It has been almost a decade since Myanmar first began its much touted path towards democratic transition and yet, grave human rights violations and political oppression against ethnic communities remain the same, or even worse as the country for the first time is brought before the International Court of Justice for genocide committed against the Rohingya. Despite all the tragedies that have taken place over the past years in the country, the community-based organizations and service providers working along the border and in ethnic areas continue to suffer funding crisis, being pressured by international donors to work with the government inside the country, while their voices and concerns regarding instability and vulnerability to security risk for operating in the country continue to be ignored. It is high time that we begin to question where “do no harm” principles lie, in particular with regards to international donors who continue to cut funding towards ethnic service providers, despite the shrinking democratic and civil society space in Myanmar.
On 24 January 2020, the Karen Teacher Working Group (KTWG) announced that they are facing 80% funding cuts starting 1 June 2020. The funding cut came from their key partner, Myanmar Education Consortium (MEC), which first intended to support their work until at least December 2020, with an extension until March 2021. MEC is hosted by Save the Children and supported by DFAT (Australia) and DFID (UK) with DANIDA according to their website. Though the MEC unexpectedly informed them about this devastating change in December last year, it took a lot of thought for KTWG to publicly express grave concerns over the potential collapse of the Karen Education System and take action to call for international partners to reconsider funding cuts. This announcement has brought sorrow to the Karen community who have relied on the Karen Education System to provide Karen mother tongue-based education to many ethnic Karen children for 25 years, including to those who have fled armed conflict.
Since 2011 when Myanmar opened up to the international community, many Thailand-Myanmar border-based organizations working with ethnic communities, refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as those who have worked to promote democracy, conducted human rights documentation and advocated for human rights for decades, have been pressured to move inside the country by international donors despite the ongoing armed conflict and human rights violations, particularly in ethnic areas. It has become the common struggle for those organizations along the border to maintain resources for their activities as international donors have shifted their funding inside the country. At the same time, these organizations have been closely monitoring the ceasefire situation between ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military and they are fully aware that there is no sustainable progress with the ongoing ceasefire agreement, which has remained one of their major concerns. Echoing these concerns, Saw Kholo Htoo, Deputy Director of KTWG stated, “[International NGOs] tell us to work inside the country. But we told them that the KNU [Karen National Union] is involved in peace negotiations with the government and they do not have a peace agreement yet, so we cannot trust the government.” Needless to say, the international donors continue to disregard such voices and concerns.
Similar funding struggles were also faced by border-based health care providers such as Mae Tao Clinic (MTC), a community based organization working along the Thailand-Myanmar border for over 30 years. In recent years, funding cuts have caused MTC to significantly reduce their services like offering referral to advanced level care for all the patients who require it. Dr. Cynthia Maung, founder of MTC stated, “In the past … we could refer all patients who required advanced level care, but right now, we cannot.” MTC staff have also endured salary cuts due to the reduction in funding. While the clinic continues to operate at 75% of its previous budget, their service remains indispensable to the refugee and migrant community along the border.
The border-based local organizations are not the only ones raising concerns about the lack of security and deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar. Amnesty International also highlighted “serious human rights violations, including war crimes, in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States” in their recent review of the human rights situation in Myanmar. Likewise, Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar stated, “…how could I be optimistic with ongoing credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide having been committed in Myanmar, and with justice and accountability still not yet within reach?” There is no excuse for international donors to be ignorant about the grave human rights concerns that continue to be documented and raised internationally by ethnic community-based service providers and human rights organizations based along the border.
Before it is too late, now is the time for international donors to reconsider their approach to funding and fully be aware of the ground realities in order to distinguish between harmful and positive ways of supporting ethnic communities, especially while working with the government for humanitarian aid and other development issues in Myanmar. This precipitous funding situation for KTWG and the Mae Tao Clinic should ring alarm bells to the international donors that cutting down funding to border-based organizations as well as cross-border aid and to channel the funding through the central government in Naypyidaw will not serve or empower the disenfranchised and marginalized ethnic communities living in and around the border. Presumably, this will not contribute towards fulfilling the aspirations and decades long struggle of ethnic nationality communities for federal democracy that guarantees their equality and protects their rights. Instead it will aid to further consolidate the centralized system of Burmanization that will further hamper the rights of marginalized ethnic communities in Myanmar.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR)
By European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights
By International Court of Justice (ICJ)
By International Karen Organization (IKO)
By Kachin National Organization
By Kayan Women’s Organization
By Ta’ang Students and Youth Union
By The European Union
By ALTSEAN Burma
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”