Where Has Burma’s Peace Money Gone?

By Saw Yan Naing 1 April 2016

Under former President Thein Sein’s government, over US$100 million poured into Burma’s peace programs by foreign governments and institutions.

As the military-backed administration has given way to a National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, questions linger about the transparency and influence of international funds on the peace process—critics argue that this aid has thus provided war-affected ethnic communities with little to no benefit.

In 2013, the European Union (EU) officially committed a total of nearly US$35 million to Burma’s peace process—this cycle of funding ended on March 31. Japanese NGOs announced in 2014 a plan to spend a staggering US$96 million on development projects in Burma’s ethnic areas over the next five years. Yet the community-based ethnic Karen Peace Support Network responded by calling for a moratorium on such large-scale development until a peace agreement could be reached.

From these figures alone, the total sum of money known to have been spent on peace stands at around US$130 million.

How were these funds spent?

The money was designated to support the peace-related projects, organizations and start-ups that mushroomed under Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. One of the biggest recipients of aid was the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), an advocacy body affiliated with the government which was founded in 2012.

The Myanmar Times reported that before the end of his tenure, ex-President Thein Sein dissolved the MPC and ordered its properties to be transferred to two new non-governmental organizations (NGOs): the Myanmar Peace Building Dialogue Center and the Peace and Development Foundation. Both are affiliated with former MPC staff; the latter will be led by Aung Min, who acted as MPC’s head.

Hla Maung Shwe, an MPC senior advisor, told The Irrawaddy that the role of senior officials like Aung Min had concluded and that they were free to establish new initiatives, as long as their registration was approved.

“[Aung Min] can form his organization like many others do. He is independent now. He is not a government official. He can’t be sued for forming an organization with the word ‘peace,’” Hla Maung Shwe said.

Dividing the Spoils

Hla Maung Shwe maintains that the MPC has no property to distribute, and that anything on the organization’s premises belongs to the former government.

“The MPC doesn’t own anything,” he said, denying allegations that senior MPC officials are reportedly splitting up the organization’s assets among themselves, including office space, a meeting hall, and facilities such as vehicles, computers and other equipment.

Critics say it will be inappropriate if the MPC’s assets end up in NGOs founded by the ex-MPC officials, since the property was paid for by international donors.

“It would be completely wrong for U Aung Min to use MPC assets, funded by international aid, to set up his own think tank. He has no mandate, and was rejected by voters in the election last year,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a London-based advocacy organization. “The money should not go to the ex-government either, as they are just one side in the negotiations,” he added.

However, Valerie Zirl, a public diplomacy adviser for the European Union Delegation to Burma, told The Irrawaddy that representatives the MPC and the NLD had “assured the EU that the internationally-sponsored assets of the MPC will be managed by the government as state property and remain available for the MPC or any successor institution.”

But the MPC should not have received EU funding in the first place, Farmaner argues, highlighting the organization’s lack of neutrality due to its ties to the military-backed government. The MPC was established by President Thein Sein to pursue his political agenda of persuading the international community to lift sanctions and give more aid, Farmaner said.

“By backing the MPC with millions of euros, [the EU] was seen by many ethnic people to have taken the government side,” said Farmaner.

Nai Hong Sar, the vice-chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella organization of nine ethnic armed groups, also said that it would be inappropriate if the MPC’s assets were transferred to the NGOs founded by the MPC senior officials.

“I think the MPC’s property should be continuously used by the incoming government and peace advocacy organizations for peace-related works and activities,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Where The Money Went

Beyond the MPC, international funding also went to more than a dozen peace-related organizations, including the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, Norway-funded Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), British charity Inter-mediate, Japan Platform, The Nippon Foundation, and other start-ups, NGOs and ethnic armed organizations.

Some of these beneficiaries allocated international peace funding to the building of schools, clinics, and the delivery of food and supplies to vulnerable populations.

Yet analysts believe that the bulk of the international monies has been spent on meetings for peace talks, overseas trips by peace program stakeholders, hotel stays, employee salaries and fees for international consultants.

On the donors’ dime, stakeholders including Burmese army officials, ethnic armed group leaders and peace negotiators travelled to Europe as well as to post-conflict nations such as Colombia, Indonesia, Philippines and Cambodia to study the countries’ respective political transitions and systems of government.

MPC officials were regularly pictured in Thailand, Naypyidaw and Rangoon alongside privately hired airplanes, it is assumed, for travel to meetings.

Bertil Lintner, a veteran Burma expert and journalist said, “I wonder where that money went and is going. Peacemaking has become a lucrative business in Burma, with little or no regard for the suffering of ordinary people in the country’s war zones.”

Lintner pointed out that many individuals working for organizations like the MPC earn in a month what an ordinary Burmese citizen might make in five years or more. According to several sources from Western NGOs, it is believed that senior officials in the peace process can earn up to US$10,000 per month.

The Future of Peace Funds

Burma Campaign UK’s Farmaner said that a lack of transparency surrounding aid to the peace process indicates that it is time for international donors to rethink their approach, and strive for more inclusivity.

This was echoed by Audun Aagre, director of the NGO Norwegian Burma Committee, who told The Irrawaddy that unbalanced support by international donors is the most pressing issue regarding current peace funding.

“I have been terrified by the lack of understanding by some international decision makers on huge international peace funds,” he said. “Many [of them] mix up militia groups driven by economic interests with ethnic armed organizations mainly driven by political interests.”

Zirl, of the EU, maintains that European funds for peace activities are dispersed ethically, across various regions, groups and populations in Burma. She said that the EU supported the MPC through a project worth US$4.2 million, which represents a fraction of Europe’s total budget for peace.

“The EU stands ready to continue its support depending on the wishes of the incoming government and in line with their priorities,” said Zirl.

But international financial support, Aagre said, should also be invested in an ethnic peace administration, contrary to what has been seen in previous years, with peace funds largely distributed through government channels.

Under Burma’s the military regime, education and health systems worked far better in areas controlled by the ethnic armed groups than they did in areas under Burmese government control, Aagre points out, comprising what he called “a ready-made federal structure.”

“In stead of strengthening these systems, with a long term goal of merging the different structures into a federal union, the international community cut support, and channeled these funds through Naypyidaw with MPC as a gatekeeper,” he said.

The Irrawaddy reporter Lawi Weng also contributed into this article.