Many groups plan to boycott the regime’s new Organization Registration Law for political and safety reasons, but also fear this could leave them unable to respond to Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis.
For Ko Zin Yaw*, it was always a matter of when, not if, the military regime would begin systematically cracking down on civil society and non-government organisations.
Zin Yaw has since 2015 been working for a Rakhine State-based civil society organisation focused on regional development and supporting people displaced by conflict.
Over the past 18 months, he has experienced first-hand the growing restrictions the military regime has placed on the activities of domestic and international organisations, affecting everything from withdrawing cash to accessing conflict areas. Nevertheless, he said, they’d still managed to find workarounds so they could carry out many of their activities.
But then, on October 28, the regime enacted the Organization Registration Law, replacing a similarly named 2014 statute.
“All CSOs have been worried about [a crackdown],” he told Frontier. “Now it’s really happening … they are oppressing us openly.”
The two laws couldn’t be more different. The 2014 Associations Registration Law was widely praised for fostering the growth of Myanmar’s domestic civil society and facilitating cooperation with the government. Registration was voluntary and there were no prohibitions or punishments.
Under the new law, however, running an unregistered organisation can result in a prison term of up to three years, while members of an unregistered NGO can be fined up to K500,000 and, if they refuse to pay, jailed for up to two years.
Organisations were also given only 60 days to register with the junta’s Ministry of Home Affairs, meaning a deadline at the end of this month.
“Freedom of organisation – a fundamental democratic right – has now been banned,” said Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a lawyer who has run as an independent candidate in several parliamentary elections.
The toughest punishments are reserved for officials from organisations that “directly or indirectly contact or encourage” contact with an opponent of the regime, or are deemed to have harmed “national unity” or “law and order”. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.
“The military enacted this law so that organisations don’t have contact with or provide support to revolutionary forces, such as the National Unity Government, People’s Defence Forces and ethnic armed organisations,” Zin Yaw told Frontier.
‘The future is dark’
Zin Yaw said the new law had left NGOs and CSOs in a dilemma. Many organisations registered when the former law was enacted but their five-year registration certificates have since expired, meaning they must decide whether to re-register by the deadline.
Most don’t want to register under the new law because they view the regime as illegitimate, Zin Yaw said. At the same time, though, they are worried about how they can continue operating without formal registration.
“All civil society organisations are in trouble,” Zin Yaw said. “We are facing a crisis.”
On November 3, the Mandalay CSOs Network announced it would not comply with the new law because it had been issued by an “illegal terrorist military” that was perpetrating violence against the Myanmar people.
National Unity Government Minister for Human Rights U Aung Myo Min said the registration law was designed to “strictly control” organisations and punish those that fail to comply.
“This is not the law,” he posted on social media. “It is an arbitrary declaration imposed to arrest those who are providing humanitarian aid and working for democracy.”
Ma May Phyu*, who works at an international NGO that is providing political training in Myanmar, said that most local organisations seemed unwilling to register under the new law.
But their reluctance is not only about politics, May Phyu added – they’re also concerned about the safety and security of their staff, as well as those who benefit from their work.
Under the former registration law, organisations were required to give only limited information to the authorities on an ongoing basis – typically, she said, just annual financial statements.
“Now if we register, we have to report everything – from where we operate, to where our income comes from,” she said. “If we tell the truth, every organisation will have to worry about being arrested.”
Those that work on politics or human rights, or that provide support to IDPs in conflict zones, are most at risk, she suggested.
“Now we are going to be under a lot of pressure. The future is dark.”
International NGOs are also required to register under the law, and face many of the same – and some additional – restrictions.
However, Frontier understands that many of them are likely to register, despite reservations about engaging the regime, because they believe the risks of not registering are simply too great.
With organisational bank accounts, offices across the country and foreign staff who require visas, it is far less feasible for international NGOs – particularly the larger ones – to operate under the radar.
Access to funding
“It’s impossible to register, but if you’re not registered it’s impossible to operate … that’s the dilemma we are facing,” said Ko Shwe Than Kyaw, a member of the Mrauk-U Youth Association, which was established in 2015 and has been providing training and support to IDP camps in Rakhine.
Choosing not to register could have consequences beyond the risk of prosecution by the regime, he said. Because many donors require partners to be registered, local organisations could soon face difficulties accessing funding.
“When you apply for a project, you can’t get funding if you don’t have an organisation registration certificate,” he said.
However, since the military coup in February last year, donors have become increasingly flexible on the issue of registration. Most local organisations are no longer registered but have continued to receive funds, usually through intermediaries like international NGOs, or other workarounds.
