Submission from Burma Campaign UK: International Development Committee Inquiry – DFID’s country programme in Burma and Bangladesh

1 . Burma Campaign UK has been working for human rights, democracy and development in Burma since 1991.

2. Executive Summary

  • DFID grants in Burma are largely inaccessible for smaller NGOs, especially organisations with a focus on human rights and which are more outspoken in their criticism of the Burmese government and military. Most civil society organisations that Burma Campaign UK works with receive no DFID funding.
  • Despite increased overall aid to Burma, and substantial pledges to support the peace process, victims of past and present conflicts appear to be abandoned by donors. This has led to funding shortfalls, especially for refugees being internally displaced in Burma’s ethnic states, who are now facing a choice between starving or moving back to areas that are not secure.
  • The military led by Min Aung Hlaing, and the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, have imposed restrictions on aid in Kachin and Shan States, where many people are displaced by the ongoing armed conflict. The British government has not prioritised or been effective in challenging these restrictions.
  • British aid to Burma needs to be completely re-evaluated based on the reality that Burma is not in a transition to democracy, the military are an obstacle, not a partner in reform, and that the Aung San Suu Kyi led government does not respect human rights.

    3. Small grass-roots groups struggle to access funding Smaller, community-based organisations struggle to secure DFID funding. The grants available are usually large, and require high levels of expertise and technical aid knowledge in order to be accessed. These are skills and expertise that smaller, local groups usually do not have. But without funding, they cannot increase their capacity. This makes smaller organisations that work close to people in remote areas chronically underfunded and results in the most marginalised groups struggling even to raise awareness of the humanitarian, development and human rights problems they face, let alone start to address them.

    4. Burma Campaign UK seeks to amplify the voices of grassroots civil society organisations from communities in and from Burma which face human rights violations, particularly marginalised communities, largely ethnic and religious minorities. Most organisations that Burma Campaign UK has worked with which do advocacy on human rights and development in Burma do not receive any DFID funding. As well as the lack of accessible funds for smaller organisations, there seems to be an apparent preference not to fund outspoken organisations critical of the Burmese government and military.

    5. Unfortunately, during Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership arrests of journalists and activists have continued, and there are around 100 political prisoners in jail. Repressive laws remain in place. This makes it all the more important to financially support groups that challenge this and who bravely advocate for change.

    6. During the years of direct military rule, ethnic civil society organisations in remote areas performed astounding work delivering services, documenting human rights violations, and representing their communities, all with extremely low resources. Since reforms began, the approach of donors, including DFID, has not been to invest in and help these grassroots organisations to grow and share skills with civil society in the rest of the country, but rather to fund Rangoon based civil society and international agencies or UN bodies to work in these areas, duplicating and replacing structures and systems already in place. These civil society organisations are also usually much more outspoken on the root causes of problems in their communities than Rangoon based organisations or international aid agencies.

    7. Refugees and internally displaced people left behind 10 years ago, in July 2007, the International Development Committee published a report into DFID aid to Burma(https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmintdev/645/64503.htm). In the report, the IDC strongly recommended that some DFID aid should be distributed cross-border, to reach internally displaced people (IDPs) in Burma that could not be reached from within the country, and that local organisations in ethnic areas should be supported for their emergency work, but also as providers of health care and education. The report also recommended a coordinated support of refugees along the Thai-Burma border.

    8. DFID did implement many of the recommendations in the report but as DFID staff said at the time to several people in Rangoon: “We only do as much as we think we have to, to avoid more pressure from Burma Campaign UK.” Much of the half-hearted support given to border based organisations for people in ethnic states is now being withdrawn, despite the increased DFID budget for Burma and despite the need still being there.

    9. Although the political situation has changed in Burma in the last ten years, even where there have been new ceasefires, the situation remains insecure. There is increased Burmese military presence in ceasefire areas. The NLD-led government has continued with the peace process established by former general President Thein Sein, which appeared to be designed more to placate the international community and neutralise ethnic opposition than achieve a genuine political solution. The peace process is struggling and even if negotiations between the government and ethnic groups do result in a compromise, the process is then likely to be derailed by strict conditions set by the military. These conditions are unacceptable to ethnic people. Any long termpeace agreement will require constitutional change, which under current conditions would be vetoed by the military.

