“Cordaid’s aim is to work in and on fragility. Now is the time, and this is the place to do just that. Myanmar is at a crucial crossroads.” Paul Roelofsen, Cordaid Director in Myanmar, reflects on the mass protests after the military coup on February 1st. “So far, despite the turmoil, most of our work continues.”
For decades, from 1962 to 2011, people in Myanmar were ruled by a military regime. Democracy and civilian rule, reintroduced in the past decade, are new to a vast majority of the 54 million population.
But feelings of freedom and of being represented have strongly taken hold. They have inspired an unprecedented popular uprising after the detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) members – winners of the disputed November elections. Despite a violent crackdown, protests continue.
“Intensive care units are about the only still functioning parts of a health system that was already overstretched prior to this crisis. Most of the medical staff has joined the protests.”
“This is bigger than the Saffron Revolution in 2007. I have worked and lived here now for 10 years and have never witnessed anything like it”, Roelofsen says. “The big question is: will this country go back to where it was before 2011?”
The latest turn of events, with dozens of people killed by live ammunition, casts a black shadow.
What do you, as an ex-pat and outsider, notice of the state of emergency and the uprising?
“My situation as a foreigner is a lot better than what Myanmar’s people go through. I might run out of certain commodities and groceries, they are protecting their lives and their future.
I stopped following the local news, it is too biased. To get a clear view of the unfolding events, I use social media. And our 17 Cordaid staff and partners across the country stay connected and inform one another by phone. So far, all staff, most of whom are Burmese, are safe.
Every morning, I cycle around the part of Yangon city, where I live. Checking whether the lady selling noodles is still there on the corner of the street. Whether that young father still brings his daughter to school. I call it my ‘security tour’. What I see is that in the past few weeks public life has practically come to a standstill. The uprising has taken over the daily life of almost everyone.”
What is the scale of the movement? What is its impact?
“The scale and the solidarity across generations, ethnic backgrounds, and income levels are overwhelming, energizing, and unprecedented. People take to the streets, every day, not just in the capital but in over fifty cities.
Every part of society is involved. Not just popular masses, even parts of the police. Even the military, through their families, are involved. Most of the protesters have no financial reserves whatsoever. They are able to keep up their pro-democracy struggle, because of the support they get from others who have a little more to give, in the shape of food and money. Even some rich billionaires are showing their generosity.
“In 2014, more than 50 million people entered the age of the internet. The versatility, solidarity, and creativity of the protestors are largely due to their online connectedness.”
The movement is increasingly undermining public services. Intensive care units are about the only still functioning parts of a health system that was already overstretched prior to this crisis. Most of the medical staff has joined the protests. Banking services are down for the same reason.
There’s a willingness to join hands, even among groups and factions that weren’t collaborating before. The momentum is rising. The question is how long can people resist. And even more: will the military yield or will this end bloodshed. The latest events show that things are turning really bad.”
Had you ever expected an uprising of this amplitude?
“No. There were signs, but this is taking everyone by surprise. One of the forces at play here is the internet and social media. Prior to 2007, there was no internet here. And in 2011 a SIM card still cost about 700 USD. The mobile phone market opened up for competing internet providers in 2014 and prices tumbled to 1.5 USD for a SIM card. That was when more than 50 million people entered the age of the internet. The versatility, solidarity, and creativity of the protestors are largely due to their online connectedness. It is something that has taken the regime completely by surprise. So much so, that they now have blocked all internet access from 1 to 9 AM. I guess so far they haven’t blocked it 24/7 because of the outrage it would cause, also internationally.”
How is it affecting Cordaid’s work?
“Most of the community resilience and disaster risk reduction projects we initiated continue to be implemented. Like the water shop, a drinking water facility serving a population of 17.000 in one of the slums of the capital. Or the loan and savings groups we supported for farmers in Kayin State. These are still functioning and allowing families to make ends meet.
“Do you have enough food, medicines? How are you and the kids doing? What about your stress levels, your mental state?”
This work continues because these projects are run by communities themselves. And because they were set up to become self-supportive after a while. This is great, especially now that financial transactions have become extremely difficult.
