The Australian Government’s recent decision to cancel its pledged sum of US$42 million in aid to Myanmar has left many nervous about future spending on life-saving services.
A 3MDG Fund board meeting will be held in Nay Pyi Taw on Monday June 8 to discuss the implications of the 13 percent cut from its total budget, which numerically represents a reduction of US$292 million from $334 million. Australia chairs the board, which since 2014 has also included Myanmar’s Ministry of Health.
The 3MDG Fund is the largest development fund in Myanmar and receives contributions from six other bilateral donors: Denmark, the European Union, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US. According to a statement released by 3MDG on 28 May, Australia will remain the second-largest contributor to the fund.
3MDG said the cuts will have no immediate impact on current programs, which focus on child and maternal health as well as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. These programmes will be continued to be funded until 2016 as planned. It’s what lies beyond that has many concerned.
Since 3MDG inception in Myanmar three years ago, it has increased access to health services to more than 3.5 million people, according to its 2014 annual report.
“This included vaccinating more than 80,000 children against measles, reaching nearly 27,000 people who inject drugs with HIV prevention programs, screening more than 50,000 people for tuberculosis and treating almost 110,000 people for malaria,” the report states.
Future of harm reduction looks uncertain
“The cuts for 3MDG are very worrisome for us. HIV among people who inject drugs is already the highest among all risk groups in Myanmar; the latest data even suggest a rise in the number of drug injectors, as well as in HIV prevalence amongst them. As such, more
coverage is needed to fully address it. I hope these funding cuts will not jeopardise this,” said Willy De Maere, Technical Director at the Asia Harm Reduction Network (AHRN).
According to a June 2014 report by the Transnational Institute titled, Bouncing back: Relapse in the Golden Triangle, HIV infection rates among drug users in Myanmar are among the highest in the world.
Harm reduction activities aim to reduce the associated risks of injecting drug use, which include tuberculosis, HIV and viral hepatitis. The 3MDG Fund contributed almost half of Myanmar’s national target for prevention activities. In 2014, the fund’s implementing partners distributed 6.9 million sterile needles and syringes to people who inject drugs – many of whom live in remote or border areas that are often subject to armed disputes between ethnic minority groups and Myanmar’s government.
“What we need is more funding, not less. It’s very disappointing,” said Dr Maung Maung Lwin, project consultant of Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association (MANA).
“My hope is that in terms of absorbing the cuts, life-saving service deliveries will take top priority. We know that 39 percent of new HIV infections are due to unsterile needles and that the most vulnerable communities live in Myanmar’s border areas; many of which are also suffering ethnic armed conflict. I hope the board takes the time it needs to weigh up its decisions,” said UNAIDS Country Director Eamonn Murphy.
“Most of the funding from donors and Myanmar’s domestic resources go towards treatment rather than prevention. As 39 percent of new HIV infections in Myanmar are injecting drug users, we can’t afford to lose this critical support from the 3MDG Fund,” Mr Murphy added.
A statement released by the 3MDG Fund on 28 May maintained an upbeat tone: “Australia has been a strong and generous supporter of the 3MDG Fund… The country is committed to the goals and continued success of the 3MDG Fund and is an engaged partner in supporting the Ministry of Health improve the health of the people of Myanmar.”
Nay Lin Soe is the founder and programme director of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI), which is a local NGO that aims to build an inclusive society and enables persons with disabilities to live independently and achieve their potential. Nay Lin Soe talks to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about why disability-related issues need to become part of the mainstream public discourse.
You founded MILI in May 2011. What were your reasons for doing so?
Most organisations in Myanmar focus on a single disability, such as blindness. I wanted to create an organisation that works for people with any type of disability and introduce the concept of independent living. I believe that people with disabilities can live independently and participate fully in society with the appropriate support. Another reason was that most disability NGOs only operate in Yangon, whereas I wanted to work across the whole country because I know that those who live outside cities have no opportunities or support. Our head office is in Yangon and we have 20 local branches in eight regions and states.
What are MILI’s objectives?
We have two objectives: the first is to empower and support people with disabilities. Our second objective is to promote the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities. This includes working with government officials, NGOs, religious organisations, media and business personnel – we aim to make disability a cross-cutting issue.
How would you describe the general perception of people with disabilities in Myanmar?
