How can Outsiders support Civil Society in coup-torn Myanmar?

September 14, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by a friend working on Myanmar, who for obvious reasons would prefer to remain anonymous

In a fast-moving violent crisis like the one in Myanmar, a lot of the most interesting analysis goes unpublished for obvious reasons – the safety of individuals or organizations. I’ve been working with a (suitably anonymous) national and international team on a series of papers based on consultations with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and providing guidance to development partners on what outsiders can do to help.

To whom are communities turning for support?

Communities are turning inward and relying even more on mutual support and self-reliance. Myanmar has a tradition of community self-help, with voluntary, faith and parahita (traditional self-help) groups having dominated pre-Nargis civil society. As a result of the coup, new groups have supplemented established support systems, including (1) Gen Z volunteers; (2) informal networks such as unions, CBOs and village leaders; and (3) groups or individuals no longer working for their previous organisations but continuing to offer informal support.

Communities are often purposefully boycotting already weak public services as part of their resistance. Many community members do not want to access support from the State Administration Council (SAC – the military government), while a substantial proportion of international nongovernmental organisations and CSO programmes are on hold or operating at reduced capacity.

CSOs also report that communities are less receptive to outside support due to an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, for example some fearing that it would put them under suspicion of supporting civil disobedience movements. Others distrust outsiders because they assume that any organisation that can continue operating must be engaging with the SAC. People are stuck between the implications of being seen as either SAC or National Union Government (NUG) supporters, both with potential consequences for their personal security.

How are CSOs Responding?

The impacts of the coup on CSOs focusing on service delivery and CBOs working at the local level include the following:

  • Constraints imposed by the SAC are resulting in reduced levels of activity and an estimated 20% of CSOs closing down (from another unpublished analysis). Some constraints are affecting everyone, such as severe banking constraints, and some are targeting civil society.
  • A less formal, less structured civil society; many CSOs have deregistered, key leaders are in hiding, and there has been an increase in individuals and small groups providing informal support.
  • Two shifts in the types of support: (1) a shift towards providing basic needs and humanitarian support and (2) a shift away from involvement in more politically sensitive issues or, where continuing, relocation to ethnic-controlled areas or across borders.
  • Some new networks have emerged, including networks of CSOs, CBOs, student unions and other groups coordinating community responses. However, communication and trust issues are hindering partnerships and coordination.
  • Many CSOs and CBOs now work in clandestine modes and rely on existing networks and relationships, reflecting the difficulty of building trust in the current context.

At the national and subnational levels, CSOs and service delivery organisations face different challenges based on their history and the focus of their organisations and activities. At this stage, the CSOs show three broad responses:

Survivalist. Some CSOs are trying to maintain operations based from Yangon or other Bamar- majority areas. These organisations aim to (1) ensure their survival, (2) conduct useful short-term activities and (3) contribute to a return to democracy in the future. They do not actively engage with or conduct work that antagonises the SAC, but some are pragmatic about minimal levels of engagement if their survival demands it. Others may move below the SAC radar if forced to engage with them in the future.

Transition to service delivery and community-based activities. Organisations that previously focused on research, advocacy and rights have transitioned to delivering services and support to communities. Some have also shifted to ‘intermediary roles’, coordinating and strengthening the delivery of support to local communities through local partner networks.

Reform and resist. Other organisations align more strongly with the democracy movement. Some have proactively deregistered and restructured themselves. They now operate under the SAC radar and often under new names or as more informal groups of actors. Their leaders may be in hiding in Myanmar or have relocated to border areas or outside the country. Examples include several high-profile think tanks and research organisations.

Given these dynamics, we propose two key objectives with related strategies to underpin development partner support for civil society:

Objective 1: support communities in need: development partners support civil society in providing services and humanitarian assistance to communities in need, with a focus on strengthening resilience.

Objective 2: support positive social and political change: protect and strengthen democratic, inclusive and rights-based civic space and the resilience of civil society.

There is a tension between working with known and trusted local partners (‘core civil society’) and needing to adapt to changing contexts and work with new partners. Some existing partners will not survive or remain effective. The international community should look beyond core civil society and extend funding to parts of the sector that have not previously received support. It will be difficult to fund some of the less formal parts of civil society directly, requiring local intermediaries with strong existing community relationships. International actors should encourage the emergence of a more inclusive civil society – in particular, young, female and ethnic minority leaders who have risen to greater prominence in response to the coup – as well as informal groups, faith organisations, Ethnic Organizations and ethnic health organisations, and newly emerging civil society actors such as Gen Z-led groups.

Five strategies emerge, depending on donors’ risk appetite:

What does this mean for how development partners should adapt the operational aspects of the funding cycle (i.e. accessing funds, disbursement, reporting and closing funding)?

  • Adopt a portfolio approach with different levels of risk. The objectives and strategies proposed are not mutually exclusive.
  • Build on existing mechanisms to expand partnerships but modify operational constraints such as allowing cross border and Hundi payments with clear guidance and cover the approximately 10% costs of cash via brokers; access to cash is crucial right now.
  • Designate stipends and in-kind or other operating budget support in place of salaries to avoid resource (tax) flowing to the regime.
  • Allow contingency lines for new activities and security support, give CSOs the financial flexibility requested.
  • Ensure easy and secure communication procedures on funding opportunities and minimize application requirements; expecting full proposals during a crisis is unfair and security is paramount.
  • Transform heavy reporting and M&E into verbal meetings and/or messenger scripts; aim for ‘good enough’ on reporting, without increasing CSOs or communities’ security risks. Now is not the time for beneficiary lists that could put people at risk.

Practical guidance is really important for sustaining civil society through the here-and-now of this uncertain and unpredictable period, but the analysis also suggests that the international community needs – already – to be strategically thinking through big picture support to civil society as part of a future beyond the current military regime – and that presents even bigger challenges in Myanmar, as it will for other unpredictable settings where governance is compromised in such a violent way.

There’s plenty more guidance to support decision making behind these headlines so if you would like a copy of the papers, please get in touch via FP2P.

September 14, 2021
Duncan Green