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NGOs remain concerned about Myanmar reforms

Acknowledge progress but say they will proceed cautiously

  • Karen Star, Chiang Mai
  • Thailand
  • November 21, 2011
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It has been a year since the general election that brought in a nominally civilian government in Myanmar.

Since then we have seen some positive developments.

The country is more open, many political prisoners have been released, and several months ago, President Thein Sein invited the Myanmar people in exile to return home. He also invited ethnic groups to cease-fire talks.

Moreover, the Chinese-financed Irrawaddy Myitsone hydroelectric dam project in Kachin state, northern Myanmar, was recently suspended.

Community-based organizations and NGOs have studied the possible environmental impact of this project and have been campaigning against it for a long time.

It therefore seems this is the first time in many decades that each government ministry is exercising its mandate without taking orders from the military, though top military leaders are still very influential.

It is very brave of Thein Sein to take these measures.

Pressure from the international community is not the main reason Myanmar is beginning to open up. The main reason is internal.

A military dictatorship cannot be sustained. The younger generation within the government and the military, the “small fish,” cannot bear any more the authoritative ways of the elders, the “big fish.”

Another factor is that Myanmar wants improved relations with its ASEAN neighbors, as it has been isolated due to sanctions from the West.

Myanmar people have dignity and consider it loss of face to be seen as depending solely on China’s support. They don’t want to be seen as China’s “little brother” any more. Therefore there is internal pressure to be seen as a good member of ASEAN.

Their efforts so far seem to have been successful, and this is reflected in the approval last week in Jakarta for Myanmar to chair ASEAN and host its next summit in 2014.

For the many NGOs working on Myanmar issues, both in and outside the country, this means we have more space to work. We are getting more recognition, though there are still a huge number of NGOs waiting for approval to work there.

Because the country is opening up, funding agencies are now giving priority to NGOs based in Myanmar itself rather than those doing “cross-border” work – those based in Thailand and other countries. This is due to their “Burma engagement” policy as well the policies of Western governments who support the agencies.

This move has advantages and disadvantages. The benefit is that NGOs are given more recognition by the Myanmar government, and can do more work and negotiate directly with it. The danger is that the government can exert control over the NGOs.

The government keeps an eye on the NGOs inside Myanmar all the time and their work has to follow strictly what has been specified.

For me, it is too early for NGOs to be taking this step of direct engagement. It can be problematic.

There are still armed conflicts in many areas of the country, the very places that NGOs need to be working.

These conflicts should be resolved to some extent first.

This is because an NGO might reach an agreement with the government to work in an outlying area, but that area might be controlled by an ethnic army rather than the authorities.

In any case, working with NGOs is not a government priority right now.

The new government has to deal with so many urgent matters. After 50 years of military dictatorship and deep-rooted corruption, it has to restructure the way it works.

It is now considering how to work with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party said last week it would re-register to run in upcoming by-elections.

The armed ethnic conflicts that have been going on for 50 years need to be dealt with. These are not going to be resolved in an instant.

We therefore have to tread very carefully. The military is watching how far people will go in this present climate. If there are protests here and there, for instance, and things look like getting out of hand, the military can always stage a coup and return to power.

Karen Star is a pseudonym for the coordinator for the Myanmar desk of an international Church-linked humanitarian agency that works with 15 NGOs and community–based organizations in Myanmar dealing with health and livelihood issues, as well as supporting refugees across the border in Thailand
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