues inside Burma. INGOs in Burma do not openly criticise the government for bearing the prime responsibility for bringing about the continuing decline in social and economic welfare. Most do not search for means to report on other human rights abuses such as torture, forced labour and persecution of the NLD, but this is not to say that it has not been attempted. INGOs argue that it is not in their primary mandate to do these things and secondly, by drawing attention to highly sensitive issues like forced labour or military expenditure, they will raise the ire of the SLORC and damage the viability of worthwhile programs. INGO workers in Burma concede that the work that they do is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of need, but all disagree strongly with the suggestion that nothing can be done, or that nothing should be attempted while the military remains in power.


INGOs claim that the SLORC has not made use of the INGOs’ presence for propaganda purposes.  Nevertheless, the risks are there, one NGO worker commented:


I was asked to accompany a team for the first training (in HIV/AIDS prevention) at Dawei, a coastal town in the south where foreigners rarely go. The opening ceremony was dominated by the regional SLORC commander and appeared State television that night. Subsequently I quietly avoided being seen or photographed in the company of high SLORC officials, though had to meet man officials in the course of the project work over the next year and a half. The training session went well.”


Moreover, the issue of aid being taken by the SLORC and sold on the black-market has not occurred to the extent feared because INGO’s concentrated their services in the area of training. Nevertheless, as one aid worker revealed small percentage of aid does go astray (in the order of 5%).  When Myanmar Red Cross entered a period of re-negotiation  with Australian Red Cross, the head of the MRC requested, and received, the hand over of vehicles owned by ARC.  Other allegations about misappropriation of funds by the Myanmar Red Cross have been made. Some parts of the government have taken advantage of the highly over-valued exchange rate (officially US$1: 6 Kyat, unofficially US$1:300 Kyat) to try and suck dollars out of INGOs. Those INGOs who have signed with the Ministry of Health operate on a local currency (Kyat) basis in all areas. But when it comes to paying for internal airfares and other transport, the Ministry of Transport has recently decided not recognise the Ministry of Health MOU and insists in payment in $US or the vastly overvalued Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). INGOs have not been successful negotiating around this lack of respect for their MOUs.


A related issue is that some INGOs consider themselves being treated rapaciously by Burmese who rent properties for offices and dwellings; exorbitant rents are the norm. Several INGO workers raised the issue of value for money: did the ratio of expenditure on running costs (particularly the long setting up time required) outweigh the relatively small expenditure on programs and the actual success of those programs? Another question raised by an INGO worker was about the depth of relationship and understanding that INGO personnel have with the Burmese communities when INGO offices and homes are located in the most expensive part of cities surrounded by senior military and government officials (and the homes of the NLD leaders).


Some INGOs state that the local Law and Order Restoration Councils initially watch their activities closely, but as time goes by this scrutiny is reduced. They can implement their programs as they wish and reach their targeted communities. Other INGO workers differ and maintain that the SLORC will allow nothing outside their control and want only INGO money and not their presence.  Sometimes the local representatives of government departments such as the District Medical Officer work closely with INGOs and assist with programming. In other cases, INGO training courses aimed at raising the awareness of the leadership of the Government controlled NGOs such as the Myanmar Maternal & Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) have been felt not to have produced a change in thinking or organisational culture. Initially such training entailed that INGOs were working with the better off in society. Membership of GONGOs requires a certain position and status in the community and some Burmese view those leading the GONGOS, eevn at a village level, as opportunists. Now, however, INGOs are more confident that they can target people genuinely interested in receiving training whether GONGO members or not.


GONGOs are often led by senior officials with military backgrounds or associations and their effectiveness seems to vary according to the personally of the individual in charge - they can be obstructionist, wind back programs, fail to start new ones, monopolise resources for their purposes, or deny the extent of social or health problems. Some Burmese informants believe that Myanmar Red Cross (MRC) is the most recalcitrant GONGO; MRC’s president (recently removed in the fallout from the creation the SPDC) halted meaningful programming on HIV/AIDS and insisted that staff participate in pro-SLORC Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) rallies. For this reason,  Australian Red Cross withdrew from its relationship with MRC in February 1997.