Most people view us as a charity case. We are objects not subjects and they think we are incapable of doing anything. So awareness is a large part of what we do. We are introducing the concept that it is not disabled people who need to change, but society. The way we try to counter negative stereotypes is by holding regular workshops on disability. The workshops introduce disability as a cross-cutting issue – it should be part of the mainstream agenda. We also produce weekly educational radio programmes which are broadcast on several stations, such as Cherry FM and Mandalay FM. We have a studio on our first floor and the programmes are created by blind people using tailored software.
As a person with a disability, have you experienced discrimination?
Yes I have, from an early age. When I was five, my mother sent me to the local public school but the principal wouldn’t allow me to enroll. Her reasoning was that the school had a limited number of teachers – there was one teacher to around 55 or 60 children in a classroom. The principal said that if a disabled person such as me was a class member, the teacher wouldn’t have time to concentrate on the other students. My mother tried to explain that I could do everything independently – I could read, write and manage daily habits such as going to the toilet. But the principal didn’t believe us. Teachers in Myanmar tend to have limited knowledge about disability and they don’t know how or what to teach them. The principal also said that even if I did go on to get a university degree, I wouldn’t be given a job because I am disabled. She said it was better for me to stay inside, that I should be home schooled by my grandma because that should be enough for me. So that was that.
Two years later, my mother took me to a new school that had been built close to our home. She negotiated with the principal and I was finally given the chance to start attending school at the age of seven. Normally children begin at five. This is my story, but every disabled person in Myanmar has a story like this.
I would like to say that disabled people are part of the community and part of this country. It’s not just the government that needs to help us make disability issues mainstream issues, but private businesses and civil society. It’s about supporting equality.
Did you pursue higher studies?
I completed high school with three distinctions and wanted to study at the University of Industry because I wanted to be a mechanic. But because of my disability, I couldn’t attend university every day because it was so far away from my home – it was around 80 kilometres. So I went for a distance education degree with a major in geography. I couldn’t choose mechanics as a major because the choice of majors is so limited. After my first year, I went to hospital to have surgery to correct my lower limbs and spent the next two years in rehabilitation programmes. When that was complete, I began working for a small organization and then left for Japan in 2005, where I spent the next year.
What was Japan like?
Japan is a top country in terms of accessibility. I could go anywhere in a city – even the subway. When I came back to Myanmar in 2006 I joined a local NGO which was involved in community based rehabilitation. I worked there for five years as a rehabilitation project manager, before joining a Japanese organisation. I resigned three years later and set up MILI.
How many staff does MILI have and what are the benefits of membership?
MILI currently has 41 paid staff, most of whom have a disability. We hope to prove that people with disabilities aren’t a burden on society but are in fact contributors – not just in management but in all areas of implementing the projects MILI runs.
We also have more than 2,000 members. The basic criteria for membership is having any type of disability. Membership is completely free and it allows members to participate in group activities which aim to build an inclusive society or to help them live independently.
How has MILI grown over the years?
In the beginning we had no budget, no office, no facilities; nothing. We began with disability inclusion training programmes, which we provided for several international and local organizations in Yangon. The money we earned from training fees made it possible to buy computers and then set up an office. But in the beginning it was very hard. We approached organizations to support us, but they didn’t believe in us because we are disabled. Over time they started to see what we were capable and increased their support.
Today our major partners include Japan’s Nippon Foundation, which provides 65 percent of our funding, along with the Myanmar Education Consortium, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems from the United States, as well as a donor from Indonesia. Our donors support different projects: for example, for ActionAid we produce disability related literature.
Although we now have many partners, we have also set up a business programme because we don’t want to rely exclusively on donors: we need our own income. MILI has a printing business and a car rental service – this was made possible when the Nippon Foundation donated six cars.
Are you also lobbying for legal reform?
MILI has been working with members of parliament since 2012 on a new National Disability Rights Law. It’s already been passed by the upper house but the process of actually bringing it into force is taking a long time – but we do hope it will be passed in 2015. The new law would require all public buildings to be accessible for people with disabilities, as well as transport systems.
So few buildings are accessible – even footpaths are not accessible. If this comes into law, there would be so many buildings that could be found to contravene the law. What is the penalty?
The penalties aren’t so big – they include fines while others are one or two months in prison. Another part of it is punishing businesses who fail to adhere to a new quota for disabled members of staff, which will be set at one percent. But yes, we’ll have to watch to see whether the change is real or not. Once the law comes into effect, it will be handed over to the Ministry of Social Welfare for implementation.