Apart from that, we are very much obstructed by the impossibility to receive funding. As I said, banking services are down. This makes it very hard to start new initiatives. Besides, given the chaos and the difficulty to trace in whose hands project money ends up, we have to be very cautious. The last thing you want is to finance a regime that is not elected by its own citizens.”
What about staff security?
“We strictly observe all safety and security protocols. We have our telephone circuits, checking in on one another. Do you have enough food, medicines? How are you and the kids doing? What about your stress levels, your mental state?
My staff is part of an international NGO. But they are also citizens of this country, dealing with the situation and supporting this civil movement. Giving their time and their resources to support people in the streets and improve their livelihood. Doing what they can for their fellow citizens, for themselves, and for their country.”
Should or can a foreign NGO take a position in this crisis?
“Neutrality is crucial, especially in humanitarian interventions. But there is another principle: Cordaid is here to support the most vulnerable people. Or, to reiterate the words of Caritas Myanmar (KMSS), ‘political power is to empower the most vulnerable’. A military regime that is robbing a people of its young democracy and shoots peaceful protesters, is no longer only a matter of politics. It is a matter of evil vs. good. It is a moral issue.
Cordaid’s aim is to work in and on fragility. Now is the time, and this is the place to do just that. Now, with all the challenges at hand, I believe we should stand with those who are most vulnerable. The mothers, fathers, nurses and doctors, civil servants, and students who risk their lives to protest peacefully, day after day. Citizens who take the risk of being shot. Asking only for their basic human rights to be respected.
“Will the military opt for total repression? And how long can a people and a society survive on the little they have?”
To quote Cardinal Charles Maung Bo: ‘Peace is the only way. Democracy is the only light to that path’. We simply can’t abandon people when they are being attacked so brutally. And when democracy is taken away from them.
This is why, despite all the volatility and insecurity, and financial challenges, we are seeking ways to support the civil movement. Traditionally, we support established civil society organisations and NGOs. But now, the epicentre of social change is a movement in the making. Supporting that comes with a whole new set of risks and opportunities. We are exploring them, together with Caritas Myanmar.
People do not want to go back to 50 years of military rule and violence. The least you can do is to speak out and to stand with them. Because if you refuse to take sides when oppression takes place in front of your eyes, you side with the oppressor.”
How is COVID-19 playing in all this?
“The country had its share of cases. But prior to the coup and the protests, infection rates and death rates weren’t comparable to those in Europe. As COVID-monitoring has completely collapsed, we simply don’t know how bad the pandemic is right now.
Having said that, the COVID-discipline shown by protestors is amazing. Practically everybody is wearing masks, and even face shields and gloves. But overall, I would say that the pandemic is in no way keeping the protestors away from the streets.”
What are the scenarios for the future?
“The country is at a crucial crossroads. Either the path will lead to total fragility, with a military regime tearing the social contract with citizens and society to pieces. Or it could lead to democracy being victorious, with an elected civil government that is accountable towards its people.
Will the military opt for total repression? And how long can a people and a society survive on the little they have? These are two key questions. With the recent shootings, that first question has been partly answered, I am afraid.
Taking a broader and more historical look, you need to take the fractured political landscape into account, with the many armed groups and the civil wars this country has gone through. There are signs that many former enemies are now seeking to form a front, also with the NLD. We don’t know whether this will actually happen, but if it does, the country is in for a confrontation that could be very violent. Civil war is possible.
What I hope for, is that the military will step back and admit that the coup was a mistake. That civil rule will be restored, the constitution will be changed, a civil minister of defence will be appointed. And that Myanmar can resume the political transformation it started in 2011. This might sound unrealistic. But I don’t want to lose my faith in the good of humankind.”
This interview was written by Cordaid editor Frank van Lierde
BBC overview of what is happening in Myanmar and why.
Statement by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of February 3rd.
Statement of KMSS (Caritas Myanmar) of February 22nd.
Cordaid in Myanmar
Read more about Cordaid in Myanmar. Or watch this video, showing an example of Cordaid’s efforts to promote flood resilience in Myanmar’s dry zone: