9 Minutes To Read

An NGO Worker’s Perspective: Fighting for human rights as democracy dies

9 Minutes To Read
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  • Inspired by the ongoing series, ‘Chronicle of a coup’Damien Riley (pseudonym) writes about his experiences at an NGO.

    (Editor’s note: This post is inspired by the ongoing “Chronicle of a Coup” series by Christopher Walker. This letter, however, is a separate and original contribution of Damien Riley (pseudonym). We encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.)

    “Tanks appear on city streets as fears of a possible coup continue”, read the news headline on my computer screen. It was Friday, January 29, and I was working at home on a sunny afternoon when I saw the ominous images of an olive-green armored vehicle in Bahan township. I shared the story’s link with my colleagues: I had worked for a local NGO for the last five years. We had a management meeting scheduled on Zoom for later in the day, and I wrote ahead, in what would become a gross understatement, saying, “This seems concerning.”

    Tensions between the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the Myanmar military had been building for weeks. After a disappointing loss by its proxy parties at the polls in November 2020, the military had been harping on largely unfounded claims of election irregularities. With the new NLD government, emboldened by its democratic mandate, set to take office in the following week, these tensions were reaching a crescendo. Just days before tanks were in the street, a Tatmadaw spokesperson had refused to rule out a military coup when questioned about it by reporters.

    Swallowing doubts / January 29, 2021

    At my job, we watched these developments closely because they would affect our work as a human rights NGO. During the democratic transition, we built grassroots networks, raised awareness about human rights to thousands, and developed relationships with legislators and government officials. For the NLD’s second term, we had an ambitious agenda of lobbying and advocacy planned.

    Our director joined the meeting that afternoon and informed us he was getting updates from persons knowledgeable of what was happening in Nay Pyi Taw. Negotiations between the military and the NLD were becoming extremely fraught. The news of tanks in the streets was not to be taken lightly. He then left our meeting to find out more. For me and my colleagues, there was a mixture of gloom and incredulous disbelief. As an organization, we had already overcome so much disruption and uncertainty because of Covid-19. Now were we on the brink of another disaster? Or were the tanks and murmurings of a coup just hype and theatrics? The previous year, Covid-19 had taught us not to underreact, and so we decided to stop our meeting, switch our communications to encrypted channels, and stock up on cash and food.

    I called an expat friend to cancel our dinner plans that evening. He reacted skeptically, saying his Myanmar colleagues were also following the news and told him that a coup wasn’t going to happen. As his friend, I advised him to be extra prepared. If there was no coup, we would have dinner another evening.

    In retrospect, memories of the weekend before the February 1st coup have become precious. They were the last moments before the world as we knew it was turned upside down. At the time in Yangon, daily life was beginning to return to normal, after months of Covid-19 shutdowns. More shops were opening up and people were increasingly going outdoors for exercise.

    Although I continued to receive updates that the discussions in Nay Pyi Taw were unsuccessful, I still doubted that these were a certain prelude to a coup. After all, pundits and experts had weighed in: The military would not violate its own undemocratic constitution, and, moreover, years of the democratic transition had created changes to the Tatmadaw’s avenues of control that were irreversible. As an example of the attitude of the times, just a month earlier Frontier Myanmar published an article that included the lines, “Myanmar today is a country of immense potential. While our nation may still be mired in poverty and conflict, we have a democratically elected government that has the capacity to bring about tremendous change.”

    As that final Sunday, January 31, came to a close, I reviewed notes of our management meeting and scheduled time in the coming week to discuss what we had not covered on Friday. I went to sleep that night blissfully unaware of the chaos to come.

    Rising fear and dread / February 1, 2021

    At 8:00 am I woke up to find several missed calls from early in the morning. The normally green light on my internet router was red. Nothing was coming in through my phone’s cellular data. The phone line was dead too. I turned on my apartment’s television to see scrambled channels beaming back at me. Only MRTV, the state-run TV service, had a program playing on loop. It showed montages of soldiers and wide-angle footage of scenes around Nay Pyi Taw set to music.

