Wednesday, January 16, 2008,
The international community has united in condemning the Burmese military government but financial assistance to fund pro-democracy and civil society groups remains limited, activists say.
Since the early 1990s, funding agencies from Western countries have provided annual grants and other funds for Burma’s democracy movement, particularly the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute, the Danish Burma Committee of Denmark and the Norway-based Norwegian Burma Committee (NBC).
However, most international donors underestimated the democracy movement and opposition groups in Burma and along the border, Nyo Ohn Myint, the head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
He said many international NGOs and foreign experts who work on Burma issues miscalculated the democracy movement and were ill-prepared for a civil uprising like that in September 2007.
“NGOs that could influence donors at the international level thought Burma’s democracy movement was going nowhere (before the monk-led uprising),” he said.
“So they (NGOs and Burma experts) recommended that donors not increase grants to political campaign groups that could shape the political landscape to perhaps remove the regime.”
He said NGO workers can not think like government officials on Burma issues.
During the “Saffron Revolution” in September, several dissident groups based on the Thai border faced serious funding shortages, he said. Worse still, no emergency funds were available to border pro-democracy groups that have connections with activists and monks inside Burma.
“Donors should rethink how to provide funds to democracy movements in an effective way,” said Nyo Ohn Myint, who fled Burma after the bloody crackdown in 1988.
He said grants and funding provided by international organizations were usually small.
“It makes us ‘mission impossible’ (to achieve change),” he said.
The exiled National Council of Union of Burma which includes several key ethnic leaders received US $20,000 from a Western donor for “inside political work,” he said.
He asked, “How can we do inside movement work with this amount?”
Some political groups formed by activists and dissidents have channeled funds and other assistance to inside Burma, but they have never publicly acknowledged their work.
During the crisis, some activists inside Burma said they could accomplish more if they had much needed assistance. In the past, some prominent activists were arrested simply because they could not afford transportation fees or money to rent a safe place to hide.
Aung Moe Zaw, the leader of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), said a few international funding agencies are interested in providing assistance to Burma’s fragile democracy movement.
“But we need more aid for the democracy movement,” he said. “I mean not just money alone, but also other capacity building assistance.”
He praised the Washington-based NED of giving support to the movement.
“The NED is the only one that openly supports our democracy movement,” the said. The DPNS receives grants from NED.
The NED provided more than US $3 million to Burmese dissident groups, civil society groups and Burmese media groups in exile in its 2006 annual budget.
Burmese dissidents say, however, the amount of aid to the movement is small and lacks a long-term plan and consistency.
Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said money and international assistance is essential during a critical period.
“We need to make sure there are funds available during a time of crisis,” he said, referring to the September uprising.
Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and the co-founder of the AAPP in Mae Sot opposite Myawaddy, said grants provided by international groups to the Burma movement are less than the value of a missile (dropped on Iraq).
Comparing the West’s funding of democracy-building projects around the world, particularly in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said, “We just receive pocket change.”
A prominent activist who is involved in political training in Burma agreed that grants are inadequate.
“If we want to see change in Burma, these small grants won’t make any significant change,” he said. He requested anonymity because he wants to maintain a good relationship with donors.
Activists point to the military regime’s investment to maintain and prolong military rule.
“Look at how much money they (military rulers) spend to run the military machine,” said Bo Kyi.
UN reports estimate the regime spends more than 40 percent of the national budget on the military.
The armed forces budget has increased over the past decade.