Carpetbagging in Burma’s Ethnic Areas

Moegyo challenges the role of development/assistance in ethnic areas and provides recommendations for vetting.

With the transition in 2011 to a new hybrid civilian-military government in Burma, a number of international development/assistance carpetbaggers – organizations and individuals – have flocked to the country. Many of them are opportunist international nongovernment organization (INGOs), United Nations organizations (UNOs),  international development agencies (IDAs), and consultants which go into the conflict and ceasefire ethnic areas in countries to take advantage of the unsettled social, economic, and political conditions for organizational and/or individual self-interests.

CarpetbaggersCarpetbaggers is a term that was used to describe those persons who moved, immediately after the US Civil War,  from the North to the former Southern rebellious states to take advantage of the unstable social, economic, and political climate. The term came to be associated with opportunism and exploitation by outsiders. Their name came from their luggage which was manufactured from old carpets. The present day international development/assistance carpetbaggers, who carry backpacks now, are conflict/disaster seekers who prey on disaster areas and weak/collapsed states, such as Burma, in a similar manner as do “ambulance chasing” lawyers who rush to the scene of an accident to take advantage of any injured parties.

These international development/assistance carpetbaggers do not conduct any Do No Harm/conflict analysis; or if they do, they don’t use it to understand the conflict dynamics and power/influence relationships of the situation on the ground so as not to really “Do No Harm”.  Moreover, there is no sharing of these Do No Harm/conflict analyses with local stakeholders to ensure their validity.  Consequently, the international development/assistance carpetbaggers strengthen the centralization of the political, administrative, and fiscal powers of the Burma Government in social services while the ethnic people seek decentralization – an important aspect of their economic and political aspirations for the past seventy years. Such actors undermine the social services provided by the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in their administered areas by not  obtaining operating permission from local EAO administrative officials; degrade local ethnic community-based organizations (CBOs)/civil society organizations (CSOs) by drawing experienced staff away with compensation packages above local prevailing terms; pay above local market rates for facility leases, driving up local lease rates; provide direct overlapping local services, such as in health care; and, use logframes to push their own priorities which are not that of the local community or ethnic partnership organization(s).  This situation also plays into the hands of local Burman and ethnic business cronies who utilize their networks within the Burma Government, state/region/township governments, and/or Tatmadaw to influence decisions regarding local international development/assistance for the benefit of their own business interests.

The Burma Government and Tatmadaw take advantage of this “ignorance” or “Do Not Care” attitude of the international development/assistance carpetbaggers in a proxy economic counter-insurgency strategy involving development, nation building, humanitarian assistance, and conflict resolution/peace building programs in the ethnic areas. In essence, international development/assistance is co-opted and “weaponized” by the Burma Government and Tatmadaw against the EAOs by undermining the social and economic support given by the EAOs to their supportive ethnic populations as well as to push the EAOs toward the acceptance of unfavorable ceasefire terms and political compromises. The international development/assistance carpetbaggers take political sides by complementing the economic concessions given by the Burma Government to those EAOs which have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), while failing to similarly engage with EAOs which have not signed the NCA.

As one ethnic leader commented to a visiting INGO, “You Doing No Harm is harming us”.

The international development/assistance carpetbaggers are driven by basic human greed for financial rewards (e.g. salaries and grants), status/recognition (e.g., official posting titles, CV citations, and housing/transportation special benefits), and/or other personal gains through the exploitation of situations involving development, nation building, humanitarianism, and conflict resolution/peace building. There are multiple types of international development/assistance carpetbaggers:

