Myanmar government, struggling to handle accusations of ethnic cleansing over its treatment of Rohingyas, is contemplating new legislation that would seek greater oversight of the work of international non-governmental organizations, including the United Nations, prompting concerns of a crackdown on their activities, The Washington Post reports.
The Draft Law on International Non-Governmental Organizations, a copy of which was recently obtained by The Washington Post, contains a vague definition of the groups it would regulate, proposes monitoring of aid groups’ work by Myanmar staff and provides the affected organizations with few safeguards against the government suspending their work. This has led some groups to fear it could be used to restrict their work in Burma.
The proposed law comes at a time of a wider crackdown on democratic freedoms under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, as they struggle to deal with the fallout of military operations that have sent nearly 700,000 Rohingya fleeing over the border to Bangladesh since August.
“The stated purpose of the law allows government to suppress activities they do not favour and undermines the efforts in advancing democracy and human rights,” according to a February presentation reviewed by The Washington Post from the INGO Forum, a coalition of dozens of aid groups operating in Myanmar.
Representatives from international aid groups and diplomats are lobbying members of the parliamentary committee reviewing the draft to change the wording or to have it withdrawn. It was unclear whether the law would move past the commission or what provisions the final version would include, according to The Washington Post.
It was also unclear who wrote the draft or if it was done at direction of the president or state counsellor’s office. Zaw Htay, a spokesperson for the government, directed questions on the draft law to the Ministry of Planning and Finance.
Tin Maung Oo, a member of the commission that is working on the legislation, said the group was consulting with ministries, representatives from non-governmental groups and experts. He said that international aid groups were doing important work and that the government would like them to “flourish” but that a law was needed to oversee their work.
Critics warn that such laws are part of a disturbing trend in the region.
According to Tin Maung Oo, the draft law would apply to the work of the United Nations in Myanmar. The government has blocked a UN fact-finding mission from entering Myanmar, barred its human rights investigator and denounced the United Nations’ statements on Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas, which it has labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Criticism of the United Nations and aid groups is particularly pronounced in Rakhine state, where ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have long accused them of favoritism toward the Rohingya.
It is unclear whether the government would be able to apply the law to the United Nations and its work in Myanmar. Stanislav Saling, spokesman for the Office of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, said the country is already a signatory to “international conventions and agreements” that govern the United Nations’ work in the country.
But UN agencies implement many of their programs through nongovernmental groups, which could be affected by the law.
“The UN and other development cooperation partners have expressed concern that some of the provisions in the current draft of the law are arbitrary and excessive, and could restrict the ability of INGOs to play their important humanitarian and development role,” Saling said.
“We believe it will neither help government to regulate and manage INGOs, nor help INGOs to operate effectively, efficiently, transparently or accountably,” he added.