Some INGOs argue however, that at village and district level of GONGOs, ordinary members of MMWCA and Myanmar Red Cross have a high degree of enthusiasm and welcomed the training, resources and presence of  INGO programs. Another INGO noted that the Myanmar Medical Association, Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association and Myanmar Red Cross, while being criticised as being too close to the SLORC, were in the opinion of UN agencies and some other foreign INGOs worthwhile bodies to work with. They were, “...playing an increasingly important and innovative role in humanitarian assistance in Myanmar...(and)...As there are so few national NGOs in Myanmar, capacity building of these and if possible other NGOs would benefit INGO operations in country.”[xxxvii]


During 1994-95, UNICEF, World Vision and SCF-UK co-ordinated and organised a number of workshops for MMCWA to try and assist this process of understanding the nature of INGOs and strategic planning. One INGO noted:


The character of these GONGOs is often very different at the township or ward level from the central level. They can also vary greatly from one area to another, depending upon the individual members in each place.[xxxviii]


Another INGO concluded:


Like many future uncertainties in Myanmar it is not clear whether there is potential for any of these GONGOs to develop into more genuine local NGOs, although there may be signs that this could happen with MMCWA.[xxxix]


Opponents of INGO relationships with the government would urge that all programs target only the community. While it may be possible to operate in Rangoon with less official contact (after the MOU is signed), in rural areas it is a fact of life that the VLORC and DLORC will scrutinise community activities down to the “ten house bloc level” 


Importantly, INGOs create a protective umbrella for a few Burmese professionals, particularly in the field of health, to work with foreign staff to develop creative programs. INGOs see value in working with government bodies and suggest that the level of interaction with the Ministry of Health is slowly bringing about a change in culture where it becomes permissible for government health professionals to discuss issues such as HIV/AIDS and negotiate how the government can respond to public health issues. INGOs bring in valuable information to doctors, health workers and teachers, whose training can be very outmoded.


Some INGOs circumvent having much contact with the government and GONGOs by operating effectively through church communities. The evangelical nature of the churches is a reality as is the tremendous body of qualified and experienced people amongst their members who are working with communities and desperately want training and resources. It is common for funding arrangements to exist between local churches through international church networks. A possible drawback of funding church partners is that INGOs may lack a presence in the country, unless they negotiate a MOU, and do not have the capacity to fully initiate, monitor and evaluate programs and oversee the allocation of money. In relief situations, a proportion of INGO aid channelled through the churches, will be monopolised by the army for their  own “relief distribution” works. Church programs while sometimes bringing benefits to the whole community, may be focused on particular Christian groups and not target Burma’s 85% Buddhist majority. This is an area that needs further research.



The changing context


From 1993, a number of changes have occurred inside Burma which affect how INGOs approach Burma:


·         Aung San Suu Kyi was released in June 1995 and has made it known, unofficially, that she wants INGOs to talk with the NLD about their programs in Burma;

·        between 1989 and 1996, a majority of ethnic insurgent groups have made cease-fires with the SLORC and some have called for aid and development assistance;


I would like to examine the implications of these two changes.



The Democracy Movement:

In early 1996, the NLD position on UN development programs was put to the UNDP in a letter from Aung San Suu Kyi , in which she argued that the UNDP, as an agency of the UN which had passed successive resolutions calling for the SLORC to implement democratic reforms, should not be co-operating with the SLORC. Aung San Suu Kyi was critical of the way the implementation of UNDP projects were influenced by the local level military authorities, which excluded NLD supporters from local community bodies such as parent teacher associations. Similarly, she argued that training programs are filled with representative of  Township and Village level LORCs, MMCWA, UDSA, the civil services and other government related organisations. Where was the community (and NLD members) in these processes?


Aung San Suu Kyi made two recommendations to UNDP:


1.      humanitarian aid should reach the right people in the right way, it should not be reserved for those who stand in favour with the authorities -  a process which runs contrary to the promotion of justice;

2.      It is absolutely necessary for those providing humanitarian aid to work closely with the NLD - the duly elected representatives of the Burmese people.


As a result, UNDP are making more effort to be grass-roots in their development approach - they want INGOs to be implementing partners.


After Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the National League for Democracy (NLD) revived and began calling for dialogue with the SLORC. Earlier statements that there should be “no trade, aid or investment” with the SLORC remained, but there was an ambiguity on the issue of an INGO presence. Aung San Suu Kyi has subsequently made it clear that she wants INGOs to consult with the NLD. Indeed in 1996, the debate facing INGOs had become not so much one of whether they should be in Burma, but whether they should consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and explain their work to the democracy movement.  One INGO representative ruefully conceded that it easier for all INGOs when Aung San Suu Suu Kyi was imprisoned, as the issue of dealing with the opposition was not pertinent.


However many western embassies (but not the US embassy at the time of research) have advised INGOs not to risk discussion with the NLD, lest they lose their MOU or not be granted one. Agency staff are troubled by the issue, some feeling that they should explore ways of talking with the NLD, but others feeling that the risk is too high, one conversation with “The Lady” might cost them, and the communities they work amongst, their programs. One INGO representative argued that this would be a foolish strategy. Nevertheless a least three discreet INGO contacts with the NLD have been made and it seems clear that the NLD is eager to learn about development, INGO programming, how they access communities and how their relationship with the SLORC operates on the ground.