  • Development carpetbaggers
    The international development carpetbaggers fund/build roads, bridges, and communications systems in the ethnic areas which extend the administrative and military reach of the Burma Government and Tatamdaw. They may or may not conduct Conflict Analyses, Environmental Impact Assessments, or Social Impact Assessments. However if done, they may only be paper-based, fill-in-the-blanks exercises. Consequently, there are issues of environmental degradation and uncompensated/poorly-compensated land confiscations, resulting in displacement of ethnic people. Moreover, the resultant physical infrastructure may allow penetration by the Tatmadaw of vehicles and heavy armaments into conflict areas which were previously inaccessible. Of course, corruption follows as well.
  • Nation building carpetbaggers
    The ethnic areas are targeted for nation building which strengthens the control of the Burma Government and extends its administrative and Tatmadaw reach without the necessity of any power/resource sharing arrangements with the ethnic people. These opportunist nation building carpetbaggers are eager to assist the autocratic Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burma Government to become more efficient and effective in entering, controlling, and exploiting the ethnic areas. They have agreed with the Burma Government, in the so-called Naypyitaw Accord, to align their projects with Burma Government policies. It does not matter that nation building, without sustainable peace, undermines the now seventy year ethnic quest for political, administrative, fiscal, resource, and security power sharing and ethnic equality promised to them by General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, when they formed the Union of Burma in 1948 with Burmans.
  • Humanitarian carpetbaggers
    There is the proliferation of humanitarian activities into the ethnic areas, especially in regard to health, education, and poverty reduction by some opportunist INGOs, UNOs, and IDAs. This allows for the further extension of Burma Government’s administrative and Tatmadaw control in the ethnic areas through these proxies to undermine the relationship of the EAOs with their ethnic peoples’ support base. These humanitarian carpetbaggers also must adhere to the Naypyitaw Accord. Many do not obtain memorandums of understanding (MoUs) from the EAOs which may control their targeted areas of operations or work with local CBOs/CSOs which are equipped to provide any necessary international assistance directly to their own people. Of course, the humanitarian assistance is also a source of additional overhead/administrative funding, salaries, housing/transportation special benefits, CV citations, and donor and organizational publicity for these humanitarian carpetbaggers. An Afghan analyst is reported to have remarked, “INGOs are the cows that drink the milk themselves” (Quoted in Making States Work, July 2004: P. 13).
  • Conflict resolution/peace building carpetbaggers
    One cannot forget the conflict resolution/peace building carpetbaggers who prey on conflict situations such as in the ethnic areas. These are the opportunist international academicians, institutes/think tanks, foreign governments, and foundations which are advising the Burma Government and EAOs about ceasefires and political dialogue. They are there to “help” the EAOs to “return to the legal fold”. These carpetbagging consultants get grants and publicity for their ceasefire/peace building “back seat driving” and Western “cookie-cutter” solutions which, in any case, are not contextually-based to the unique Asian/Burma social, economic, political, and security sector realities in Burma. In short, they are more “cows that drink the milk themselves”.

With the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 by some EAOs and the accession of the Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to government offices in 2016, the door is now wide open to even more international development/assistance carpetbaggers to reap organizational and/or individual benefits in the ethnic areas of Burma.

International development/assistance carpetbaggers have been “called-out” in numerous books and articles over the past half century. They ignore or dismiss such “calling out”, as in this article, since they know that recipient countries need international development/assistance. They give a bad reputation to those international development/assistance organizations which do good transparent and impartial work, and understand and properly respond to local social, economic, and political environments. While there has been some progress in reining these international development/assistance carpetbaggers in, many are still “out there”. In this sense, they have come to Burma and are now spreading, like a virulent development/assistance virus, into the ethnic areas of Burma.

The ethnic people have been striving for self-autonomy, ethnic equality, and peace for almost seventy years. They desire sustainable peace through equitable power/resource sharing and security sector reform before international development/assistance.  International development/assistance are aspects of peace building which should occur after, not before, peacemaking and peacekeeping. The Burma Government and Tatmadaw use peace building to avoid power/resource sharing with the ethnic people.

However, if the EAOs cannot resist the lure of international development/assistance, then they must vet and control access into their administered areas by international development/assistance organizations to ensure they don’t undermine the EAO’s popular support base, fracture the EAO or its alliances, and contribute to corruption. Moreover, wherever possible, international development/assistance must be channeled through local ethnic CBOs or CSOs in a fully transparent and responsible manner

The following are recommendations to control international development/assistance organizations seeking to implement activities in EAO-administered areas:

  1. All international development/assistance organizations, operating in EAO-administered areas, should be required to register with the governing EAO and only those who receive approval would be able to implement their project(s). Registration applications would include, as appropriate, local CBO/CSO partnerships, Conflict Analyses, Environmental Impact Assessments, and/or Social Impact Assessments.
  2. MoUs are signed between the EAO and registering international development/assistance organizations and such MoUs will govern the scope and terms of operations.
  3. The registration documentation is shared with the locally-affected communities for their comments and concerns.
  4. For approved registrations, written official authorization and personal identification cards are issued by the EAO.
  5. The activities of registered organizations are monitored by the EAO or an approved local ethnic CBO/CSO on a quarterly basis to ensure that they are in active and full compliance with the terms and scope of their MoUs, including expected outcomes, impact, and utilization of funding. Intentional noncompliance would be cause for termination of the project and exit of the offending organization(s).

Engagements with conflict resolution/peace building organizations and individuals must be evaluated as to appropriateness in respect to the political-military situation in Burma, Burma/Asian values, conflict history, conflicts-of-interest, political bias, conflict resolution/peace building experience, and other relevant factors.  Burma is an Asian multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious country with a long history of insurgency and dissent. There are no Western counties which have similar characteristics and can serve as a conflict resolution model for Burma. Consideration should be given to power/resource sharing models in Asia, such as in India, and to extent, models in Africa.

The ethnic people have suffered enough from the Burma Government and Tatmadaw since Independence. They don’t need to be also deceived or exploited by some international development/assistance organizations and individuals which say “we have come to help you” with development/assistance, but really want to drink the milk themselves or serve as the willing or unknowing economic counter-insurgency tool of the Burma Government and Tatmadaw. The EAOs must strictly vet, control, and monitor international development/assistance organizations and individuals and say “No” to international development/assistance carpetbaggers: they are not welcome to do their “carpetbagging” in Burma’s ethnic areas.

Moegyo is a political consultant and strategist working on the Thai-Burma border.