With support from Covid Collective, PeaceRep and Nyan Corridor, a Myanmar-based research organisation, we formed a network of researchers from different communities in the country between 2022 and 2023. This Community Research Network’s 20 researchers representing both the geographic as well as ethnic diversity of the country – including Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Burmese, Rakhine, Rohingya, Dawei, Shan, Pa O and Ta’ ang groups – were trained in research methods and applied their skills to conduct local-level research on public health governance in Myanmar.
After the coup of February 2021, there is a significant need to understand the unfolding humanitarian, political and economic crisis. However, opportunities have become rarer, more challenging, and riskier. It is in this context that the Community Researcher Network has continued to conduct research locally, developing critical insights about the needs of local communities to a national and international audience. Doing so has required us to operate in a repressive and risky context, with open civic space virtually closed off in Myanmar since the coup. This has all led us to critically reflect on questions of safety, building equitable partnerships, and how to balance research needs with research ethics when working in a politically divided contexts like Myanmar.
Understanding and designing better responses to conflicts and fragility requires evidence, data and quality research. Accordingly, strengthening research capacity in fragile and conflict-affected contexts has been mainstreamed across various international developmental priorities and goals. From Myanmar, Afghanistan, to Sudan, across domains of public health, urban planning and statistical analysis, varied projects have been supported by the international community to build research capacity in these contexts. Yet crisis, such as the coup in Myanmar, or the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan threaten to overturn the gains made over the years – however marginal. For instance, researchers across Myanmar and Afghanistan have either fled their countries or have been in hiding – due to the risks of repression, threats to personal safety, and the increasing stifling of civic space – which in turn creates a gap in technical expertise, capacity and local perspectives.
In this context, PeaceRep’s work on the Myanmar conflict has sought to generate evidence-based analysis to understand conflict and peace dynamics in the country. To achieve this, PeaceRep has partnered with civil society actors, political and ethnic communities, and others. Support from Covid Collective allowed us to broaden our partnership with Nyan Corridor – a research organisation working in Myanmar since 2011 – through our newly formed Community Research Network. With support from Covid Collective, researchers were able to conduct a longitudinal study on three themes: i) identifying the various governance mechanisms and institutions that people have relied on for Covid-related issues, considering the fragmented and contested public authority in Myanmar; ii) mapping community responses to Covid-19 at local level; and iii) examining the ways in which the coup impacted the pandemic response. Strengthening the Community Research Network will open up the possibility for future research on wide-ranging themes. However, the specificities of the context in Myanmar brought added challenges to collaboration patterns, as well as bringing questions of how to conduct ethical and equitable partnerships to the fore. Since the military coup in February 2021, Myanmar has been mired in political instability, with targeted attacks on protestors and civilians by the military, countrywide protests against the coup, and resumption of violence in different parts of the country, triggering unprecedented humanitarian and economic crises. The various actors engaged in opposition to the military, including the National Unity Government (NUG) which formed as the alternative government to the military’s State Administrative Council (SAC), the popular “revolution” on the ground, different Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) who have governed much of the borderlands since the early days post- independence, and various Local and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), have gained ground militarily and politically. Despite these developments, the military continues to dominate with brutal violence. Indeed, the opposition is yet to consolidate under a broader anti-military opposition, while the international community’s role remains limited, piecemeal and even contested in many quarters.
Amid the evolving situation, the space for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) to research or run service-delivery related programs has also been limited, with targeted attacks on the people involved. Moreover, international support for projects in Myanmar is fraught with difficulty, with increased scrutiny over financial transfers, sources of funding, and reporting requirements. This poses a significant threat to secure and formal operations within the country. For instance, if an organization is registered as an NGO, they must report annually to the Ministry of Home Affairs. In addition, to avoid security risks, many NGOs have built connections to relevant ministries under SAC. Such affiliation with the military’s apparatus, however, comes with the risk of their credibility and legitimacy being questioned. Such concerns have led many CSOs to stop their work to avoid inadvertently legitimizing the SAC regime. In addition, physical infrastructure to enable research is crumbling, with the disruption of internet services and rising telecommunications costs. Collecting data has been particularly difficult. Official data collection endeavors require the permission of the SAC, yet doing so may mean that people will not trust the process or the research team. Data collectors within the country also run the risk of being seen as informants by both the SAC and anti-SAC. This implies significant security risks for researchers as well as participants. People are also hesitant to participate due to the increased risk of repression since the coup.
Such restricted civic space has reversed the decade-long process of building capacity and networks of CSOs in Myanmar. Yet, at the same time, the flow of information on local needs has become even more urgent, as the country desperately needs increased international support.
Insights from the Community Researcher Network: Rethinking ethics
Our research has helped us reflect more deeply about research ethics. Our first reflections centered on notions of risk and how to balance ethical considerations with research needs. In particular, we were concerned with ensuring that the voices of local people in Myanmar were heard and their needs articulated, despite the uneven risks involved. While it is urgent that we obtain evidence to inform international policies to support post-coup Myanmar, the process of doing so involves uneven risks. Researchers in the country risk their lives, while academic institutions, NGOs, and donors in North benefit from the, “availability of cheap labour, ease of access to powerful figures, and safety net of a foreign passport” (Cronin-Furman and Lake, 2018). Such practices, make research a more extractive endeavour highlighting unequal power dynamics between North and South in the research landscape (Shanks and Paulson, 2022).
