Myanmar – a country in turmoil

On 1 February, the military seized power in Myanmar. De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and a one-year state of emergency declared. What is it that is taking place in the country that has only experienced tentative reforms since 2011? And how is the current crisis affecting the poorest, who are the beneficiaries of HEKS/EPER projects?

The state of shock that followed the military coup in Myanmar lasted barely 72 hours. A civil disobedience movement quickly took shape. Citizens expressed their anger and frustration first via social media, then three days later on the streets. From the start, young Burmese people represented an important group. This generation has been shaped by a decade of freedom. Prior to that, the military had ruled the country for 49 years with an iron hand. The young generation does not want to return to this by any means. Having underestimated the power of the resistance, which various generations and ethnic groups have now joined, the military junta is resorting increasingly to violence and intimidation in an attempt to quell the uprisings.

Myanmar - Ein Land in Auffuhr

Working under more difficult conditions 

HEKS/EPER, which began working in Myanmar four years ago, is following these political developments with concern and hopes for a swift return to democratic conditions. Julien Brewster, HEKS/EPER Country Director in Myanmar, recounts the following: «Things were already difficult in the country even before the coup. The COVID-19 restrictions had a devastating impact on people's livelihoods. Over the past year, the proportion of households living below the poverty line skyrocketed from 16 to 63 per cent. The speed of this relapse into poverty is shocking. In addition, more than 330,000 people were already living as internally displaced persons in refugee camps or camp-like conditions, due to armed fighting between the military and various ethnic groups. The latest political crisis has meant even more suffering for these people – they currently have very limited access to urgently needed humanitarian aid.»

HEKS/EPER will continue its work in Myanmar despite the change of political power. «We are committed to continue working to improve the living conditions of ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups in Myanmar», says Brewster. In Myanmar, HEKS/EPER works exclusively with civil society and the private sector, including start-ups, and not with the military government. But it is important to be sensitive when working in such fragile contexts, he adds. «The conflict-sensitive approach followed by HEKS/EPER is especially relevant here, as it helps us to identify any unintended consequences of our work and to use our interventions as a way to specifically reduce tensions.»

Statement by Concerned Businesses

In Myanmar, HEKS/EPER is not registered as an NGO but as a company, and has therefore aligned itself with the Statement by Concerned Businesses Operating in Myanmar, expressing deep and growing concern over developments in the country since the declaration of the state of emergency. In the statement, the businesses stress that they have always sought and will continue to seek to operate in Myanmar transparently and in line with core ILO Conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They also state their intention to continue to work hand-in-hand with local business partners which share the same approach and the same principles. The statement reads in part: «We believe our business presence, practices, and advocacy for a level playing field for all businesses, and our commitment to international human rights standards contribute in a significant way to the journey of openness and democracy in Myanmar.» The full text can be accessed here.

Return of the Rohingya increasingly unlikely

News of the coup has also triggered great disappointment among the Rohingya people in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. «Even under Aung San Suu Kyi, the prospects of any early return of the Rohingya already looked rather bleak», says Sebastian Zug, Programme Manager for HEKS/EPER Emergency Aid in the Rohingya refugee camps. «The military are now back in power under General Min Aung Hlaing, having themselves been responsible for the violent attacks that forced the Rohingya to flee Myanmar in the summer of 2017. If the Rohingya are ever to live in Myanmar as a minority with equal rights, the country would need genuine democratisation as well as a transformation of public opinion towards ethnic minorities.»

That change is perhaps under way at the moment. The current political crisis seems to be inducing ever greater unity among the population: «We are seeing growing awareness as well as outrage at the way the military is proceeding – both towards demonstrators as well as ethnic minorities, many of whom have now joined in the resistance», says Julien Brewster. It is perhaps this state of emergency that can ultimately push the multi-ethnic State of Myanmar towards greater unity.


Samuel Berner
Head of Media and Information Department
Samuel Berner

Phone: +41 44 360 88 25
Mobile: +41 76 461 88 70

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