    10. Despite the lack of security for IDPs and refugees to return, donors have been withdrawing funds for IDPs and refugees, and the organisations which support them. Refugees in camps in Thailand say they feel that although donors’ official position is that return must be voluntary, in practice they feel that donors are effectively starving them back to Burma through lack of funding. This approach has implications for the Rohingya refugee crisis where donors’ interest may wane and Rohingya face the same pressure to return despite official positions being return must be voluntary.

    11. In September 2017, Burma Campaign UK, supporting ethnic Shan and Karen groups, highlighted that 9,000 IDPs in Karen and Shan States were at risk from aid cuts by international donors, and called on DFID to bridge the funding gap until a long term funding solution could be found. The IDPs, some of which had lived in the jungle for ten years, were at risk of being forced to move back to areas that would not be safe for them to return to because of the presence of the Burmese army and landmines, and have no proper support to re-establish their lives, homes, farms and businesses. DFID has not replied to our request or to the many emails they have received from our supporters.

    12. In Kachin and Shan States, aid has been restricted to IDP camps that are in areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the KIO, by the military and the Burmese government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese government has not been sufficiently challenged by international donors, including the British government, on this policy of denying aid to people who live in dire circumstances and are in great need of help and support.

    13. With so much of the world’s attention and aid being focused on the Rohingya at the moment, there is a risk that other areas of Burma suffer as a result, and that people in need do not get the aid that they need.

    14. Review of DFID aid and action needed DFID’s general approach to Burma has been based on the false presumption that Burma is undergoing a transition to democracy, and needs support for this transition. This has never been the case. The transition has been one of direct military rule to a hybrid political system designed to preserve military power and interests while alleviating domestic and international pressure. The 2008 military drafted constitution is not democratic and cannot be changed without agreement from the military, something which will not be forthcoming unless they face sustained domestic and international pressure. It is time to stop treating the military as partners in a transition and recognise them as the obstacles to it.

    15. At the same time, we also have to come to terms with the fact that the civilian part of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi is not one which respects human rights. Of course there are a great many problems which will take a long time to resolve, but there are also many things that could be done quickly which would have a big impact. This includes releasing political prisoners, repealing repressive laws, and allowing freedom of expression.  Aung San Suu Kyi has even chosen to keep Lahpai Gam in jail, despite the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stating his detention is illegal under international law.  Freedom of expression is declining under the NLD-led government. Careful consideration now needs to be given to what, if any, support the government of Burma should be given, taking into account its human rights record. This should include considerations of whether financial support which assists, even though not going directly to the government, should be redirected to civil society.

    16. When asked in Parliament about aid restrictions in Kachin and Shan state, government ministers have said that the British government has called for these restrictions to be lifted (see for example answer to WPQ 59957 and WPQ 60443). However, these calls have had no effect and no further action has been taken, allowing things to continue as before. DFID needs to develop a clear strategy on how to achieve aid access for vulnerable people across Burma.

    17. The British government is not using its position as a large and influential donor to Burma to press for humanitarian access where such is restricted. While supporting projects that the Burmese government are keen to have funded, such as parliamentary training, the British government is not pushing for aid access in other areas to be granted. Humanitarian aid should not be cancelled, nor should Burmese people be deprived of their needs, but there are potentially other programs requested by the government of Burma that could be looked at to see where the British government has some leverage to push for change.

    18. There is a lack of transparency about exactly where DFID money is being spent and on what, and who the end recipients are. Ethnic organisations in particular are concerned that they repeatedly hear of sums of millions or even tens of millions of dollars, pounds or euros being pledged toward the peace process but cannot find out where all this money is going, and receive very little support themselves. This reinforces the impression that donors have a bias towards the ethnically Burman dominated central government, following their agenda, rather than acting neutrally.

    19. More aid should also be available for smaller grass-roots, ethnic organisations who work do vital advocacy work on human rights and development. This is increasingly important, as the space for journalists and activists is again decreasing in Burma and when activists and journalists continue to be arrested and jailed.

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