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Burma is the New NGO Heaven
by Ko Tha Dja
September 20th, 2012
What has become today of reforms in Burma will pass while new and unpredictable change will happen after Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein finish taking their premature victory laps in the United States. No one yet knows what will happen here and nothing is set in stone in Burma. Although it appears that Burma is on the road to democratic nirvana it is not too far from the starting point where it found itself when the almighty savior of the free world, the United States, lifted investment sanctions thus making plunder of Burma’s resources easier for civil society and western corporations. In fact, aside from a move away from automobiles using natural gas to a tsunami of gasoline engine vehicles flooding the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, causing massive traffic jams, high gasoline prices (surprise!) and choking air pollution, upon careful inspection not much has changed at all.
The government is still playing carrot and stick with reforms. Political prisoners are slowly released yet many remain in prison still. Some exiles have returned to press conferences greeting them at the airport while others are extremely skeptical about repatriation, or even a visit, and remain abroad untrusting that the government is sincere in calling them home. Poverty and land-grabs and crime are running rampant. Although Burma is very safe for foreigners, there is a lot of crime and it’s not for nothing every house not made of bamboo or old wood have a fortress-like look to them complete with tight coils of razor wire surrounding them, making them look like mini prisons for the occupants. Disease is prevalent amongst all stages of the population and open sewers line the streets with grayish black water everywhere.
Truth be told, Burma is one large mess. Electricity outages still occur daily and clean drinking water in its cities is all but a fantasy. Infrastructure, roads, electricity grids, sanitation, and pollution are enormous problems that will not go away with extractive plunder. No one seems to understand who is in charge except the generals and their cronies who sent the American business cartel packing recently after refusing to give up control over their own resources. How ungrateful, the Americans must’ve thought of the cronies. In some ways, it’s good for Burma that the current rulers aren’t willing to give a small inch of control to outsiders. Why should they? They will be wealthy, getting wealthier no matter what.
During a visit to the Tuesday evening expat homage for free drinks and teashop slop at a local art gallery one could look over the crowd and see dozens of heads. So many new fresh faces with svelte bodies wearing stylish elitist counter-culture clothing made to look already worn and shabby to give the wearer that self-absorbed and grizzled ex-pat in the third-world look. As amusing as it was, one could equal the visual amusement with audio and hear talks like “starting an NGO, an institute, doing research, tourism training, capacity building, micro finance, sustainable business enterprise, human capital empowerment” and the list of bullshit went on and on.
Only one guy, who happened to be from Germany, had the nerve to mention that the purpose of his four-year project proposal to write a history book for the Burmese people, “so that they could understand their own history and push ahead for reconciliation” had the honesty to tell me, after being questioned, that his project would pay him handsomely and allow him to live in Burma and then go home and live comfortably for a while. Yeah, the Burmese need some ding dong intellectual from Germany who never tasted green tea salad to teach them their own history.
I think that pretty much sums up the gold rush mentality for opportunists and the NGO crowd in Burma. Let’s face it, NGOs pay a lot of money to westerners and foreigners but the locals here in Burma know about the two-sided coin they’re tricked with. Except for the U.N. agencies like UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNDP and UNHCR, which I happen to believe are truly serving the people of Myanmar well, the rest of the NGOs paying salaries for Myanmar nationals suck like leeches in a jungle pond.
The common NGOs and their project chasers are human parasites sucking into Burma from all sides and angles, coming here to draw blood and enrich themselves. To be honest, it all made me sick in the stomach to hear. Does Myanmar, which at one time was the rice basket for all of Asia, really need westerners to teach them “sustainable” farming practices? Neither do they need genetically modified seed and an influx of “assistance” from agribusiness but they are getting that. Farmers all over Burma are being swindled out of their land and sent packing for civil society/corporate backed development projects only to be replaced by a big AgriCorp from some outside country.
The NGOs are streaming into Burma like flies partying on crap on a hot summer day. They bring with them their self-serving bravado and fantasies of martyrdom in the third world, saving the Burmese and the ethnics and bridging gaps of god knows what kind. Mainly, if one looks at the parasitic website called Reliefweb.com one can read job descriptions of every kind related to the most relevant natural disasters and impoverished places on the planet and seek out employment being a high-paid savior/martyr. One can find the latest seminars on how to raise funds – aha! Yes, look up any job on the website and stitched into the “qualifications” section one will see the magic potion that’s required of almost every single NGO job. That qualification? Having the ability to raise lots of money. That’s the single most important qualification to working for most NGO anywhere – especially in Burma.
With USAID, AUSAID and the Brits spending huge amounts of money in Burma the leeches of the NGO world and the wannabes and opportunists have flooded the streets of Yangon and brought with themselves huge egos, cultural insensitivity, a party-like mentality, and proposals and projects that make almost no sense at all. Yet, they’ll probably get funded as “civil society” pacifies the Burmese and enables the new world order to set up shop and suck, suck, suck Burma dry until it becomes dependent on western aid and in debt to the max with no way out except to privatize and give away Burma’s commons.
[Ko Tha Dja has worked for over five years in both Thailand and Burma on issues of education and refugee resettlement. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.]