Our own conversations among the researchers of the network revealed that while initially unsure and even insecure about the affiliations of the people they interviewed, they also felt a sense of thrill and eagerness to do more research in the face of constraints. However, navigating these risks often leads institutions in the Global North to forgo partnerships in fragile contexts, which reduces opportunities for local researchers to speak for themselves, engage and innovate. This raises larger question about representation and who gets to speak for or on the needs of fragile states (Senit et al., 2021). Such decrease in partnership as a ‘risk management’ strategy also overlooks the agency of people who have found creative and innovative ways to circumvent the challenges presented by repressive regimes. For instance, across Myanmar, CSO networks have navigated surveillance by the SAC regime by creatively using various social media platforms to organise protests, exchange ideas on the revolution, document repression, and galvanise the public.
Similarly, the researchers from our Network tried to navigate the risks of conducting research in Myanmar through innovative data collection methods and analysis. For instance, instead of formal interviews, they prioritized informal meetings and observations with limited sources whom they trusted from their communities. They also shared information via secure communication channels like Signal and Zoom, and deleted information as soon as it was viewed to prevent the interception of emails. When researchers heard about investigations by the military regime, they uninstalled the Signal app and only the research manager kept the data. Such innovation in the face of grave adversity needs to be recognized and celebrated as ‘research capacity’.
Relatedly, the notion of capacity also brought home questions of “what constitutes” capacity and debates around “who needs capacity building.” Much of the research engagement in contexts like Myanmar is framed as ‘capacity building’ of local researchers. This idea of capacity building is critiqued for the assumption that “researchers based in the North bring with them skills and knowledge to be transferred to those in the South, whose capacity needs to be developed” (Shanks and Paulson, 2022). Our engagement with the Network finds that both the assumption and the critique might be outdated. For one, our work with the network highlighted that knowledge is increasingly co-produced, assimilating experts and expertise of both the Global North and the South, making the binaries of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ largely obsolete. Further, while ‘capacity’ being seen as ‘domain’ of the Global North might be problematic, but there should not discount the fact that countries like Myanmar need more ‘ research capacity’ (Bowsher et al., 2019). Capacity-related need is a reality that governments, civil society organisations and leaders within these many fragile states themselves vouch for and seek international support and partnership for. Highlighting this need for more capacity does not mean that there is no capacity, but rather than contextual challenges warrant increased capacities. Likewise given the methodological innovation(s) and adaptations brought about by researchers in the field demonstrates that “capacity” is about equal and available opportunities. While “standard” methodologies, conceptualized by academies in the West, rarely account for the terrain researchers in Myanmar work with, the ability of researchers to work in such challenging contexts need to be recognized as “capacity.” For instance, despite limited training on ethnographic research, including observations, data collection, organization, and analysis, the Network already had the right skills to examine public health governance patterns across the country.
This research mapped the sheer variation in the pandemic response across Myanmar, including the provision of vaccines and medicines, levels of trust in various governance institutions, and the impact of the coup on local governance mechanisms. The findings revealed that the SAC has been unable to effectively respond to the pandemic, even in territories where it faces no resistance from anti-junta protests. Access to oxygen and critical medicines, facilities for quarantine, and basic food and medicines has become increasingly difficult, particularly since 2021.
The research also found considerable variation in how different EAOs delivered public health governance. EAOs with well-established public health mechanisms, such as Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and Karen National Union, were able to mobilise sufficient resources to address the needs of the pandemic. Another factor was the ability to mobilise cross-border support, with Chin receiving resources from Mizoran state of India and the KIO benefitting from China’s technical and vaccine-related assistance. However, some EAOs, such as the Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, were not able to turn their enhanced administrative and military capacities into effective public health governance outcomes. More importantly, the research also highlighted that despite the national debate on federalism, people at the local level relied largely on community-based organisations, including churches, local Parahita (community-based social organizations), and doctors and health workers supporting the civil disobedience movement, rather than the state or regional governments. Many EAOs worked closely with such civil society networks to boost public health delivery in their territories.
Thirdly, our research highlighted that doing research with trained community researchers is an effective and cost-efficient approach. However, the concept of “cost-effectiveness” raises deeper ethical concerns about fostering and perpetuating inequalities. The emphasis on “value for money” and “cost-effectiveness” may not adequately compensate researchers for their work, especially when they undertake it in rather challenging circumstances. This can entrench the economic disparity of partners in the Global North and the South.
Lastly, researchers also addressed the ethical challenges of potential bias in their research resulting from their political activism (Jones, 2020), as many are part of or closely associated with the “resistance movement” and its political platform in Myanmar. To reduce bias, Nyan Corridor used training in research methodology and conversations on research ethics as method to reflect on, acknowledge and reduce political and ethical biases, whilst also promoting the value of being a researcher. Relatedly, ethnical concerns also came to the fore when researchers felt that there was expectation that researchers report about the politics of resistance platforms, where their insights and data acquired through participation as members or collaborators. This raises ethical concerns when presenting these insights in research reports, particularly when external funding is involved. To mitigate this, researchers sought to triangulate information through informal conversation, and identifying people with differing points of view to interview who were not closely associated with the military regime.
Overall, our engagement with the Network has helped us learn about evolving governance mechanisms in Myanmar, but also reflect on critical questions of ethics, research needs and our positionality. As repression, human rights violations, and humanitarian crises continues in Myanmar, we hope that the Network becomes a critical voice in presenting evidence-based insights to help generate greater domestic and international support.