In the wake of the September and December 1996 crackdowns and blockading of University Avenue to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, the public lines of communications have become riskier than ever. Surprisingly,  because of censorship and poor communication, it is difficult for INGO staff to have a full picture of events inside Burma. Thanks to the media, those of us outside often have a better macro picture of events as they happen. The tendency of INGOs is to put their heads down - not unlike many Burmese, and not to unnecessarily draw attention to themselves and get on with their work and avoid the issue.


Nevertheless, there are important questions of ethical principle at stake. If INGOs claim to be impartial and have a MOU with a military dictatorship to work, to some extent, through its structures, then it is absolutely clear that they have made a political choice. Impartiality, if it is to be realised in these conditions, requires that INGOs should consult with all concerned stakeholders: the SLORC, the target community, and the elected leaders of the Burmese people. Secondly, INGOs in Burma have readily resorted to the powerful moral argument of people in need to justify their presence in Burma. A similar moral imperative presses upon them not to dodge the call of Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss their projects.  INGOs, as exponents of the value of improving human life and bringing about social change, do have the ethical responsibility to consider whether they support the democracy and respect for human rights as represented by the NLD and if they do, they must explore how to safely communicate with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD about their projects. Ignoring somebody of Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral stature, while pragmatic, is not ethically justifiable for organisations that have readily resorted to moral arguments of human need to justify their presence in Burma.


More broadly, INGOs must consider how their work facilitates what is the only real macro “development” in Burma in decades, the development of a democracy and human rights movement. Do INGOs support the vision for Burma articulated by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD? If so, how will INGOs work to support her?


INGO contact with the NLD can be explored creatively in the future through:

·        correspondence and discussion via third parties: embassies (some of whom have expressed their willingness to assist), Burmese close to the NLD, outside INGO envoys from peak bodies such as ICVA, NGO envoys from international agency branches who could enter Burma on tourist visas and visit the NLD discreetly;

·        discreet meetings with NLD Central Committee members or  the NLD Social Welfare Committee, perhaps under the protective umbrella of embassy staff's homes;

·        meet directly with Aung San Suu Kyi when conditions permit (as was possible between June '95 and September '96);

·        INGOs inside and outside of Burma could collaborate to organise a short briefing and training on development approaches by INGOs, for the NLD. Such training could be organised outside Burma and presented by third party INGO personnel who enter on tourist visas and who are not ostensibly linked to those inside.



Ethnic Minorities


The second issue of change in Burma is the advent of cease-fires with ethnic insurgent

Groups. [xl]This needs to be considered, not just by those agencies inside Burma, but those opponents of aid outside Burma who have chosen not to hear the calls of ethnic groups (particularly non-insurgent organised ethnic peoples) for direct aid and development.  Since 1989, when the SLORC took tactical advantage of the mutiny in the old Burma Communist Party to make a cease-fire with its ethnic Wa cadres, the trend has been towards cease-fires. Currently all the major ethnic groups except for the Karen National Union and the Rohingya Liberation Front, have made cease-fires with the SLORC (the KNPP cease-fire fell apart in June 1996). While these fall far short of political settlements and many ethnic grievances remain, they are a modus vivendi, recognition by ethnic leaderships that their peoples were exhausted from years of warfare. The guerrilla struggle was becoming increasingly untenable as the regional geopolitical situation changed; Burma's neighbours, particularly China and Thailand, switched from various forms of ideological and material support for the ethnic insurgents, to more lucrative bilateral arrangements with the new outward looking, military junta.


The most significant shift was the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) taking its 8000 troops into cease-fire in early 1994, causing considerable angst in the opposition ethnic/democracy grouping, the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). As a result, the priorities for the KIO have changed. The Central Committee of the KIO issued a statement in August 1994:


The current cease-fire agreement between the KIO and SLORC provides for an accelerated rate of infrastructure and economic development in Kachin State and adjoining sub-State. In as much as the SLORC has assumed responsibility for the development of the country, it is incumbent on each nationality to undertake its respective regions (sic) -economic growth and overall advancement. Should local resources prove inadequate, the KIO will seek any avenue of assistance including outside help where available. The KIO urges SLORC to facilitate access to any and all who wish to actively help and participate in this urgent effort in much the same degree of urgency that the KIO has begun to solicit support from private, governments and NGOs from within and abroad.[xli]


It is clear that the KIO is calling for INGO assistance and that they expect to have to develop their region themselves, not with aid from SLORC, but with SLORC facilitating outside assistance.


