NGOs in Burma:"No-Good Outsiders"?
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
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NGOs in Burma:"No-Good Outsiders"?


By The Irrawaddy MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3


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What can you learn from visiting the office of a foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) in Rangoon, capital of one of the world’s most repressed nations? Not much, unless you happen to catch somebody eating lunch in their garden. Like all foreigners, representatives of humanitarian organizations are regarded with the utmost suspicion by Burma’s military regime. Offices are invariably under surveillance by the Military Intelligence Services (MIS), a fact that makes a certain degree of paranoia on the part of NGOs seem merely prudent. Visitors are greeted politely if somewhat apprehensively by Burmese staff before a foreigner appears ready to answer impertinent questions about what it’s like to work under (but not for) a regime with a horrendous record for human rights violations. To be fair, most of the people I spoke with were surprisingly open considering the circumstances. But they could not be expected to venture a comment on whether the government was part of the solution, or part of the problem. The exception to this general rule was the director of a European NGO who happened to be outside having lunch when I appeared unannounced at his compound. While he insisted that his project was not particularly "sensitive," since it did not take his organization into areas of widespread human rights abuses, his description of mismanagement in the medical sector made it clear that overt oppression was not the regime’s only crime against its own population. "Everything is fake," he said, citing the example of a medicine cabinet full of expired drugs used for display during official visits. The doctor in charge explained that if he had used the drugs on his patients, he would have had to replace them out of his own pocket. Doctors are so poorly paid that none can afford to live without taking on outside jobs. Meanwhile, military men without medical training hold most senior positions at hospitals. A very different assessment of the regime’s performance came from a representative of an Asian NGO, whose view of the political environment in the country was, "We take it as natural." Educated at a British university, she said she regarded democracy as something that takes time to achieve. "We are not here to change the government," she maintained, adding that she sometimes questioned the motives of NGOs that were overly critical of the junta. She declined to comment on a remark made by the European NGO director, who concluded after several years of working in the country that genuine development work was impossible under the present regime. Asked about her own experiences working under the regime, she replied after some hesitation, "I would like to say more, but . . . maybe someone is listening."

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