Humanitarian Groups in Myanmar Forced to Go Underground Amid Military Crackdown on Charity

Workers say they are afraid but will continue to help the country’s needy.
2021-05-13
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Humanitarian Groups in Myanmar Forced to Go Underground Amid Military Crackdown on Charity A man is provided with first aid during a protest in Mandalay, Myanmar on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
AP

Humanitarian groups operating in Myanmar have been forced to go underground in the face of restrictions by the military junta that took power on Feb. 1, members of the groups told RFA.

In the country that once topped the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, which ranks countries in terms of generosity, the military regime has made it a crime to give or receive charity, humanitarian workers said. Volunteers and aid workers are now targeted by the junta’s security forces under vague laws, and many have gone into hiding to continue helping the many needy.

The army coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government has added to the ranks of people who need food, healthcare and accommodations that the humanitarian aid groups have been providing.

“Most of these people are internally displaced persons who fled their homes to the border areas and other safe places in Kachin, Karen and other states,” a doctor with one humanitarian organization told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We are working on distributing the assistance they need, such as food, medicine and other commodities. We work with domestic donors as well as donors from abroad, but the number of people in need of our assistance is growing. After we finish working in one location, another location that needs our help will pop up,” the doctor, who requested anonymity for safety reasons told RFA.

In some cases, the groups face legal hurdles. In the cities, people donate food and other essential items to the needy through food kitchens and other arrangements.

But the military government has been arresting humanitarian workers using Article 505 of the legal code, which classifies their activities as “incitement” and can result in sentences of up to two years or hefty fines

“We are only doing humanitarian work. Our organization makes donations, a tradition of the people of Myanmar. The junta has arrested people only for providing humanitarian aid,” a volunteer who asked to remain anonymous told RFA.

“We donate to anyone regardless of race, religion or class. We make these donations in front of our homes, but we get harassed and are asked not to continue. There is no law preventing our activity, but they just want to scare us,” the volunteer said.

The doctor said it was “unthinkable” for the junta to prevent humanitarian activities.

“We should ask them what their intentions are… What harm are we causing? We have donated many items… because of the emergency situation, but they are blocking us. We are afraid,” said the doctor. 

Another humanitarian worker who declined to be named told RFA that many people who donate are arrested by the junta’s security forces simply because authorities can pocket the fines they pay.

 “I think they have nothing else to do. That is why they are investigating people who are doing humanitarian work so they can arrest them to make them pay like 100,000 or 200,000 kyat [U.S. $65-130] for their release,” the worker said.

 “This is very inhumane that they are arresting donors. These donations should be allowed and encouraged, but they are behaving on instinct like animals,” the worker said.
Another humanitarian worker said the situation became risky in March.

 “That’s when they started arresting Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) supporters. Those who go out and take up collections for the movement are now too afraid. Those who would donate are also scared because they heard that cash transactions are being recorded,” the second worker said.

April brought new headaches as the junta began restricting internet communications, the aid worker added.

The doctor said that a disruption in commerce has also taken its toll.

“There are many challenges to withdraw cash from the banks. We also have problems making financial transactions, so we cannot collect as much in donations as we were able to before, frankly. This is all very tragic,” said the doctor.

“We have to do all our work in secret. Even in areas that are not conflict zones, people are facing danger, but we have problems contacting them. There are restrictions everywhere.”

But despite all the difficulties, a volunteer who declined to be named told RFA that the resolve of organizations to provide for the people has not been shaken.

“No matter what kind of problems we have, we will find the funds to continue to support the people. I want to encourage the leaders of the CDM to keep the movement going, and I’d like to appeal to supporters to donate to groups like ours,” the second volunteer said.

“We will keep going,” the doctor said, adding, “The donors are coming through for us in creative ways. Those who live abroad are less affected by all this, but our comrades who work in-country are facing many restrictions and persecution.”

“We must not stop our donations because of these restrictions. We will keep at our humanitarian activities until we achieve our goal. No matter where they live in this world, the Myanmar people are still the soul of Myanmar. That is why we will keep working hard to achieve a true democracy,” the doctor said.

RFA reported last month that several groups offering emergency medical services and help with funerals were closing amid a drop in funds and with volunteers targeted by junta forces for assisting anti-coup protesters injured in army and police crackdowns.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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