With the Mon cease-fire made in early 1996, the NMSP echoed the call of the Kachin for assistance. Similarly, Karenni community leaders have called for development assistance lest their people resort to opium growing in the relative drug free state.  In the light of these calls, I think that the position that INGOs should not be in Burma at all becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. While individual agencies may chose to work with ethnic groups on the borders and provided necessarily limited cross-border assistance; to reach groups in the heart of Burma to do substantial projects, it is more germane to negotiate a MOU with the SLORC. Nevertheless, access to border areas is extremely difficult - a MOU is necessary not just with the Ministry of Health, for instance, but also an agreement with the Ministry of Border Area Development which has refused to allow access to INGOs so far.  Arakan state has been the exception because of UNHCR’s presence and INGOs in that state work under the UNHCR mandate. Some INGOs have lobbied SLORC Secretary 1, Khin Nyunt for access to the Eastern border, but even after months of representations, the Border Ministry has refused this. It is also clear that Khin Nyunt is not going to spend his political capital with other Generals on assisting INGOs. INGO representations with the Foreign Affairs Committee will remain critical for any agency seeking to work in cease-fire territory.


Ethnic Refugees


The time for working with refugees, in conventional camp settings is running out in Bangladesh, China - and in the not so distant future, in Thailand. The end of warfare does not mean safety for returnees. I have written elsewhere about the problems of un-monitored repatriation of refugees and the short sightedness of the tacit acceptance of repatriations back into conditions - namely forced labour and military persecution, from which refugees originally sought to flee.[xlii] Nevertheless, on the Western border with Bangladesh, the human need is no longer in the refugee camps, but with the repatriated communities inside Burma in Arakan state.


 In the past three years approximately 262 000 refugees have been repatriated back into Burma - 240 000 Rohingya from Bangladesh under UNHCR auspices in 1994-7, 10 000 Kachin from China, in an un-monitored process by the KIO in 1994-5 and 12 000 Mon in 1996, in an un-monitored arrangement between the insurgent leadership of the New Mon State Party, the SLORC and the Thai National Security Council.


Officially, around 115 000 Karen, Karenni and Shan refugees remain in Thailand, and additionally there are possibly half a million  to a million “illegal immigrants” who have fled fighting and poverty along the border regions into Thailand. While the refugee flows continue, there is increasing pressure on the KNU to strike a cease-fire with the SLORC and the Thai Government will have no hesitation in repatriating refugees in camps as soon as convenient. Thai policy is to refuse refugees entry to camps on the basis that there is no fighting in Burma and it is safe to return. Other reasons for flight are not acknowledged. As a result, around 9000 refugees have been kept in a parlous position on the borderline.  The future for the Karen refugees in the camps is unclear. Will Thai policy force them to be repatriated after a cease-fire is made with a splinter group of the KNU? And if so, how quickly? UNHCR had no mandate to protect the refugees in Thailand, and INGOs while providing a huge and crucial effort in advocacy for refugee protection are not currently organised to monitor the safety of a repatriation. Moreover this should not be their role - it is the proper role for UNHCR.


There are immense problems facing those who will be repatriated - their safety is particularly jeopardised by the high degree of militarisation in the border regions and the sustainability of communities is further threatened by a lack of resources for rebuilding their communities in the short term. In the future, INGOs seeking to establish work with Burmese will need to consider more carefully which side of the border they are to establish themselves on. Currently INGOs can access those refugees in the sliver of territory held by the New Mon State Party with food and some medical and education assistance.  However is this sustainable for the long term? Secondly it would not be safe to assume that because the SLORC allowed the NMSP some territory which INGOs can access (with the knowledge of the Thais), that the same situation will eventuate for the 95 000 Karen on the border. The SLORC may be particularly resistant to Thai Border INGOs having a cross border role servicing repatriated Karen. In addition there is no KNU territory that the Karen will be able to return to, it is all under SLORC control. The new reality is that the Burmese army controls more of the territory along the border with Thailand than at any other time in Burma’s fifty years of independence.


Another question for INGOs is whether they can they ameliorate, by their presence, the oppressive condition for repatriated communities on the Burmese side of the borders. Some have argued that some moderation of SLORC persecution of the Rohingya has occurred in Arakan State because of the foreign NGO and UN presence. The problem is that there is nothing systematic about INGO presence and protection. Nevertheless, if  INGOs have signed a MOU to work inside Burma, they may be in a better position to access repatriated communities, if and when the SLORC decides to allow access to them. Others argue that it is highly dangerous to assume that because any INGO has a presence in a particular state or region, that this provides protection. The argument that INGOs should focus purely on the refugee situation on the borders misses the plight of internally displaced people inside (sometimes assessed as up to one million). The local churches in Burma are struggling to get assistance to internally displaced people in Karenni (Kayah) and Shan states and deserve more INGO resourcing. 


But this is not the whole picture. Opportunities are yet to be fully explored in providing cross border training and resources for ethnic community and health workers currently in Thailand who can carry their skills back into Burma. The Thai-Burma border has little meaning, as a barrier, for the people who have crossed it repeatedly for generations. In the future, while repatriated communities might be contained on the Burmese side, the safety, the relationships and networks and sheer practicality of reaching services and opportunities on the Thai side will mean that ethnic and refugees communities will turn to Thailand rather than to Rangoon for assistance. Therefore, mobile health teams based out of Dr Cynthia’s clinic in Mae Sot, will continue to be trained in Thai language, as they will continue to have to deal with Thai medical services for many years to come, even if they are based inside Burma. Why should ethnic groups bother trying to access non-existent medical equipment, medicines and training though a hostile Government in Rangoon, when the same can be obtained though Thai hospitals, INGOs based in Thailand or shops in Kanchanaburi or Mae Sot? This reality highlights the irrelevance and unnecessary constraint that current donor prohibitions on cross border assistance place on community development with ethnic peoples (Thai elasticity on this issue not withstanding). Nation states respect borders as a diplomatic imperative - people on the Thai-Burma border and Bangladesh borders ignore this sovereign artifice when their survival is at stake.


Education and health development work is possible with the refugees in Thailand and the opportunities for surreptitious cross “border” assistance remains.  A question hangs over the effectiveness of conducting training in insurgent based social welfare organisations, when the overarching body may be in danger of collapse (e.g. KNU) or not place a real priority on areas such as education or health. INGOs seeking to provide cross-border assistance will have to resign themselves to necessarily limited programs working in small pockets of territory and if they are publicly associated with refugee advocacy, they will probably be black-banned by the SLORC from working inside Burma. Nevertheless the human need along the border areas remains immense. The areas of potential with Burmese communities whether recognised displaced people, illegal displaced people or migrant labourers are in community development in education, health worker training, and capacity building of local organisations, particularly in the area of democratic management and structures and advocacy. There are clear limitations in distributing supplies such as medicines and equipment across into Burma.  The law of diminishing returns prevails for distributing and monitoring large scale supplies, the further inside health workers and other community workers have to go to reach their targeted populations. The question for the future needs to be asked: is this sustainable community development or merely a continuation of relief assistance, with all the attendant problems of dependency?


INGOs in Burma - a holistic approach:

INGOs inside Burma could think more about the overall social movement for change in Burma and how their work relates to it. Areas to be explored further include:


·         INGO support for embryonic civil society groups

·        INGO exploration of human rights

·        INGOs could adopt an overarching model for social change and development in Burma, which incorporates social, economic and political development and focuses on empowerment of communities.


Civil society

An essential problem facing  INGOs in Burma is the lack of civil society. It is a problem in the limited range of local partners to work with; many INGOs work with the same GONGOs; and it is a problem in how to develop strategies which facilitate the strengthening of thinking which underpins civil society. The political scientist and Burma expert, David Steinberg observes:


Since 1962, the military has destroyed civil society in Burma. There has been an obvious systematic, and successful effort to control, co-opt, or eliminate any organisation that had potential for societal influence beyond those at the most local level - village or ward Buddhist temples. Those few private organisations that were allowed to exist in the BSPP era became essentially parastatal in nature. Although under the current regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), there is a far wider range of ostensibly private organisations and private political parties are titularly allowed to exist, there are none that escape government surveillance and control....In a sense, the SLORC has attempted to recreate civil society in its own manner while suppressing alternative possibilities.[xliii]


On this basis, I strongly suggest that INGOs do not formally work with GONGOS – USDA, MMCWA, MMA, and MRC. INGOs have also found the extensive network provided by these GONGOS attractive as a means of disseminating information; extensive networks are one of the few features of the Burmese military state that do work well. I concede that some people in these organisations are good people who are members because they are already recognised community leaders. However, by formally working with these bodies, particularly USDA, INGOs tacitly support and strengthen the control of state structures over the community and at the expense of weaker local INGOs and church and Buddhist sangha networks. This is particularly dangerous in the case of USDA which is a toll of the army and the future political party for the military. No INGO, that cares about human rights, should be endorsing this body. While practicality requires that INGOs may and will have to draw upon GONGOs personnel for training's in the future, this should always be on an individual basis and never at the institutional level. INGOs should focus their energies on assisting the already well trained personnel in weaker bodies such as the YMCA, Myanmar Council of Churches and others. While INGOs will lose some opportunities in terms of the reach of GONGOs, it is afar better outcome that INGOs attention and resources be focused on  grassroots level of communities where they are not organised by parastatal structures where they can experiment with processes that favour civil society.


