There are many different opinions on the nature of reforms in [Myanmar] in recent years. It is doubtful that the reforms are part of a genuine move towards democratisation. The 2008 Constitution did the opposite of moving [Myanmar] towards democracy; it gave the military power at every level of government. Almost all repressive laws remain in place, and many human rights violations continue.

But one area where there has undoubtedly been some improvement is in the creation of more political space and more opportunity for debate, discussion and organisation.  Although this space is limited, and if you cross certain lines you could end up back in jail, more political space does exist.

No-one knows how long this space will last. It seems unlikely that the government will ever be able to re-impose the kind of fear and control that existed until 2010. But some people thought had a similar opinion around the time of the 1988 uprising.

There are already many worrying signs. There is the failure to deliver on promises of media freedom, and the jailing of journalists, including most recently the jailing of DVB journalist Zaw Pe. Last year hundreds of people were arrested for peacefully protesting. Numbers of arrests like this have not been this high since 2007 and 2008.  It has also been announced that candidates in the 2015 election will not be allowed to campaign outside their own constituencies, a severe limitation on political freedom.

So while we have this political space, the opportunity must be seized to make the people of [Myanmar] stronger, and more able to stand up to the government and the military, and demand our freedom and rights. In doing so we will increase our political understanding, come together as civil society and work together and organise together more effectively. That is why it is so important for international aid to strengthen and support civil society.

It is very sad, therefore, that more isn’t being done to support genuine grassroots civil society organisations and seize this chance while we have it. While I support international aid, I am concerned that aid money is being directed in ways that are making the government, not the people, stronger.

The British government boasts that it is giving US$18.5 million for projects strengthening civil society in [Myanmar] over five years. But it is giving almost double that, $33.6 million, for projects helping to build the [Myanmar] government’s capacity. This is separate from $16.7 million being spent on the disastrous census, and further money being spent on training the [Myanmar] military.

Helping the [Myanmar] government to become more efficient and effective makes sense if it is working for the people, but it isn’t. We still have a military-backed government which is not democratic and not accountable to the people. We didn’t choose this government. It wasn’t elected. It doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t prioritise our needs. It spends billions on the military, and far less on health and education. Military spending is probably equivalent to $30 for every person in [Myanmar].

There is a transition in our country, but not to democracy. What we have so far is a move to a more modern style authoritarian regime, rather than direct military rule. That still isn’t democracy. International aid is in danger of helping [Myanmar’s] government move from being an inefficient and badly run military dictatorship, and instead become a better run and more efficient authoritarian government with a civilian face.

The problem is not just that British and other international aid is helping to modernise the workings of a government that continues to oppress us and deny us genuine freedom. Even the aid that is helping civil society is often only done in a way that the government approves of, and can undermine genuine civil society groups.

International donors are going along with the [Myanmar] government’s effective veto of grassroots civil society organisations, by almost universally only funding civil society groups which are registered with the government. Often, the most support genuine civil society groups can hope for is attending a training course run by a government-approved group.

For most civil society organisations, especially those based in ethnic states, or those more critical of the government, getting official registration is almost impossible, and comes with restrictions on what they can do. Registration, and international support, goes to less critical civil society organisations which tend to be based in [Yangon], and for example, don’t fully understand the situation in ethnic states in which they get funded to work. This is not to criticise [Yangon]-based or government-registered NGOs, many of which do important work. Many of them are also frustrated at limitations on the work they can do, and the limited range of activities that international donors are willing to fund them to undertake. But civil society is diverse, and international donors should support that diversity.

Local groups which managed to survive and do essential work for many years under the dictatorship are now being starved of funds, and instead [Yangon]-based groups are moving in, imposing their own priorities and often avoiding controversial issues. They don’t document and report on human rights abuses by the government as do local organisations such as members of the Women’s League of Burma. In some cases international aid for civil society is actually undermining genuine civil society, and instead strengthening government approved civil society groups which are not going to speak out and advocate for rights in the same way, and are less critical of the government.

I am sure that these negative developments are not intended by international donors, but they are real, and an opportunity to strengthen the people of [Myanmar] so that they can one day hold the government to account is being lost. And already, there are signs that the window of opportunity may be closing.

(Zoya Phan is campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published as “Undaunted” in the USA, and “Little Daughter” in the rest of the world. She has been recognised as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum).

This Article first appeared in the May 08, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at