Durango’s Shanta Foundation is protecting its aid mission from the most repressive measures taken by the Myanmar military since a Feb. 1 coup in the poorest nation in Asia.
Wade Griffith, Shanta Foundation executive director, said the principal methodology of the nonprofit – to train local villagers in basic building skills, financial literacy and team-building and let the villagers themselves decide which economic projects to pursue – has proved durable since the military crackdown.
“When you empower the local people to do the work, to lift themselves out of poverty, they don’t need you,” Griffith said. “They’re there. They’re continuing with the work with or without us, because we’ve trained them to do it.”
Still, Griffith said repressive measures taken by the military since the coup, for instance banning meetings of more than five people, have inevitably pared some of Shanta’s work in the Southeast Asia country, located east of India, west of Thailand and south of China with a coastline along the Indian Ocean.
“We’ve had to restrict our staff from going out to the villages right now, because of military checkpoints, curfew, laws and new laws that they’ve passed, to prevent people from having meetings,” Griffith said.
The laws are intended to prevent political organizing, but they have also reduced the humanitarian work of many nonprofits, he said.
Griffith said none of Shanta’s aid efforts and financial support go through the Myanmar government, and it doesn’t coordinate its assistance efforts with the government. Shanta views itself as strictly a nonpolitical, nonpartisan aid group.
“But their effort to restrict political activity does have a chilling effect on humanitarian work, which is needed now more than ever, because of the pandemic,” Griffith said.
Griffith said Shanta has 25 Myanmar nationals working for it on the ground, and in some areas they feel safe going about doing their duties and in some areas they don’t.
“Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our staff,” he said. “So we have told them that if there’s any question of safety, going out because maybe there’s checkpoints, or maybe you feel like even a small meeting might draw unwanted attention from the military, then just hold off, we’d rather wait a few weeks.”
The Shanta Foundation was founded by Durangoans Mike and Tricia Karpfen after a backpacking trip to Myanmar in 2004. One of the first projects was to help the villagers of Yim Bya design and build a school they had long wanted.
So far, the foundation, established in 2006, has provided more than $140,000 to 22 community loan funds for Pa’O villages, trained 18 auxiliary nurse-midwives and 90 volunteer health educators, and helped establish 250 family pig farms and 175 coffee farms and nurseries.
Also, Shanta has trained Pa’O villagers in building skills, finance and team building in 12 villages, and is in the process of training people in 25 other villages.
The Myanmar military seized control Feb. 1, after a general election in which 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, party won in a landslide.
The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.
An election commission found no evidence to support claims of election fraud.
The coup took place as a new session of parliament was set to open.
The military is now back in charge and has declared a yearlong state of emergency.
Griffith said another attribute of Shanta’s work that has helped it continue its aid mission is that most Shanta assistance occurs in the Pa’O region in the southern Shan State, and most of the protests, demonstrations and repressive military measures are occurring in large cities, such as Yangon, a city of 4.5 million, and Mandalay, a city of 1.2 million.
“Because villagers run their own operations, work we do is still being done,” Griffith said. “But what the coup is preventing us from doing is additional training and starting new projects and training in new villages.”