Human rights

The struggle to achieve comprehensive development and respect for human rights in Burma requires that both humanitarian relief, community development and advocacy be undertaken. Tolerance on both sides of the NGO debate is needed, for all share one commonality  - nobody wishes to see the army's rule perpetuated. One of the arguments advanced INGOs not working in Burma is the SLORC’s record of human rights abuse. All too often however, it is forgotten that human rights are upheld in the UN system as being indivisible, inalienable and universal. If we take the principle of indivisibility seriously - that economic, social and cultural rights are as important as civil and political rights, then we should concede that bodies that specialise in improving economic and social human rights do have a role in operating inside Burma. They may differ in their style from those bodies that focus on advocacy around civil and political human right abuses but it is an equally important  and needed role. Focusing on one set of people's needs cannot be at the expense of ignoring others; there is a need for all INGOs, development and advocacy, to acknowledge their different but complimentary work.

What is possible from development INGOs inside Burma is more interest in examining options for indirectly facilitating improvement of civil and political human rights.  I think this requires development INGOs to more actively educate themselves on the linkages between development and human rights and how this is executed in practice, rather than just making the assertion (as many do) that because their work is concentrated in the economic and social sphere that they are necessarily improving human rights. I believe that many development INGOs could fruitfully explore how human rights might be more substantially articulated in programming. There is a trend in OECD donor governments to promote human rights through development assistance; INGOs need to embrace this trend and make it their own. All to often, governments focus on good governance and institutional capacity building when they talk about human rights; INGOs bring to this area experience and intellectual energy to the promotion of human rights at a grassroots' level.


However, some analysts remain sceptical of attempts at grassroots’ approaches under authoritarian governments. Phillip Alston, the Chair of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights argues:


Participation, in my view, has always been a euphemism for civil and political rights and it has troubled me because it has never been given any precise content by those who use it with reckless abandon in the development debate. Very often it is only applied to the micro level. It is quite unrealistic to pretend that in a country which is fundamentally authoritarian, an agency is going to come in and be able to run a project in a totally participatory manner. This would guarantee a draconian response from the government. Additionally, the communities with which we are often concerned in these contexts are the very ones which have a limited capacity to participate.[xliv]


Alston argues that the only viable path is support for human rights advocacy:


This leads us back to the need to undertake traditional human rights activities if anything is to be done in order to support those groups, which are seeking to promote development at the local and national levels. It gets us back to the need to support and perhaps protect those groups which begin to acquire the power and influence to, not oppose, but rather act as counterweights to the otherwise unchecked power of government.[xlv]


In this context of  having a more explicit human rights focus, there are opportunities for INGOS operating in Burma to explore the following


·        Conduct regional training and workshops for their staff (not just in Burma) on the major human rights instruments and on how the principles contained in the human rights treaties translate in development.  For example, the Norwegian branch of Save the Children Fund (SCF) network, Radda Barrnan, has taken a lead role amongst the SCF agencies in promoting the principles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child;

·        INGOs based in Burma could contribute funds from other country branches or home locations, to support the human rights advocacy of advocacy INGOs outside Burma;

·        conduct information work on conditions in Burma and advocacy through their international branches and partnerships;

·        there is scope for improved communications between development INGOs and  advocacy based INGOs outside Burma via encrypted e-mail (using the PGP method which SLORC cannot crack). INGOs in Burma could potentially be a valuable confidential source of  human rights information;

·        In country staff could read advocacy information services e.g. Burmanet, on PGP encrypted network;

·         As development INGOs possess a humanitarian mandate, they may be able to develop a reporting system which records needs and violations of social and economic human rights and raise concerns about needs and violations in areas such as children’s rights, where children are often used as forced labour, or compelled to be child soldiers (in ethnic armies too) or denied education because of ethnic origin. They could supply this information through their international arms or third party agencies to UN bodies - UNHCR, ILO, UN Committee on Human Rights, Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, etc;

·        They could discreetly visit and participate, consult and share information with forums which are attended by advocacy based NGO networks such as the Burma Donor’s Secretariat and the BBC meetings or form a new forum combining all of them.


INGOs in Burma are unique as their presence allows them to adopt a position of  “witnessing" the suffering of Burmese and informing the world about it. Many of the activities listed above are encompassed by this concept of witnessing. Witnessing has been practised by INGOs in Rwanda and the southern Sudan. It is relevant in countries where there is a concealment of information by the government, official sources of information cannot be trusted and there is a need for speedy and accurate reporting of  suffering and abuses. It is a political act and does require an assessment of risk and a high level of co-operation amongst agencies. It works well when the information can be shared and distributed in a protective coalition of INGOs. With the Sudan crisis, INGOs based in Nairobi acted as witnesses through the Association in the Relief of Southern Sudan. The BBC and CCSDPT perform a similar function for Burma in Bangkok. The practical issue might be how agencies in Burma get information to the BBC and CCSDPT in a confidential manner. Encrypted email is one method, passing on material via those travelling to Bangkok is another . The oppressive conditions in Burma are similar to Rwanda and Sudan and INGOs should consider incorporating witnessing into their rationales for their presence. For INGOs on the inside to do this, there will have to be more tolerance by outside INGOs of the constraints they work under and a new appreciation that any information provided must absolutely protect the source. 




