Numerous events have highlighted Myanmar’s recent transition to democracy, most notably the release of opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010 and the visit to Myanmar by US President Barack Obama in 2012. Yet number of major issues remain, including the relationship between the central government and ethnic groups and the widespread poverty faced by all but a small number of urban residents. The Nippon Foundation, which has assisted Myanmar since the time of military rule, is redoubling its efforts to lay the groundwork for resolving such issues.
Harsh Living Conditions for Ethnic Minorities Near the Border
Myanmar (Burma) has made swift moves toward democracy since March 2011, when a civilian government took the reins of power from the military junta. Foreign investment has been rising rapidly, and media reports around the world feature the country in an overwhelmingly positive light. But a number of issues must be resolved before true democracy can be established.
Six decades of conflicts between ethnic groups and the central government have left many areas without sufficient social infrastructure, including health-care services and educational institutions. In addition, people who abandoned their homes and farms after being attacked by government troops and took refuge in mountainous areas live in dire circumstances as displaced persons. Those who were the targets of the military junta’s crackdown, and are now refugees in Thailand and other countries, await the day they can return home. Displaced persons both in and outside Myanmar live in poverty and lack the family records needed to be eligible for citizenship.
Although Myanmar now has a democratically elected government, progress on resolving ethnic group issues remains elusive. There are an estimated one million internally displaced persons. The United Nations and various governments are aware of the situation but cannot extend a helping hand because the problem is viewed as an internal matter. Overseas support groups that once provided aid and supplies to support the pro-democracy, anti-government activities of Myanmar refugees have been shifting their aid to Myanmar in recognition of the civilian government and democratic reforms.
Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen, was forced to flee Myanmar in 1988 when the military took control of the government because of her involvement in the pro-democracy student movement. After arriving in Thailand, she established a clinic for displaced persons in the border town of Mae Sot. For more than two decades she has worked at the clinic, which provides medical services free of charge. Maung notes that with democratization, displaced persons can now think about returning home, but the path back is fraught with difficulties:
“Many people want to go home. But a decade or more has passed since they left, and a lot has changed. It’s still not clear whether they can go back to their village, make a living, and enroll their children in school who aren’t recorded on the family register. A lot of problems need to be dealt with before members of the ethnic minority groups can secure true peace.”
The Nippon Foundation’s status as a private-sector organization has given it more leeway to assist Myanmar’s ethnic groups, as compared to foreign governments and international organizations that must work under various constraints. The foundation began providing assistance to the country in 1976 for the eradication of leprosy and other causes. It has also sought to enable members of ethnic groups, who live in very difficult circumstances, to make an independent living through a three-pronged strategy in the realms of education, health care, and agriculture.
To date, the Nippon Foundation has opened about 200 elementary schools, mainly in Shan, Myanmar’s largest state in land area, which is home to many ethnic groups. An additional 100 schools are scheduled to be built in Shan, and some 100 are planned in the western state of Rakhine.
The Nippon Foundation’s assistance for school-building includes not only the built structures themselves but also projects to ensure that the running of schools by communities is viable over the long-term. The projects, which draw on local strengths, range from the cultivation of specialty crops to electricity generation. Thanks in large part to the industrious Myanmar people these projects have been highly successful.
The project to distribute traditional medical boxes, which already met with success in Mongolia and elsewhere, has been extended to Myanmar. Under the project, each participating village receives a box containing herbal remedies made from local ingredients. The medicine costs much less than Western pharmaceuticals, and the villagers can purchase amounts as small as a single tablet. The pilot project for Myanmar was launched in 2009, and in the three years since a total of 7,000 villages in 14 states have each received a medical box. Plans have been made to increase the number of boxes distributed to 28,000 by the end of 2014.
The Nippon Foundation has won high praise for its assistance to Myanmar that stretches back to the days when the country was under military rule. In June 2012, the foundation’s chairman, Yohei Sasakawa, was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar. In October, representatives from 10 ethnic groups in Myanmar visited Japan for the Conference on Emergency Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar Ethnic Groups organized by the Nippon Foundation, which included talks regarding concrete measures to implement aid. By December the first supplies had reached Myanmar and were delivered.
Commenting on his appointment as Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar, Sasakawa said that even if democratization in Myanmar brings more foreign investment, discontent among ethnic minority groups will only grow unless their living standards rise and the income gap is narrowed. The Nippon Foundation’s activities are designed to enable ethnic group members to feel that they too are the beneficiaries of the democratic reforms, thus bringing a cease-fire agreement with the government within reach. Ultimately, such an agreement will help raise the standard of living of the people of Myanmar as a whole.
During his trip to Myanmar, Sasakawa met separately with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite their political differences, both were in complete agreement that the ethnic minority issue must be resolved in order to achieve true democracy. With the help of the Nippon Foundation and other private-sector organizations in Japan, Myanmar is seeking to make a new start as a democracy.
Projects Implemented by the Nippon Foundation Group in Myanmar (as of January 2013)
|Year||No. of projects||Budget (US$)|
Breakdown of Projects from FY2012 (April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013)
|1 Provide emergency food and medical support to internally displaced people||3,000,000||December 2012|
|2 Implement medical services for residents of remote areas (mobile clinic)||5,000,000||September 2012|
|3 Distribute prosthetic limbs for residents of isolated areas||2,500,000||January 2013|
|4 Establish a prosthetist/orthotists training center||6,000,000||January 2013|
|5 Distribute traditional medicine boxes||700,000||Ongoing|
|6 Support a medical clinic on the Thailand-Myanmar border||95,000||Ongoing|
|7 Support fundraising activities of the medical clinic on the Thailand-Myanmar border||20,000||November 2012|
|8 Offer training on cultivation of medicinal plants||500,000||January 2013|
|9 Donate used welfare vehicles||1,000,000||Vehicles arrived in Yangon in September 2012|
|10 Offer leadership training and establish self-help groups for the disabled||73,300||Ongoing|
|11 Prepare for the holding of an international arts festival for the disabled||30,000||Ongoing|
|12 Assist the Institute on Disability and Public Policy||100,000||2013|
|13 Establish an international network to provide secondary education for the disabled in the ASEAN region||Planning||2013|
|14 Support tertiary education for the visually impaired||100,000||2013|
|15 Build an educational center for children with disabilities||1,800,000||2013|
|16 Assist school construction to provide regional development and agricultural instruction (Shan state)||700,000||Ongoing|
|17 Construct schools and put in place facilities for health and sanitation education (Rakhine state)||5,000,000||Ongoing|
|18 Regional development through school construction and (Ayeyarwady state)||Planning||2013|
|19 Hold an international workshop to educate female leaders||25,000||Preparation stage|
|20 Train public officials||156,000||Ongoing|
|21 Invite Myanmar members of Parliament to visit Japan to study its political system||116,000||Ongoing|
|22 Support the chairing of the ASEAN Summit||250,000||Ongoing|
|23 Offer training of state government officials||1,500,000||2013|
|24 Dispatch skilled volunteers||Planning||Preparation stage|
|25 5th ASEAN Traditional Medicine Conference||200,000||September 2013|