Who’s Aiding Who?
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 23, 2018


Who’s Aiding Who?

By The Irrawaddy JULY, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.6

After meeting with visiting Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi in Rangoon this past August, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi softened her stance by announcing that she now welcomes foreign aid. She developed a first-hand understanding of the suffering of the Burmese people and the country’s need for aid after receiving the green light to travel upcountry. Upon visiting military-sponsored projects in central Burma, Suu Kyi and top party leaders also developed sympathies for some local government staffers working genuinely for the betterment of the country, according to observers. As a politician, Suu Kyi may see the aid issue as an opportunity to improve relations between the junta and NLD. Local observers even suggest that discussing financial assistance could provide the starting point for substantive political dialogue. In the final analysis, however, fundamental and institutional change must be the goal, not handouts to compensate for the generals’ greed and incompetence. The generals may be quietly delighted at Suu Kyi’s fresh policy approach toward financial assistance from Japan, Burma’s largest foreign aid donor. But her endorsement is firmly based on conditions that aid is monitored with "transparency and accountability and independent monitoring"—qualities the regime has scarcely demonstrated for over 40 years. And, almost certainly, Suu Kyi and the generals are in fundamental conflict over what foreign aid should ultimately achieve. For the generals, whose economic mismanagement has turned the country into one of the world’s poorest, foreign aid is an end in itself; by getting everybody on the charitable bandwagon, they know that they can extend their tenure in power. Prospective donors should consider that the junta’s pocketbook is still deep enough to shell out US $450,000 for the services of a Washington-based public relations firm to improve its negative image abroad, and to spend almost half of the national budget on new weapons—money that could be better spent on HIV/AIDS testing or malnourished children. Aid can also increase opportunities for corruption among officials and perhaps even among Burmese opposition forces in the future. During the Gen Ne Win regime, Burma received a considerable amount of Japanese and Western aid, but the socialist government poorly managed this largesse, choosing to line their own pockets instead. Japan suspended all but a small amount of humanitarian aid to Burma after the military stained its hands with blood in 1988. The decision to resume funding in 1994 was contentious in the West and among Burmese dissidents in exile, and Japan’s most recent aid-for-reform strategy is no less controversial. Aid adversaries argue that it is inappropriate to deal with military rulers who have shown little sign of relaxing their grip on power and entering into substantive political dialogue with democracy forces. a recent statement issued by the Shan Women’s Association Network (Swan) called for donors to withhold financial assistance until the move towards democratic reform in Burma is irreversible. In June, SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation jointly released the report, "License to Rape", which documents human rights abuses committed by Burmese troops in Shan State. The military government predictably denied the report’s findings in a statement: "International organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the NGOs and the UNDCP are visiting Shan State during their official tours.... If the reports on the rape cases were real, these organizations would have heard about them. But these organizations said nothing about the rape cases." SWAN shot back with a statement announcing it was "appalled as the junta is now using the international aid agencies working in Shan State as a shield to hide their sexual crimes against ethnic Shan women". There is no guarantee that the junta won’t continue to use aid agencies as a shield, as they pull out all the stops to prolong their military dictatorship. Instead of "bribing" the generals with financial assistance in return for political reform, donor countries and private agencies should focus efforts on long-term projects that lead to structural change. Does the anticipated inflow of cash mean that Burma will soon be flooded with four-wheel drive Pajeros and Land Cruisers bearing the logos of Japanese aid agencies? Perhaps not. But it is na?ve to hope that foreign aid alone will solve Burma’s enduring social ills and political conflicts.

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