If civil society is to be nurtured in Burma it is crucial for INGOs to initiate development strategies which foster independent thinking and democratic structures and management in the communities that they target, including their INGO local staff. Notions of heirachy need to be broken down and alternative models based on equality explored. An essential role that INGOs can and have played in other countries is breaking through community lethargy engendered by institutional oppression.  INGOs can  foster confidence in communities to tackle their issues and problems themselves. Undertaking education activities with communities is the key for INGOs to making the transition from humanitarian relief to community development. It is possible (and INGOs are increasingly looking at doing so now) to work more at a village level, with less input from the state, with loose knit community networks based around special interests e.g. building a well, foresters, fishermen, and women's health. INGOs are exploring how these groups can be brought together (e.g. for Participatory Action Research) and maintained and worked with.


In working with these communities INGOs need to adopt a broad body of principles on what community development should mean in the Burmese context. While the term "empowerment" cannot be openly, this must be the outcome of the processes of development .At the grassroots level it is worth bearing in mind the framework of M.D. Anisur Rahman, the developer of Participatory Action Research:


Empowerment: There is, indeed, no escape from this question...A qualitative element of empowerment is control over economic resources; but progress in this matter is by itself no indication of enhanced social power of the underprivileged to assert their developmental aspirations and their freedom to take initiatives for their self development.[xlvi]


More broadly, Rahman argues that development should seek to empower at a societal level and must embody the following principles:[xlvii]


·        It must promote human dignity and ameliorate abuses of the powerful against others on the basis of economic status, ethnic origin, colour caste etc.

·        social development must  progress towards genuine popular democracy - “a system whereby the broad masses of the people have an effective voice in there shaping of macro policy and the conduct of public affairs”;

·        Cultural diversity requires that a developing society encourages the authentic development of peoples cultures: “ interact with each other for mutual enrichment rather than for domination  Rahaman argues that social development, “...necessarily implies people’s development at the grass roots, for otherwise only an abstract concept, e.g. the nation state, may be promoted.”


Again, if development INGOs see this model as a desirable long-term outcome of their work, it should be an argument for development INGOs to consider during their evaluation of their projects whether there is any progress towards these goals. If there is a clear increase in SLORC restrictions on INGOs promoting these values for the long term, then perhaps the INGOs should be reconsider their presence in Burma or they should withdraw to providing purely humanitarian relief services.


I suggest that this holistic approach to human rights and development in Burma will not come quickly or easily, but it should not be shirked, as it is relates to fundamental questions of how we seek to “do development.” There needs to be a lot more discussion of the constraints and opportunities for development in Burma, beyond the few issues flagged in this paper. Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasised the crucial importance of dialogue and it is also in the NGO debate where this is required between all parties.






[i] SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council in ovemebr 1997. Because of the historical perspetive of this paper, I will refer to SLORC throughout.

[ii] Action Contre la Faim (ACF); Australian Red Cross (withdrew feb ’97); The Association of Medical Doctors of Asia for Better Quality Life for a Better Future (AMDA); Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA); Association Francois Xavier Bagnoud (AFXB);  Bridge Asia (Japan) (BAJ); CARE Myanmar; Groups de Recherche et Dechanges Technologiques (GRET); Marie Stopes International;  Medicines du Monde (MdM); Mediciens Sans Frontieres (MSF-Holland;  OISCA International; Population Services International (PSI); Save the Children Fund UK; Save the Children USA; PACT; World Concern; World Vision Myanmar.

[iii] David C. Kortens, Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda, West Hartford, 1990, pp 114 -123.

[iv] Mike Crooke, “Development Dilemmas: Understanding the difficulties of practical altruism" ACFOA development issues 1, August 1997, p.9.

[v]Confidential NGO report #1

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.p121.

[viii] Ibid. P.124.

[ix]Moreover the struggle of Burma’s democrats has Burma’s strengthened the nascent democracy movement which has been emerging in SE Asia in the past two decades in Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and most recently Indonesia.

[x]Evidence of the democracy movements evolving status as comparing it with civilian protest in Burma prior to 1988 can see a social movement. Intense but localised student and worker protests against the dictatorship of General Ne Win in 1962, 1963, 1974-76 and 1987, failed to attract mass civilian support and rarely made more than the news summaries in the global media. Even the massive 1988 pro-democracy uprising which encompassed far more towns and people than similar student led protests in China, the following year, was received by the world with surprise and little media coverage, so used, was the world to the lack of information and isolation of Burma.