We are also lobbying for rights for the disabled to be included in the new education law and the election law. We hope to increase access for voters and we are working with USAID and the Foundation for Electoral Systems on this, as well as the Union Election Commission (UEC). We present the UEC with recommendations from community groups that we meet with. The UEC has the power to create by-laws and we hope that these views can be incorporated – such a proposed by-law to make police stations accessible.
The Economist’s inaugural Myanmar Summit on 15 May brought together over 200 leaders in business, government, politics and academia to discuss the progress Myanmar has made since it began its transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule in 2011.
The event, titled Taking Stock, presented a series of panels that focused on the development of the country’s financial systems, infrastructure and political environment. Some panellists were more upbeat than others, with no clear picture emerging of the future of a country that remains notoriously difficult to predict.
Edwin Vanderbruggen, a partner VDB Loi, said that the pace of rolling out infrastructure is adequate.
“This is my fourth year here and as a lawyer, I see a lot of encouraging signs. For example it’s now much easier to register security for onshore assets – even last year that wasn’t possible.”
However he conceded that land ownership remains a major issue for potential investors.
“You can’t just flick a switch when it comes to settling issues of land ownership, and you can’t just replicate the models used to determine ownership in say Thailand or the Philippines. I tell companies, ‘This is going to take nine months, you know.’ And frankly, a lot of companies just don’t have the patience to wait – they’ll go to Thailand instead.”
When asked whether Myanmar will inevitably lose out on opportunities as a result of inadequate infrastructure in comparison with other countries in the region, Mr Vanderbruggen was unequivocal.
“There are a lot of uncertainties. I do know that the government is absolutely doing its upmost. I do a lot of work for the government and I appreciate how few resources they have. They have some extremely smart people in every department, but not enough of them – nor enough money. So yes, some companies will eventually give up and go elsewhere.”
Stephen P. Groff, the vice-president of East Asia, SE Asia and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that Myanmar has “undergone the CNN effect – it’s popped onto the international radar, which is a good thing in itself.”
The CEO of Parami Group, Ken Tun, appeared the most optimistic. He was at pains to point out that Myanmar is the largest exporter of energy in Asia and said, “Look at what Telenor and Ooredoo have done – we can see that quick growth is possible. However most people don’t believe in something until it actually happens.”
Later, during a panel titled ‘Myanmar’s next generation’, Nay Chi Win, head of the Togetherness Education and Policy Unit at the opposition party the National League for Democracy quipped, “We have Telenor, Ooredoo and MPT – but still no electricity.”
The greatest caution seemed to relate to developing Myanmar’s financial architecture. Dr Maung Maung Thein, deputy minister at the ministry of finance, assured the audience that the progress of setting up the stock exchange was “73 percent complete.”
When asked why now is considered the right time for Myanmar to launch a stock exchange, he replied, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. Out of 198 countries, only nine don’t have a stock exchange. We gained our independence from the British 67 years ago. So if not now, when would be the right time?”
U Thura Ko Ko, managing director of YGA Capital said, “We can be forgiven for being frustrated, but it isn’t wise to liberalise the financial sector too early.”
Christopher Hughes, managing partner at Baker & McKenzie, concurred with U Thura Ko Ko when asked by moderator Ross O’Brien, director, Hong Kong, The Economist Corporate Network, whether there is a danger that the pace of reform is too slow and that enthusiasm among investors will wane as a consequence.
“It’s still quite a fragile environment – the basis of the [financial] framework is still being built. But it’s also a time of great opportunity. The risks of getting it wrong are far too high to rush. I think the balance is pretty good,” he said.
As for Myanmar’s next generation, as the panel itself was titled, the country’s young leaders expressed gratitude for the progress made while noting the constraints that continue to exist.
Cherry Zahau, independent researcher at Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue, opened her remarks by saying, “This is the first time the youth have been invited to speak at such a conference. In our culture, the youth are not allowed to express their views. This is also part of the legacy of living under a military dictatorship. It left us in fear that taking part in political activities will land you in prison. This was proven to still be true just last March,” she said, referring to the student protests that erupted over the draft education law.
She also lamented that while her contemporaries aren’t short on business idea, they lack capital and are pitted against large corporations.
“There are also cultural barriers that prevent our youth from achieving their potential. In school, my teachers always told me that I asked too many questions. We need to address the communication gap that exists between the older and younger generations: the older generation thinks they don’t need to talk to us and we think they know better. But in the end, we stop thinking critically and give up,” she said.