    I wandered outside in the cool morning, making my way over to a busy street. There was a crowd in front of a KBZ bank, waiting to use the ATM. I overheard the security guard telling people in line that the connection was not working. This confirmed my suspicion that the internet was turned off everywhere.

    I returned home and settled into an uncomfortable wait.

    Over the next hours, phone service across Myanmar gradually returned, albeit unevenly. One of my colleagues called me. He told me he heard from people in his building that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were arrested, along with many NLD members. The words hit me with a jolt. Recalling the rumors that flew during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, my colleague’s voice carried these words with a tone of caution.

    I went by foot to my colleague’s downtown apartment and climbed up the stairwell of the low-rise cement building to his room, where the internet hotspot had begun working again. Immediately after connecting, my smartphone overflowed with updates and missed calls over messaging apps. The Irrawaddy bore the horrible truth on its front page: “Myanmar Military Seizes Power”.

    I got in touch with our director and a handful of our donors. The situation was urgent: dozens of CSO leaders, activists, and some political figures were flooding our phones with messages saying they were in danger and needed help. With a donor, I agreed to form a committee that would review and approve cases for my NGO to send support to. Hours passed quickly while I attended to these urgent tasks. As I worked, cars and buses drove in the streets below. It was the edge of downtown, and here people moved hastily along the sidewalk. It was approaching rush hour, and there was a nervous and expectant energy in the air. Soon MRTV’s evening news program would come on, and the military-controlled news service would confirm the coup. 

    In the weeks and months to follow, I would be glued to my phone, and particularly to an encrypted messaging app that became standard among the people in our field. I waited to review more cases of activists in need of help. Most often, these were people needing places to hide and money to sustain them, and sometimes for their family members as well. Some were in jail and their colleagues submitted applications for money to pay their legal expenses. As mass violence against protests swept across Myanmar, the need increased. In some cases, they’d already been beaten or shot. Others were trying to flee the country. My daily work became a world of trying to help people in increasingly dire need, where we often communicated using pseudonyms, code-words, and idiosyncratic ways of verification. It all took place against a backdrop of rising dread and fear.

    What can a human rights NGO do? / The aftermath

    For a human rights NGO, the coup presented an existential crisis. Questions arose about the future of my organization’s programming and the viability of our work. As the violence worsened, the theory of change for large portions of our programming no longer made sense. Shots and small explosions could be heard almost every night in Yangon. Each neighborhood set up its own local security unit. Images on social media showed daily horrors. There were crackdowns on protesters, leaving dead bodies in their wake, and activists carried away by men with guns in the night. After 2 am, internet and phone services were shut off so that no one could warn you and no one could call for help. At my work, there would be no more trainings for the public, no more meetings with the government, no more advocacy campaigns about human rights.

    For the work that we could do, there was also a question of ethics. At what point does it become irresponsibly risky for our staff, partners, and beneficiaries? Within our organization, there was ambivalence about the right and responsible way forward. We were NGO workers, not soldiers. Even if a person was willing to carry out a dangerous assignment, should we commit them to do it? What was the standard for reasonable risk in this situation? Eventually some people resigned from work. No one could really sleep.

    Moreover, our operations became increasingly difficult due to financial reasons. Most banks were effectively closed due to the civil disobedience movement. Moreover, it was risky for a registered NGO to withdraw or transfer money using official bank accounts at all. We hatched schemes on how to move and manage our funds via alternate channels and methods, only to have to revise and later scrap them due to the escalating violence. While we waited for donors’ approval of our alternate plans, the situation would change, making the whole planning effort in vain. Adding to the calamity, there was no way to receive fund transfers from our donors outside of Myanmar. Some of our funds that we’d had transferred to us in February were stuck, unclaimed in our banks. If the situation was not resolved, we would eventually run out of money.

    I began asking for cash loans from donors with local offices – to no avail. Bank service gradually resumed, by appointment or by getting an all-too-rare queue number. Then the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) issued an order requiring banks to notify and seek CBM’s approval when NGO funds were withdrawn. After media organizations and other non-governmental organizations were raided, it was simply too dangerous to show up at the bank with our official documents. Moreover, conducting our activities while adhering to the financial documentation requirements of our donors became dangerously impractical.

    A tragicomic disconnect / The future

    Everyone was having to adapt, including our donors. In the NGO world, most donor-funding is restricted to project plans and comes with specific reporting obligations. Changing a plan or seeking an exception often was administratively laborious and required numerous justifications. Donors’ reactions to our rapidly changing needs after the coup ranged from being very flexible and understanding to being uncertain or unwilling to approve our requests. In the former case, fast approval meant we could mobilize the money we had on hand to move our staff to safety and buy the equipment we needed urgently. It also meant we could distribute financial support to partners and affected communities around the country who were resisting the coup. In the latter case, some change requests to donors went unanswered for weeks while their respective headquarters discussed and untangled the obligations they had to their back donors. This is because the donors funding NGOs in Myanmar are often NGOs or international NGOs themselves, functioning as intermediaries between “back donors” – often country donors, international organisations, or private philanthropists – and local organisations in Myanmar. 

    This created many missed opportunities. For our NGO to carry out actions in the field, we had to wait for a window in which the situation on the ground was safe enough. The delay in donor approval meant that our implementing partners had to wait while evading police and soldiers. It caused immense frustration to all involved when an opportunity to act would arise but our project change request was still pending approval.

    In my view, the situation in Myanmar was deteriorating faster than the funders’ ability to respond, leaving NGOs like mine scrambling. While I appreciate that donors had difficult decisions to make, it was local NGOs bearing the brunt. Amid waiting for donor approvals, our operations crumbled and our safety was at risk. Unlike international NGOs, we did not have a headquarters with additional layers of support outside of the country. We were on our own, and we had to take greater risks to maintain our business continuity as an NGO. I will never forget frantically calling around to find space in a safe house for a staff member, while also explaining to an international donor why I could not get their money back on the rent payment for an office that was too unsafe to use.

    The problem was a tragicomic disconnect between funders trying to operate business-as-usual and the reality on the ground. The truth is that the consequences of the February 1st coup were not going to be quickly reversed. Too much blood was shed; a delicate social contract forged during Myanmar’s democratic transition in Myanmar had been shredded. Although far from perfect, Myanmar’s democratic pretenses between 2011 and 2020 were a foundation for much of the work of civil society in Myanmar. It was the premise on which so many development plans and investment decisions were made. That premise was now a rug that had been pulled from underneath our feet.

    Postscript / 12 months later

    Twelve months after the coup, half of the staff have left. Some staff quit out of concern for their safety; some joined the armed resistance; some fled across the border, and some no longer had duties to perform. Of the staff who remain working, there is a mixture of motivation to support the revolution, burnout from overwork and stress, and a resolve to carry on as normally as possible, either for family or due to lack of an alternative.

    Despite the challenges, our donors did not abandon us. While there was great urgency to act at the ground level in months after the coup, the contexts overseeing our funding were slower to adapt. Keeping hard copies of project documentation, getting signatures as verification, and only using organizational bank accounts are just some of the standard requirements when handling international development funds. But these are no longer safe and feasible for Myanmar human rights organizations. Our donors needed time to understand and accept the conditions we were working in. Trust from our donors and competence in our handling of projects were essential for continuing our partnership. Credit, however, largely goes to the extremely resourceful staff who work out of safe houses and remote locations, as well as to the partners – both organizations, networks, and individuals – who ensure the funds go where they are necessary and that actions are coordinated. 

    Having survived 2021, there is a reason for hope. As the Burmese proverb goes, Even the big wave goes under the boat, and even the high mountain is under the foot.” [လှိုင်းကြီးလှေအောက်၊ တောင်ကြီးဖ၀ါးအောက်]

    (Featured image from Wikimedia Commons)

    Damien Riley was an expat NGO worker at a human rights organization in Myanmar. He lived in Yangon from April 2016 to April 2021.