[xi] Reported under the title “Burma - a new test case for the UN" in The Nation (Thailand), 30/3/92.   See also ICVA [International Council of Voluntary Agencies] Mission to Burma Report, Canberra, 1993, p.7; and paper presented at Oxford in December 1991, by UNICEF Director, Rolf Carriere, “Responding to Myanmar’s silent emergency: the urgent case for international humanitarian relief and development assistance.”

[xii] Also the Executive Director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA),

[xiii] ICVA, op cit, pp.7-8.

[xiv] Bid, pp.22-28.

[xv] Ibid.pp.55-59.

[xvi]  Ibid. Pp.53-4.

[xvii] ACFOA, Burma: The Silent Emergency - The Report of a Conference held in Sydney on 28 May 1993, 1993.

[xviii] Ibid, for their respective speeches see, pp.4-8, and pp.9-16.

[xix] Maise Warburton, Response to the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) Report “Mission to Burma- The Resumption of Aid to Burma, 1993.

[xx] ACFOA, Silent Emergency, op cit, pp.23-26.

[xxi] Ibid. P.24.

[xxii] Ibid. Pp.27-30.

[xxiii] Ibid. p.30.

[xxiv] In 1995, ACFOA established a Burma project in its Human Rights Office in Melbourne, which convened several forums on the role for agencies inside Burma, however, its focus is primarily on human rights advocacy. See the following ACFOA Burma project publications:

(a) Repatriation of Burmese Refugees from Thailand and Bangladesh,  March 1996;

(b) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the SLORC and initiatives for Burma’s future, April 1996;

(c) Slave Labour in Burma: an Examination of the SLORC’s Forced Labour Polices , May 1996;

(d) Holidays in Burma [pros and cons of tourism], November 1996; and

(e) Human Rights Abuse in Burmese Prisons by Win Naing Oo, December 1996.

[xxv] Similarly, ACFOA and the Australia Burma Council held a symposium on Burma at Parliament House in October 1995, which was almost entirely focused on the political situation, and the one workshop on HIV/AIDS, elicited strong community opposition to INGOs working inside Burma. See ACFOA, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. the SLORC and initiatives for Burma’s Future: seminar proceedings,  April 1996, pp. 64-5.

[xxvi] National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Office of the Prime Minister, Humanitarian and Political Intervention in Burma, undated.

[xxvii] Burma NGO Forum, Operational Strategies for Australian NGOs in Burma  Working Draft as at 30 June 1995.   Burma Peace Foundation, Caveats, Cautions and Stringent Conditions (On the Suggestion that NGOs should go into Burma) October 1995.

[xxviii] WVA funded a HIV/AIDS Project Co-ordinator under the broader work of World Vision Myanmar; Tear Australia directed funds to the US NGO, World Concern in Kachin State; ARC worked in partner- ship with Myanmar Red Cross until March 1997.

[xxix] Francis McConville, Final Report: A Rapid Participatory Assessment of the health needs of women and their children in an Urban Poor Area of Myanmar, April-June 1995, World Vision Myanmar. The project identified developing the skills of existing networks of doctors and indigenous medical practitioners and other health carers.

[xxx] World Vision Myanmar, Participatory Learning and Action: Record of Yangon Workshop, 1996.

[xxxi] Interview with World Concern, September 1996.

[xxxii] UNICEF, “National and International NGOs in Myanmar.” January 1996.

[xxxiii] Mekong Committee Meeting March 1996, Burma NGO Community Meeting, May 1996.

[xxxiv] Confidential, Australian NGO report #2.

[xxxv]Confidential NGO report # 2.

[xxxvi] Confidential Australian NGO report.

[xxxvii] Confidential, Australian NGO report #1.

[xxxviii]Ibid. P.16.

[xxxix]Ibid. P.16.

[xl] Martin Smith, “Humanitarian and Development Aid to Burma,”  Burma Debate, July/August 1994, pp.16-21.

[xli] KIO Central Committee, Standing Commitment, 10/8/94.

[xlii] ACFOA, Repatriation, op cit.

[xliii] David Steinberg, “The Union Solidarity Development Association: Mobilisation and orthodoxy in Myanmar” in Burma Debate, Jan/Feb 1997.

[xliv] Philip Alston, “The rights framework and development assistance,” in Development Bulletin 34, August 1995, pp.9-12.


[xlvi] M.D. Anisur Rahman, Peoples Self-Development: perspectives on Participatory Action Research, Dhaka 1993,pp.205-211.

[xlvii]Ibid. pp.210-11.


This paper is one of four presented at the conference 'Strengthening Civil Society in Burma. Possibilities and Dilemmas for International NGOs' organised by the Transnational Institute and the Burma Centrum Nederland on December 4 and 5, 1997 in the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam.