Due to all the positive media attention that Thein Sein and his government have received, there is a spreading belief among international donors that Burma is soon to be a free and peaceful country. Whilst ceasefire agreements have indeed been signed with several ethnic armed groups, these ceasefires remain fragile and unpredictable, the peace process has stalled, fighting rages on in Kachin and Shan States, human rights violations continue, around 400,000 remain internally displaced in southeast Burma, and 110,000 still reside in refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border.
International donors have, however, recently been pouring resources into central Burma without considering the needs that local CBOs on the Thailand-Burma border have been addressing for decades. Regrettably, much of this funding increase has come at a cost for ethnic organisations along the border (Naw Noreen, July, 2013; Saw Yan Naing, May, 2012). According to Kevin Malseed, program manager for the Canadian social justice organisation, Inter Pares, “Cutting off assistance to border-based and cross-border groups to channel aid only through Rangoon would throw away the positive results of 20 years of support (Saw Yan Naing, May, 2012).” He added that “it is extremely naïve and counterproductive to drop cross-border aid and initiatives to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in Rangoon.’ ” With several aid organisations and nations cutting support to organisations based along the Thailand-Burma border, nearly everyone on the border has been affected. The work of ethnic and government-critical organisations has been severely hampered, and the people on the border increasingly silenced.
Widespread cuts have not spared long-standing aid providers such as the Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) in Mae Sot, which issued an emergency funding appeal in July 2012 after treating hundreds of thousands of Burmese patients for free for over two decades. The situation worsened significantly in November 2013 when the Australian government announced that it will cut all of the AUSD 450,000 funding it gives to the clinic due to shifting their priority to prepare for refugee repatriation (Karen News, November, 2013). Whilst it is frightening that the Australian government would spend a significant amount to prepare for premature repatriation, shifting aid is also a huge setback for the thousands of people who keep travelling great distances to receive medical treatment at the clinic. Dr Cynthia Maung – the legendary founder of the MTC who ironically was in Australia receiving an award when she received the devastating news – pointed out that it will be years before Burma’s under funded health infrastructure will be capable of properly treating its citizens. (You can donate to the clinic here).
The TBC has also been severely affected by funding cuts, which have forced the consortium to cut food rations and cease the provision of all non-food items, with the exception of cooking stoves and donated items, even to new arrivals (TBC, 2013a). In September 2013, TBC announced cutting food rations to refugees due to reductions in funding (TBC, September, 2013). Refugees say it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive in the camps and many now facing a bleak situation, feeling forced to return to Burma. Many local organisations, such as the KWO, have also condemned the funding cuts affecting refugees (Karen News, May, 2014). Furthermore, as the Thailand-Burma border is where many organisations work to arrange aid to the poorest and most oppressed areas in southeast Burma, funding cuts on the border have affected the aid reaching vulnerable IDPs.
In early April 2012, 26 Burmese frontier organisations gathered in Chiang Mai for a meeting to discuss the future of cross-border aid and appeal for fresh donations from charity groups (Lawi Weng, April, 2012). In June 2013, more than 150 representatives and observers from 40 Karen organisations from inside Burma, along the Thailand-Burma border, and overseas, voiced their concern that there has been a significant decrease in humanitarian aid for communities at risk in the Karen state (Karen News, June, 2013). The KWO and the Karen Education Department (KED), for example, said that international humanitarian aid that they have been receiving has decreased by as much as a half. The representatives strongly urged the international community to continue its cross-border humanitarian assistance until real peace is achieved in Burma.
Burmese migrant children studying in Thailand are also seeing their dreams evaporate as international aid dries up and organisations abandon the people on the border in favour of initiatives inside the country (Bangkok Post, May, 2012). More than two dozen migrant schools in western Thailand face closure as international donors continue to slash funding for groups on the border, a local NGO warned in July, 2013 (Naw Noreen, July, 2013). In 2014, even more donor organisations stopped providing financial support to migrant schools (S’ Phan Shaung, August, 2014).
Thailand-Burma border is also where most of the capacity building and pro-democracy work has been done. It is ironic that as Burma takes steps towards becoming more democratic, it is the pro-democracy movement that should suffer.
The recent unprecedented budget cuts have left ethnic populations and organisations on the border with less and less help from the international community. As a consequence, countless of organisations have recently been forced to discontinue their projects. In many places, people now lack food and medicine because aid organisations have cut their funding. CBOs along Burma’s borders have said that it is too early to cut humanitarian aid as ethnic ceasefires remain unstable and there is not yet genuine peace in border areas (Karen News, June, 2013, May 2014; Lawi Weng, February, 2012).
It should also be taken into consideration that while some positive developments are taking place and more freedom is given to the people of Burma, many repressive laws have not been changed, vast majority of people are living in poverty, and there is still a great need for schools and hospitals, especially in border areas. The international donor community should also keep in mind that organisations working out of Rangoon not only have to work in cooperation with the Burmese government but they simply do not have access to most areas where cross-border aid has been operating. Furthermore, as these organisations extend their access further into ethnic regions, they bring more Burma army troops with them, thus counteracting the benefits of their assistance (Kevin Malseen in Saw Yan Naing, May, 2012). When aid is cut to refugees, who are forced to be dependent on outside aid, they feel forced to return to areas in Burma that are not yet safe, or live illegally outside the camps in Thailand with no protection.
The recent hype about international donors moving inside the country is seen as counterproductive by many actors who have developed a deep understanding of the situation. Many of the most vulnerable people such as refugees and IDPs as well as the government-critical movement can still be best reached and supported through aid that is not channelled inside. Pouring millions of dollars inside the country is too often helping the government, not the people, become stronger, thus potentially exacerbating the conflict rather than helping to bring about a solution. Donors and NGOS should keep in mind that the government of Burma does not represent the people and is not working for them.
For many people of Burma along the Thailand-Burma border the only changes due to the recent reforms are exclusion and growing fear and uncertainty amidst reduced aid and rumours of forced repatriation. If we wish to see genuine transformation toward a democratic and just society for all peoples of Burma, it is imperative that the myriad organisations and vulnerable ethnic populations on the Thailand-Burma border are included in the democratisation and national reconciliation process, and that aid is continued until genuine and sustainable peace is achieved.
Updated February 19, 2015
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