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Dodging the Junta

An ad hoc grassroots aid network in Burma has had some success working around the country's repressive leaders.

Though the junta has attempted to commandeer every level of the relief effort--backed by its legions of foot soldiers in the army and police--some local groups have found detours around the blockades, helped by ground-level officials willing to look the other way. On a Wednesday afternoon last month, a group of volunteers visited a makeshift shelter in Shwebaukan, an area in the outlying districts of Rangoon. Inside a government school--the only concrete building in the neighborhood--500 homeless cyclone victims were huddled, “being threatened by the local army guy [who was saying] that they could not stay there for long,” according to a Western expatriate who accompanied the group. The military man turned out to be a member of Suan Aa Shin, the local “brute force” contingent. Two days later, the victims were evicted from the school, left to patch together lean-to shacks from the wreckage of ruined huts.

Despite the clampdown, no one stopped volunteers from returning to the area the next weekend to pass out rice, beans, and oral rehydration solution to the evicted residents. The volunteers were able to do their work because they had an established history with area leaders. Before the cyclone, they had worked on educational activities in the neighborhood, building local ties. “Local authorities are in many ways our biggest allies,” said Beth Jones, program director of the Foundation for the People of Burma (FPB), a U.S.–based humanitarian group funding some of these grassroots relief efforts. “They sit on these [township] councils, participate in military activities on occasion. But there are people who have hearts and minds, concern for their fellow citizens. They’re the smokescreens between the small civic groups and the higher-ups who don’t want any of this going on, on the ground.”

Since coming to power in 1962, Burma’s junta has maintained an unyielding grip on the country’s politics, media outlets, schools, public gatherings, and commercial industries. Over the past decade, however, it has conceded limited opportunities for humanitarian and educational activities to take place. Alongside a small number of international NGOs, a loose network of local advocates and community leaders has conducted public health campaigns, cultural programs, and religious activities. The regime has maintained a harsh and capricious attitude toward these civic groups, frequently cutting off access and closely monitoring their members. But their work has been provisionally tolerated, if not openly embraced, so long as the groups steer clear of politics.

Burma’s monks have frequently served as the first point of contact for any grassroots-level initiative (along with their Christian and Muslim counterparts in ethnic minority communities). Among the first to be seen clearing trees after the cyclone, the monks have joined in supporting the ad-hoc relief effort. Despite the crackdown on monasteries following last year’s mass demonstrations, a number of powerful local abbots have leveraged their ties with government officials to pave the way for distributions of food, clean water, and medicine, one volunteer in Rangoon reported.

Within a week of the cyclone, a coalition of local religious leaders, ethnic minority groups, student unions, labor organizers, and artists distributed aid to some 4,000 victims and quickly expanded ongoing relief to over 70,000 people. The volunteers described the junta’s attempt to intensify its control of aid handouts, confiscating supplies and cutting off access to the devastated southern Delta region. International aid groups may be easy marks, but local volunteers and civic groups have also been targeted. FPB has received ongoing reports of interference by military personnel and police. Outside one of the makeshift refugee camps in Rangoon’s satellite communities, “a soldier informed us that we could not give supplies to the shelter, and should instead give the money and food to a local government official,” a local volunteer said in a statement released last month by the FPB. In another instance, an armed official confiscated the notebooks of local volunteers who were trying to create a census of the dead, Jones says.

In response, the ad hoc coalition has continued aid delivery under the cover of night--at times quite literally. On Saturday, May 10, one team attempted to bring clean water and medical supplies to a small hospital in one of the devastated towns beyond Rangoon. (The organizers declined to specify the exact location.) The hospital, one of the few operating in the region, had victims with broken bones and gangrenous-looking wounds waiting in a line that stretched past the doors. None had received treatment within in a week’s time. The medical director tried to hurry the volunteers away, saying “You can’t do it right now, you can’t do it right now or they will take it away--please come back after dark,” the group reported. Later that evening, the volunteers snuck back into the hospital to drop off the supplies.

Burma’s civic groups and community leaders have spent years learning how to maneuver around such crushing restraints. “They have faced controls on their movements, on goods and money, on their general freedom for so long, they have learned how to rely on some of these backdoor and relationship systems,” said Jones. “They know how to get things done in this environment.” Because most foreign aid workers still face visa blockades and are prohibited from entering the hardest-hit regions, the coalition has recruited local doctors and nurses to tend to victims. Only a modest flow of aid from abroad has been allowed into the country, so the volunteers rely on well-connected businessmen to procure chlorine tablets and temporary toilets from local suppliers. Low-level military officers helped secure access to the Irrawaddy Delta, the epicenter of the disaster. And the civic groups have turned to blogs and fundraising newsletters to convince potential donors that their contributions won’t go straight into the hands of the junta.

Given the magnitude of the devastation, however, even the most enterprising and resourceful grassroots efforts can only go so far. By the government’s count, 134,000 people have died or are missing, and the U.N. says that 2.5 million are still in need of aid. The logistical hurdles of reaching the entire Delta region are beyond the scope of any small-scale operation. But though their reach may be limited, the ability of civic groups to persist with their work is evidence that the junta’s control is less than total, according to Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University. “The fact that they let them have a space, that they have let people act, shows that [officials] on the ground believe the military is not capable of addressing the issues,” She says. Such cooperation between local officials and organizers “serves to build trust and networks that bridge divides in the community that the military foster to hold onto power.”

In the long run, these kinds of internal networks and linkages are key to any hope for a more open society. As Joshua Kurlantzick argued on this site, neither popular revolt nor international condemnation has led the junta to budge in the past. Over the past month, the generals have acted true to form, limiting foreign aid for fear that “destructive elements” will undermine their grip on the state. By working outside of official channels to deliver humanitarian relief, domestic civic groups have created unlikely alliances within Burma’s highly militarized and stratified society: between monks and low-level officials, Delta villagers and city residents, community organizers and military cronies. However precarious these relationships, their potential impact should not be discounted. For ultimately, some analysts say, the catalyst for long-term reform will have to come from within the regime’s ruling cadre itself--prompted not only by internal discontent among officers, but also by sympathy for other factions of Burmese society. “The military’s mid-level officers would need to see that people are all are suffering, the same as them,” says U Win Min, a Burmese exile and political analyst based in Thailand.

In the meantime, the recent disaster has created some small opportunities for Burma’s fragile civil society to reconcile with the army. In the cyclone’s aftermath, “[the military] even neglect their own,” an expatriate in Rangoon said by email last month. “As I passed some soldiers cutting trees yesterday, I asked if they'd eaten breakfast. Of course not! So, I went back home to get them some bread.”

Suzy Khimm is a writer based in New York.