(Commentary) – For many decades, the Burmese Army was engaged in constant military attacks against civilian populations in Karen, Karenni and Shan states. Every year tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes because of these attacks and human rights abuses by the Burmese Army.
In this time, millions of people were temporarily or permanently displaced from their homes. We will never know how many of those displaced people died in the mountains and jungles, from hunger, from injuries, or disease.
What we do know is that many of those lives could have been saved if they had received humanitarian aid. Truth, justice and accountability have not been included in the current top-down reform process taking place in Burma.
If these issues are ever included in the process, the blocking of humanitarian aid by the Burmese government, and the failure of the international community to take action in response to that, must be included.
With the failure of the international community to act to help internally displaced people in ethnic regions, one of the most remarkable things about our struggle was how local communities organised themselves to help each other.
Community-based organisations and political organisations set up committees, projects and non-governmental organisations to provide desperately needed assistance. Every year these organisations helped more than a million people with healthcare, food or education. They did this with hardly any assistance from international donors, and at a fraction of the cost that the United Nations or international NGOs would have spent.
At the same time, these community-based organisations were building the capacity of local communities, something international donors were attempting to do via regime approved NGOs, but with great difficulty.
These community groups also did something that others did not, they documented human rights abuses. Without them, most people would never know about the serious human rights abuses that have taken place. These abuses are so serious that the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma said they should be investigated as possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite the amazing work by such community groups, many international donors were reluctant to fund them, for fear of upsetting the dictatorship; they preferred to give large grants to the UN and international agencies which had official permission to work in Burma.
Now with the prospect of cease-fires and peace in some ethnic states, international donors are suddenly desperate to pump huge amounts of money into Karen, Karenni and Shan states. How many lives could have been saved if they had been willing to do this ten, twenty or thirty years ago?
This new aid is very welcome, but while various groups are now willing to provide funding at last, one thing doesn’t seem to have changed, the lack of understanding of the work, or in some cases bias against, many community-based groups.
In Karen, Karenni and Shan states there are already well developed and established community- based networks providing a range of health, education and others services. It is local people who organise and operate these networks. They know best what the problems are, what the needs are, and how to provide for them. What they need is funding and support to scale up these networks and programmes. These are the kind of networks that development officials are always saying they want to support. It is effective, it builds domestic capacity, and it’s much cheaper than externally provided assistance.
You might think the international community would be relived and delighted that these networks already exist, that they don’t have to start from scratch and can build their programmes on these already existing networks. Such an approach would ensure the right aid gets to the right people much faster than it would otherwise.
However, sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead of massively boosting funding for these local networks, funding is actually being cut. For people supported by these groups, unfortunately, the prospect of peace has meant less aid and more suffering.
A number of factors have led local communities to be concerned about how new peace funds will be distributed.
These include the choice of people involved in running the peace fund, the number of Burmese business people attending peace negotiations, and the concern that internationally funded NGOs are coming into ethnic states and imposing what they think is best. Anyone who knows about politics in Burma will know how quickly these issues and others can grow to become major problems, resulting in a well-meant initiatives failing to deliver on the ground, and money being less effective.
If the international community genuinely wants to help people in ethnic states, they should also listen to the local communities and organisations directly, rather than only relying on foreign experts and consultants. They should support and build existing networks, not impose new ones on communities.
As ethnic people, we have been struggling for decades for a level of autonomy in order to protect our people and to run our affairs the way we see best. In our years of struggle, we have shown we can achieve amazing things against the greatest odds.
After so many decades of conflict and suffering we need international assistance, but that assistance should be based on the priorities of local communities, not the political agendas of the military-backed government and the international community.
Zoya Phan is campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK. She has published an autobiography, Little Daughter.