Ma Honey*, who works at an international NGO in Myanmar, said that some organisations have registered as companies in order to comply with donor rules and circumvent regime restrictions.
“Some are registered as non-profit organisations through the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration,” Honey said. “But I expect that it’s going to be very difficult to register in that way in future.”
The new law though will create additional complications, because it means that donors won’t just be providing funds to unregistered organisations – they’ll be giving money to groups that the regime considers illegal.
The head of one international NGO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was “very important” that donor agencies “don’t just reach for the easiest solution, which is to try and twist the arm of local CSOs and NGOs to register”.
“Some of them simply can’t register, and others won’t register due to security concerns – there’s an expectation that registration will enable the authorities to monitor their work. And, of course, there are also plenty of reasons why entities might not want to register for political reasons,” they said.
Even if donors agree to fund unregistered organisations, they will also likely need to be flexible on how the money is moved into the country.
Since the coup it has been difficult for local organisations to withdraw funds from their bank account, particularly if their registration has lapsed.
“If an organisation tries to withdraw money from their account, the bank will only give it to them if they can show a registration certificate. So, it’s already very difficult to withdraw money, and it’s only going to get worse,” May Phyu said.
‘They’re always watching us’
Registration will not only be required to secure and withdraw funding – it’s also likely to be a necessity when organisations are in the field, members of local organisations told Frontier.
Shwe Than Kyaw said it was difficult for them to avoid the military regime entirely.
“Soldiers and police are already monitoring all social relief organisations and CSOs. This will make it really hard to operate without registration,” he said.
The challenge is particularly acute for organisations carrying out humanitarian work in conflict areas. For the most part, they have to remain in close contact with regime police and the General Administration Department, said Ko Min Naung*, who works for a relief group based in Yangon. “And they’re always watching us.”
To operate safely these CSOs also need to coordinate with ethnic armed organisations, and other groups that the regime deems “terrorist” groups or unlawful associations. But under the new law, that could see them punished with a prison term of up to five years.
“When we need to carry out relief activities to help residents in conflict areas, we need to contact both the military and other armed forces in that area,” Zin Yaw said.
“In Rakhine State, for example, most of the villages are now controlled by the Arakan Army. So, if we want to work in those places, we need to contact them. That’s where the problem is.”
Min Naung said relief organisations were also compelled to help whoever was in need, including resistance fighters who had been injured.
“Under the new law, that would be considered communicating with terrorists. But if you don’t help them, it’s a violation of your ethics,” Min Naung said. “We can’t choose which side we’re on. We have to help everyone.”
As local organisations weigh the benefits and risks of registering, the expanding conflict in the wake of the coup also means there is a huge need for humanitarian aid.
As of the end of November, more than 1.1 million people had been displaced across the country since the coup, in addition to 330,000 who had already been forced to flee their homes prior to the military takeover. In many areas, local aid groups are the only organisations able to deliver assistance.
But amid this need, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the law will be implemented.
In 2006, the then-military regime introduced highly restrictive “guidelines” for humanitarian aid, not dissimilar to the Organization Registration Law. In practice, however, these were not implemented consistently, and donors were often able to establish workarounds that meant aid to Myanmar continued to flow into the country.
“We don’t yet know what [the new law] means in practice,” said an official from a donor agency. “Will it be consistently implemented across the country? It’s not at all clear. They may target one or two NGOs initially and after that the law will be kept there as a way of scaring people.”
The official said that because of this uncertainty, it was important for donors to constantly monitor the environment and respond appropriately.
“This is just another example of how the context keeps shifting. It’s important to understand what’s actually happening on the ground and do your best to manage the risk.”
Neither the United Nations Country Team nor international NGOs operating in the country have spoken out publicly about the new law, for fear of retribution from the regime.
However, sources said there is a huge amount of concern and they are closely coordinating on the issue, by assessing the likely impact and how it can potentially be ameliorated. Frontier understands that rather than pushing for the law to be repealed, the UN has decided to lobby for a delay in implementation and changes to the text.
The international NGO chief told Frontier that if implemented in full, the law would “destroy the independence of NGOs to a great degree”, but agreed that it remained uncertain how widely it would be enforced.
“We don’t know how they’re going to implement it in practice, particularly given the General Administration Department is basically not functioning in many areas,” they said. “It’s going to be impossible for most organisations to register by the deadline – they haven’t even released the bylaws yet.”
Nevertheless, May Phyu said that the law was another example of how the hard-won rights earned over a decade of political liberalisation had been lost in the wake of the coup.
“For CSOs and NGOs in Myanmar, this is a return to the dark ages,” she said. “If anything, it looks like it could be even worse than before.”
*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons