Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A dissident aid group in Myanmar

A year after a large cyclone destroyed the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar people there are still rebuilding. Some of the physical damage has been restored, and Farmers have gone back to growing crops after some loans and donations.

Most of the rebuilding was done by aid groups that were reluctantly allowed in by the government. The military government of Myanmar tries to control everything in the country. The cyclone was too much for the government to control, so they allowed others to do the work of rebuilding.

In this New York Times article we learn of an aid group that uses helping people to be subversive to the government. Mingalar Myanmar was a begun by a family with a history of opposing the government. In this piece we see how building houses and feeding people peacefully opposes a military.

“The government always believes everything will be solved by giving orders,” said Daw Yuza Maw Htoon, who founded Mingalar Myanmar with her husband, U Phone Win. “It failed. They recognize the failure. It’s much beyond their capacity.”

When Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killing upwards of 130,000 people, a number of local organizations rallied to offer assistance. After initial resistance, the government agreed to let groups like Mingalar distribute aid independently in the delta. To date, Mingalar alone has reached 700 villages, spent $3 million in the delta and grown to 80 employees from 5. In Nauk Pyan Toe, the village was rebuilt using financing from the Swedish and British governments, a Malaysian charity and a Buddhist organization.

With a $300,000 donation from the Singapore Embassy and Singaporean businesses, Mingalar also built 1,500 boats for the victims of the cyclone.

The government has announced elections for next year, the first in two decades. Although it appears likely they will be rigged in favor of the military, some foreign observers believe they may also lead to a devolution of some responsibilities and power to civic groups like Mingalar Myanmar.

Mingalar’s work is not political, the organization tells the authorities. And yet in the top-down, yes-sir context of four-and-a-half decades of military rule in Myanmar, it is difficult to see the group’s work as anything but a challenge to the status quo.

Mingalar’s seminars in remote villages encourage collective decision- making and community-based activism, ideas that have been eclipsed by a government that instills fear in those who step out of line.

“The idea is that you have to give priority to people’s opinion,” said Ms. Yuza Maw Htoon.

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