The New Phase of International Cooperation: The Arena of NGOs in Myanmar

The historical development of Myanmar is magnificent. With the democratic development in Myanmar, the Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) in Myanmar thrive and have created their arena.

There are various types of NGOs in Myanmar with different philosophies, and they must stand on a broader land other than its arena – dealing with both the governments and enterprises.  

In recent years, China has inevitably reached out in contact with NGOs in Myanmar. Now that China has stepped into the arena, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of the NGOs in Myanmar.

Undulating Development, and Stumbling Growth

After a military coup in 1962, Myanmar became a highly centralized state, limiting the development of NGOs. After that, the development of NGOs in Myanmar can be roughly divided into three stages. 

Almost no NGO was founded in Myanmar from 1962 to 1988, and there were no conditions and incentives for international NGOs to set up branches in Myanmar. Also, there was a lack of policy supports – international NGOs could only gain legitimacy if they are registered under the Myanmar Companies Law before 1990. 

Disaster in Myanmar (Photo by The United Nation)

After the occurrence of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, many international NGOs poured into Myanmar delivering humanitarian aid, which has pushed for the development of NGOs in Myanmar. A report highlighted that “NGOs can avoid inefficiency caused by bureaucratic decision-making procedures, and meanwhile, they can establish relatively smooth communicative channels with local communities, which is crucial in disaster rescue. Before the disaster, there were only less than ten NGOs in Myanmar, but there were more than one hundred NGOs after.” Since 2010, with liberty and freedom upheld by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the restriction on NGOs activities was gradually loosened .

In 2016, NLD was officially elected as the new government. Nevertheless, those NGOs that held different political views were restricted by the government. The development of NGOs in Myanmar was once again impeded.

The 2017 Myanmar National Situation Report indicated that “There are 812 active NGOs nationwide, and 242 of them are international NGO.” Among them, Myanmar has more local NGOs than international NGOs. Besides, considering that some NGOs are registered as enterprises, the actual number of NGOs in Myanmar is more than the number of registered.

 The NGOs in Myanmar are mainly involved in the fields related to human rights and humanitarian assistance, protection of women and children’s rights, education, peace promotion, hygiene and health, environment and wildlife conservation, and economic development of people’s livelihood.

Although the number of NGOs in Myanmar is high, their efficiency and capacity are varied. The development of NGOs in Myanmar was primarily driven by aids and donations, which leads to low efficiency and the lack of development experience in actual operation.

Moreover, the registration process is not easy. Firstly, international NGOs need to get the permission from the relevant government department, and sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU). Then, the NGOs have to be investigated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The registration process often lasts one to two years of negotiation on average. Besides, local NGOs in Myanmar also need the endorsement of government departments to register successfully. Therefore, a large number of local NGOs are registered in Myanmar in the form of enterprises.

In this research, we visited NGOs in Myanmar that had achieved remarkable success in forestry, business, and equality, so that we were able to understand the situation and development of Myanmar NGOs from a smaller scale.  

 Ecosystem Conservation and Community Development Initiative (Referred to as ECCDI)

——Retired Forestry Official’s Dream of Forest Conservation

 In a residential area in the suburb of Rangoon, walking along an rough sandy road, you can see a row of short buildings with slightly brighter colors at the end of the road. Entering through a narrow gate and walking up along those narrow stairs, you will find a plate labeled “ECCDI.” Here is the office of a local NGO in Myanmar.

In November 2006, five elderly people in their fifties gave up the comfortable retirement life and decided to do fieldwork and make the world better. They founded ECCDI with the belief that “the people of the country can live better.” On the one hand, they continued to devote themselves to forestry protection research and published several related reports and articles. Their “Myanmar Community Forestry: Progress and Potential” fills in the knowledge gaps in community forestry development. On the other hand, they are not just the armchair generals making empty talks, but instead took actions and did the hard job in the field. They taught local farmers scientific breeding techniques and replaced the past practice of destroying forests in exchange for economic development with alternative production. Usually, their project cycle lasts one to two years, including project implementation, feedback, and return visits. 

Photo with the founders of ECCDI

In 2016, ECCDI partnered with the Global Environment Institute from China and three other local NGOs in Myanmar, to promote the Community Conservation Concession Agreement (CCCA) across four provinces and sixteen local communities. CCCA aligns economic values with environmental values to ensure the replicability and continuity of the agreement. It has already benefited 15783 people. Besides, ECCDI has been funded by the British Embassy and WWF to launch projects multiple times.

Forest is the cradle of Myanmar. ECCDI not only brings forests back to Myanmar, but also makes Burmese reap economic benefits while protecting forests.

Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB)

——The British Ambassador Came Back to Myanmar to Support the Country’s Business Development  

There have been quite a few active Facebook communities in Myanmar, and one of them is particularly eye-catching.

Whenever there are new social issues and hot news in Myanmar, people will always suggest: “Go ask for Viki’s advice.”— Viki Buman, the founder of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. Although she is from the UK, she is very active in discussions in various communities, and she has a high level of credibility and authority in her words.

Photo with staff from MCRB

 Viki served as the British Ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006 and married a Burmese artist. She founded the Myanmar Center for Corporate Responsibility (MCRB) in an unofficial capacity. Even though the MCRB is a registered corporate, it operates as an NGO. By monitoring business development, MCRB promotes the development of sustainable business and protects human rights and the environment.

