Amid Myanmar coup, 'every stakeholder is looking for a new way'

People protest on the street against the military after Monday's coup in Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo by: Stringer / Reuters

As the impact of Monday’s military coup in Myanmar unfolds, development and humanitarian organizations working in the country are looking for new ways forward. Local organizations will need more support, and the need for international donors to fund community-based initiatives has only become more dire.

Over the next few days, development actors will be looking at what this turn of events means for their work and how they can adapt, local and international experts told Devex.

“They also have concerns and they just [want to] watch how they can go forward because every institution, every stakeholder is looking for a new way,”  said Aung Ko Ko, program director of the Development Alliance Myanmar, a youth-led organization working on human rights issues, civic education awareness, and strengthening the rule of law and democractic institution.

Military forces took control of Myanmar in the early hours of Monday morning, claiming that November's democratic election — which saw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's state counselor, and her National League for Democracy party claim 83% of parliamentary seats — was fraudulent. This was only the second democractic election held in the country, following decades of oppressive military rule that ended in 2011.

The military declared that it now holds all legislative, executive, and judicial powers, imposed a year-long state of emergency, and detained key figures including Suu Kyi and president Win Myint. Other civilian political leaders, it’s been reported, are under house arrest while internet and phone lines have also been disrupted.

Around 1 million people in the country are already in need of humanitarian aid with more than 900,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.

“It’s a challenge to the international community to step up their game,” said Michael Isherwood, chair of the Burma Humanitarian Mission and program director of Backpack Medics — which partners with Backpack Health Worker Teams to recruit, train, and outfit teams of backpack medics and health workers.  

This is the time for the aid and development sector to shift back to community-based initiatives, he said, adding, “And to walk away from thinking you can do it through the form of a government in the capital.”

A roll back on development gains

In the light of the coup, a lot of the government strengthening work that had been started will face questions on how to continue in this new context.

“Anything that has been achieved and worked hard for over the past decade [is] at risk of being rolled back,” said an NGO worker based in Myanmar who requested anonymity for safety reasons. In this situation, the rights of ethnic minority groups, peace processes, the space for civic rights, and gender equality are big concerns, they added.

Isherwood believes the circumstances will make their jobs harder and that demands for support will increase, especially with the well-being of so many ethnic minority families and communities at risk. The best thing U.N. agencies, organizations like the Red Cross, and the governments can do, he said, is to increase support.

“I would also front a geopolitical perspective and way of putting pressure on the junta that their designs are not going to succeed in those areas,” he said.

While the world waits to see what happens next, the coup puts a question mark over the safety of staff and civilians as well as the ability to continue projects in the short-term.

“For any NGO working there — local or international — safety of their staff is the first and foremost concern. Second is trying to maintain programs to assist or support people in a context that may be a very difficult operating context,” Marc Purcell, CEO at the Australian Council for International Development, told Devex.

“In the case of the Rohingya, which is unique and dire and given the genocide attempts that have occurred, a new military junta is catastrophic," Purcell said.

Isherwood hopes activities in the capital will keep forces preoccupied and unable to “unleash more havoc on the ethnic minorities,” there is a large probability of potential attacks and further oppression, he said.

The longer the situation continues, the more declines in economic investment, international connection, and setbacks in human development overall can be expected, Purcell explained.

“[Community-based organizations] are used to working in their communities when the junta is at their worst. They came into being because the junta was committing these atrocities against the people of Burma so we’re always prepared in that sense.”

— Jennifer Zurick, executive director, Burma Humanitarian Mission

Already, the United Kingdom has said it will be reviewing its indirect support — it doesn’t provide direct financial aid — to Myanmar “with a view to suspending it unless there are exceptional humanitarian reasons” while it’s thought there will also be a review of the United States’ development assistance.

Given that the majority of U.S. support is humanitarian and democracy-related, Isherwood said he’d be surprised if any of that aid was indeed curtailed. “The pro-democracy and humanitarian aid is a bit of a thorn in the side of the military so you wouldn’t want to remove that pressure point.”

The immediate impacts

A potential increase in need and decrease in resources is compounded by internet blackouts and the subsequent communication limitations for NGOs. “There could also be curfews and restrictions on assembly,” Purcell said. “This makes it hard to do the things NGOs would normally be doing — including workshops, visiting different places, and working with communities." 

Peacebuilding charity International Alert — which has championed gender equality and inclusion in the country in recent years — described the developments as “uncharted territory.”

While several organizations Devex reached out to say they were still monitoring the situation closely, the Development Alliance Myanmar has closed all operations as a safety measure for a week in response to the situation and is advising those it works with to stay home given the military presence on the streets.

Once activities resume, online communications could be key to the continuance of development programs.

While suspension of communications posed an initial barrier, Gary McGurk, country director at CARE International in Myanmar, told Devex that, given the pandemic, many of their projects are already online and should be able to continue that way. "We are discussing with our development partners how the situation is affecting them," he said in an email.

Small organizations, said Jennifer Zurick, executive director of Burma Humanitarian Mission, will be able to continue getting aid to people regardless of how the situation unfolds because of their community-based approach and networks on the ground.

“Our partners — the community-based organizations we work with — we’ll be continuing our efforts just as effectively and stepping them up when necessary in order to meet the needs of the people in Burma,” she explained. Not surprised by the turn of events, Zurick said partnerships with CBOs allowed them to be somewhat prepared.

“They are used to working in their communities when the junta is at their worst. They came into being because the junta was committing these atrocities against the people of Burma so we’re always prepared in that sense.”

Several world leaders — including members of the European Union, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, and U.S. President Joe Biden — have condemned the coup and called for restoration of the civilian government and release of detainees.

The Myanmar-based NGO worker said donor agencies also have a role to play in supporting local civil society organizations in ensuring their safety and helping them to raise voices in a safe way.

“We really need help,” Ko Ko said. “As the Myanmar people, we really need our country to be developed and develop prosperity. We need higher education and good health and infrastructure like our neighboring countries. This is why we want to call for everyone’s help.” 

Lisa Cornish contributed reporting.

About the author

  • Amruta Byatnal

    Amruta Byatnal is an Associate Editor at Devex based in New Delhi. She reports on global health, gender and human rights. Previously, she worked for News Deeply and The Hindu. She is a graduate of Cornell University where she studied international development.