Guest Column

The Spoils of Aid in Burma: Transition a Boon for Former Dictators

By Jonathan Hulland 11 July 2014

Just as Burma began opening up a little more than two years ago, aid agencies, donor organizations and international NGOs were already champing at the bit, ready to rush in at a moment’s notice. For these organizations, Burma represented one of the last “development” frontiers, a vast wasteland of opportunity for maternal health projects, capacity building initiatives, microfinance schemes, election monitoring programs, an array of rule of law projects, the list goes on. A country destroyed by more than a half century of ruthless, self-serving dictatorship needed rebuilding, and the aid industry was eager to swoop in to help, grant writers at the ready.

Now, two years into Burma’s aid rush, some of the very people responsible for this wasteland, Burma’s aging dictators and their business cronies, are cashing in on their country’s “development” by renting out properties for top dollar to the very same aid organizations there to help rebuild the country. But rather than enriching these tyrants, doesn’t the international aid industry have an obligation to help Burma break from its dictatorship past?

The large white house at 70(P) Golden Valley Avenue is located in the middle of an exclusive Rangoon neighborhood called “Generals’ Village”—locals gave it the nickname for its preponderance of mansions owned by members of Burma’s military elite. In “Generals’ Village,” well-maintained streets are uncharacteristically litter free, barbed wire curls around gaudy homes like creeping ivy, and luxury Germans cars sit idle in driveways.

Today, 70(P) Golden Valley Avenue is the Burmese base of operations for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), the private American self-styled “global development company” and a regular recipient of funds from the American government’s aid agency USAID (more than US$350 million in 2010 alone) and its British equivalent DFID, among others. According to several sources that wish to remain anonymous, including one close to the rental arrangement, the house belongs to the family of Gen. Khin Nyunt, a Prime Minister during Burma’s military dictatorship but better known as Burma’s notorious head of military intelligence. During his long reign of terror as chief spymaster from 1988 to 2004, Gen. Khin Nyunt is thought to have personally overseen the arrest and detention of 4,000 people, mostly for political activities, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Burma’s political prisoners were subject to torture and many spent up to 20 years in prison under abysmal conditions.

Just a short drive from DAI’s office through swankiest Rangoon sits Unicef’s sleek modernist Rangoon headquarters on Inya Myaing Road. When I visited in May to snap a photo of the blue Lego-like complex, a silver Mercedes was parked conspicuously in the driveway. Soon after, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund confirmed that it is renting the property from former Agriculture Minister and top general in Burma’s dictatorship, Nyunt Tin, for the “very competitive” (in Unicef’s words) rent of $87,000 a month, more than $1 million a year.

And it doesn’t end there. The Irrawaddy reported at the end of May that the EU Ambassador to Burma is renting a home on Inya Lake that belongs to the family of Burma’s first modern dictator, Ne Win, who overthrew Burma’s first democratic government in 1962 and ruled with an iron fist until being deposed by a junta in 1988. Apparently, EU regulations which set caps on rental fees had to be rewritten given the high rental cost, thought to be around $80,000 a month. Rumors are also swirling that the World Health Organization’s Rangoon office, which costs the organization $79,000 a month, is connected to the family of Snr-Gen Than Shwe—Burma’s head dictator from 1992 to 2011—though this allegation hasn’t been confirmed.

The money spent on these rentals is scandal enough, given that millions of US and EU taxpayer dollars a year are going to pay the excessive rents of “development organizations” in a country where the GDP per capita hovers around $1,200 per year. Paying these high rents also serves to increase rents everywhere in Rangoon, fueling a free-wheeling market controlled by the city’s powerbrokers (and former dictators) that is already having a severe impact on local people and organizations that can’t compete with international donor dollars. But the real scandal is that money is flowing from development agencies’ coffers into the bank accounts of the very individuals and families responsible for Burma’s development deficiency in the first place. Does Unicef, champion of the world’s children, not see the hypocrisy in paying a general who helped lead a regime known for its flagrant use of child soldiers? Poetic injustice indeed.