 Conducting sector-wide Impact Assessment is one of the main tasks of MCRB. To reduce the negative impact caused by their businesses, after finishing a social impact assessment of a particular business field, MCRB will publish a report and provide suggestions for the government, enterprises, and other stakeholders. They have already done assessments on the gas industry, tourism industry, information and communication technology industry, and mining industry.

Another main task of MCRB involves publishing annual corporate transparency reports. Because of Viki’s strong influence in Myanmar, the reports can effectively influence the investors’ decisions and urge companies to increase transparency. 

Vicki’s objectivity and behavior style is the key to MCRB’s credibility. As a prominent diplomat, Viki uses her diplomatic skills to communicate with multiple parties, assist the government, enterprises, and civil society to understand each other, and promote the sustainable development of Myanmar.  

Joint Peace Fund (JPF)

——Global Peace Is Never Just An Empty Talk: International NGOs Help Myanmar’s Peace Process

In all sovereign countries in today’s world, the internal peace issues usually belong to the internal affairs in which the external forces are rarely involved. Nevertheless, an international NGO can still push for the peace process in Myanmar where the political situation is rather unstable.

Director of Strategy and Consulting of JPF, Dr. Sean Deely, introduced the purpose and mode of operation of the organization as follows:

 JPF was founded in 2015. As of 2019, it had received donations from over ten EU countries. Japan had also joined the JPF as the only Asian member. Since the peace process is led by the government, we are involved in the process indirectly by focusing on supporting conflict management, coordinating dialogue and negotiation, and promoting civil people and community’s participation and information transparency of public participation in the peace process.

Behind the process of seeking peace is a game of multiple forces. Between the firm and hard-line government and the civilian armed groups gathering in the shadows, many voices are ignored and much information is hidden. Therefore, it is difficult for the public to understand the peace process, leading to the lack of popular support, and making it difficult to advance peace-making.

It is essential to understand the people’s need for peace before promoting the progress toward peace. Supporting the masses is as important as helping the government. JPF respects and supports the need for peace from all sectors of society, but it is not easy to hear people’s voices and speak for them. Hence, JPF focuses on two major groups, the young and the women, hoping to speak out for peace through them. Through JPF’s collaborative projects with other NGOs, youth and women can gain a better understanding of the causes and status of conflicts, look at them more rationally and objectively, and will contribute to the national peace process spontaneously. 

Open Development Myanmar (ODM)

——Improve Information Transparency with Data to Make the World a Better Place

In 2016, the American NGO Freedom House released its annual report and categorized Myanmar’s Internet freedom as “Not free.”  Besides, cell phones are expensive in Myanmar, with the price of one phone equivalent to eight months of a worker’s salary. Various reasons have resulted in limited information freedom and slow social development. The emergence of Open Development Myanmar (ODM) has brought freedom to Myanmar’s information society.

Photo with staff from ODM

The core of ODM is to collect and verify public information that needs to be shared on the public platform and eventually provide reliable data for media, scholars, and others in need.

ODM is a disseminator of data as it obtains official data from the government and transmits the data to the public. Meanwhile, ODM is also the data exchanger as it enables people to share data on the platforms after stringent reviews.  

“This website and the ideas behind it are brilliant,” commented a media outlet. Indeed, Myanmar urgently needs such a data platform. ODM not only simply provides data, but also encourages people to share data, and thereby promotes openness and transparency of data, builds a healthy and sustainable data system, and ultimately facilitates the development of Myanmar society.

Friendships between Chinese and Burmese

— Unpredictable Relationships Between Local NGOs and China

 In recent years, the movements of some Myanmar NGOs have had some influence on Chinese investment in Myanmar, and the most famous one being the Myitsone Hydropower Station incident. The civil protests organized by NGOs have long been regarded as one of the important reasons for the shutdown of the Myitsone Hydropower Station, and it causes many Chinese companies wary of Myanmar NGOs.

“For us, NGO is more like a sabotage than a helpful organization,” said Ms. Zhang, who came to Myanmar for work in 2014 and worked in a Chinese invested textile factory for five years. In her view, NGOs are similar to a labor unions. Once their factory is “penetrated”, the factory will be negatively impacted. When asked if she would like to meet members from NGO, she firmly refused, “No, No. Why would I want to meet them?”

But for NGOs in Myanmar, China is a concern that cannot be avoided. In recent years, China’s large-scale investment in Myanmar has become a heated topic for NGOs.

 As an important business partner of Myanmar, China is the focus of Myanmar’s Sustainable Business Center (MCRB).

 Compared with other countries, Chinese companies bear more risks.”

 Vicky Buman pointed out that since Chinese companies prefer to invest in labor-intensive infrastructure projects, which are more likely to cause friction with the local community, it’s more important for them to undertake social responsibility.

While confrontation often exists, Chinese NGOs have long been involved in Myanmar and strive to eliminate misunderstandings and promote dialogues. For example, the Global Resources Institute (GEI) and the Office of Poverty Alleviation Foundation have cooperated with local NGOs in Myanmar and made a great contribution to improve the relationships between NGOs in Myanmar and Chinese companies. 

Launch Ceremony CFPA’s Myanmar Office and Paukphaw Shcolarship Project (Photo by CFPA)

It is tough to enter the arena of NGOs, and it is even more difficult to stand out in the arena. However, the pioneers have left their footprints on the path. As for the way for China to gain a foothold in the turbulent world of NGOs in Myanmar, it requires more patience and sincerity, a more rigorous strategic approach, and more demand-based efforts.

Written by Li Minghui, Pi Jin, Tu Shipei, Xue Shirui, Zheng Lingqian

Translated by Alley

Original ariticle from China Development Brief

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