Border-based Groups Adapt to Burma's Changing Political Landscape

By Yan Naing Hein 9 June 2012

MAE SOT, Thailand — As part of its reforms, Burma’s government has begun giving a green light to international aid donors keen to support projects inside the country, raising concerns among groups operating beyond its borders that their own funding could soon dry up.

“This is something that we are all discussing right now,” said Aung Myo Thein, an advocacy team member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—Burma (APPP), an NGO based in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. “Donors are shifting their priorities to inside Burma.”

Now that Burma has released most of its political prisoners, AAPP has also begun to shift its focus. After more than a decade of advocating on behalf of those behind bars and assisting family members struggling to care for them, it now has a program to help former prisoners get back on their feet.

“Most ex-political prisoners lack the skills they need to survive outside of prison, so we are providing vocational training to enable them to earn a living. For example, we are teaching them basic computer skills, English and how to drive a car,” said  Aung Myo Thein.

By adapting to the changing needs of political prisoners, AAPP is hoping to continue attracting the sort of funding that it has only recently begun to receive. Although it was established in 2000, it was not until eight years later that it started receiving regular donations.

“In our proposals, we now talk mostly about education, vocational training, and providing health care directly to former political prisoners instead of supporting them through their families,” said Aung Myo Thein.

With its proven track record of accountability, AAPP has managed to find funding for its new programs, but still finds itself limited in terms of what it can offer to those who seek its services.

According to Aung Myo Thein, the group has received about 60 percent of its proposed budget. It spends between US $100 and $500 on each former political prisoner, but lacks the money it would need to help them set up businesses of their own—another idea for which it is seeking donor support.

To continue its work, AAPP knows that it will eventually have to go inside Burma. So far, however, it still has no idea when that will be possible. “We have told the government that we want to work inside the country to do the same work that we are doing now, but they haven’t responded to us yet,” said Aung Myo Thein.

Even if it does get permission to work in Burma, AAPP has some misgivings about whether that would really be the right move to make at this time. Like most exile groups, it tends to feel that only groups operating outside the country are truly free to report the real situation in Burma.

For other groups based along the border, there is an even more compelling reason to remain where they are: the vast majority of the people they serve live there. Even these groups, however, are finding it harder to get the sort of international support that they have long relied on.

According to Rev Robert Htway, chairman of the Mae Sot-based Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), a group that distributes in-kind donations of food and building materials such as bamboo and thatch, there has been a noticeable decrease in support for programs to assist refugees who have spent decades on the border after fleeing conflict in predominantly ethnic areas.

“Previously each refugee received 16 kg of rice. Now that’s down to 13 kg,” he said.

With plans now in the works to begin repatriating refugees in the coming years amid a series of ceasefire agreements that many hope could mark the beginning of the end of decades of ethnic conflict in Burma, groups like KRC are worried that support will decline even further.

“We have asked the authorities to let us keep supporting [the repatriated refugees] inside Burma for three years after they return, because they will need assistance for that long until they can stand on their own feet,” said Rev Htway.

Even if Burma does succeed in breaking the cycle of violence that has forced so many to leave, the effects could still be felt for years to come, especially among the most vulnerable. This is especially significant for projects like the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, run by Dr Cynthia Maung, which serves poor Burmese on both sides of the border.

Founded in 1988, the clinic treats around 100,000 patients annually. Around half come from across the border, and the other half are migrants working illegally in Thailand.

“If the situation in Burma improves, many migrants and refugees may go back. There are also some who hold Thai registration cards who can work here legally. But there are still many people who are not recognized by either country who are staying in border area as stateless people, and we will be here to take care of their health and education,” said Dr Cynthia.

But even if there is sure to be a continuing need for the clinic, there is no guarantee that aid will still be forthcoming in the future. Already, Mae Tao appears to be on the verge of losing a major donor.

“After the Burmese government opened up, Norwegian Church Aid opened an office in Burma. We have applied for aid from them, but so far we have received no response,” said Dr Cynthia.