USAID, one of the biggest aid donors in town and DAI’s main source of funding, recently requested proposals from international NGOs and its coterie of private contractors that include DAI (yes, they are businesses, not non-profits) for a $20 million project entitled “Accountable to All (A2A): Strengthening Civil Society and Media in Burma Program.” The language in the proposal strikes all the right notes to this human rights activist, stating, for instance, that “[u]ntil very recently, the operating environment for civil society and media in Burma was extremely repressive, and many political activists lived in fear.” And that “it remains to be seen whether the [government of Burma] authorities will fully give up controls on the media, civil society, and civil liberties.” The key to a successful political transition in Burma, the proposal argues, is accountability: “USAID/Burma aims to support a civil society led strategy of public engagement with the Government of Burma, to foster accountability around the reform process.” Sounds great. But what about USAID’s own accountability? By funding DAI, USAID is indirectly funding the very forces that threaten a successful transition to democracy in Burma.

Perhaps these organizations are paying exorbitant rents to unsavory landlords in exchange for access and protection from the men who continue to rule the country from behind the scenes. Here, we’ll give you a million dollars a year for your house, but please let us get on with doing our job (the job they never did themselves). If that’s the case, it’s a dirty trade off that will only perpetuate the ancien régime’s staying power and Burma’s problems both.

In recent weeks, the popular media narrative of Burma’s steady transition from dictatorship to democracy is finally starting to crumble as irrefutable evidence piles up that Burma’s transition is fraught with problems and has been steadily reversing for more than a year. Yet the aid money continues to flow. Burma (or more accurately its former capital) has changed a great deal in the last two years, remarkably so compared to my first visit to the country in 2003. However, much about this country remains entirely unchanged. Real political and economic power remains firmly in the grip of former generals, their business cronies, and the military-dominated government in the new capital of Naypyidaw. With that in mind, shouldn’t aid agencies be wary of cutting deals with former dictators and their kin, or at least refrain from renting their properties?

To be sure, Burma needs international aid and assistance. But it also needs responsible donors who understand what (and who) brought this once-prosperous country to its knees in the first place. The overwhelming trend of newly arrived aid agencies and international NGOs (INGOs) in Burma these days seems to be to move in big and fast, ignore the past, and help establish Myanmar Year Zero. Hardship pay negotiations and the need for DSL-ready offices are taking priority over the very real needs of this country, foremost of which should be how to address the legacy of six decades of brutal military rule. Yes, there is high demand and low supply for modern office spaces desired by aid and UN agencies and inevitably many such properties are going to be owned by former generals and their cronies, but that isn’t an excuse for negligence. Burma’s international aid industry, on the whole, seems befallen by a self-induced tropical amnesia. These egregious office rentals are simply a symptom of their disregard for Burma’s very recent history.

If Burma’s international aid industry wants to help build a new foundation for this country, and not just reap the rewards of the world’s newest aid gold rush, then it must start by remembering who turned Burma upside down to begin with and act accordingly. But it likely won’t do that willingly. Organizations such as DAI and Unicef claim to be working in the best interests of Burma’s people. But they aren’t really accountable to anyone. Burmese civil society is the only force in the country with the legitimacy and capability to make the aid industry accountable and transparent. But Burmese civil society actors must act soon before they are further compromised by that very same industry in the form of grants and contracts, as happened in Nepal when I worked there and no doubt everywhere else the moveable feast of aid has descended.

It’s time to remind the donor organizations, UN agencies, and INGOs filing into Burma that justice, transparency, and accountability are not just words in a grant proposal. Simply put, Burma’s civil society leaders must demand that aid entering the country be used to build a new Burma, and not more houses in “Generals’ Village.”

Jonathan Hulland is an independent human rights consultant and analyst.