In the past few years, particularly after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, political shifts in Myanmar have resulted in the country being more receptive to civil society efforts. This has encouraged many international organisations to set up and operate non-governmental organisations ("NGOs") to assist in the development and humanitarian efforts in the Golden Land.
NGOs in Myanmar have to register under the State Law and Order Restoration Council Law No. 6/88 of September 30 1988. The official "Guidelines for UN agencies, International Organizations, NGO/INGOs” ("Guidelines") issued by the Myanmar government provide that all international NGOs should officially register with the Ministry of Home Affairs and sign a basic cooperation agreement with the Union of Myanmar with respect to the proposed project. All aid funds for the project should be channeled through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. NGOs are required to inform the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs and any other relevant Ministries when they open or close their offices.
At the moment, not many international NGOs have officially registered. Most of them operate under a framework agreement with the government of Myanmar, for example, by signing a Memorandum of Understanding or a Letter of Agreement with the relevant Ministry in charge of the sector in which they are operating.
In terms of funding, there are three alternative ways in which monies may be brought into Myanmar by an international NGO. Firstly, funds may be sent through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, which is the official method of currency exchange. Secondly, foreign currency can be exchanged into kyat and brought into Myanmar as cash. The final method for funding relies on the informal banking system known as the "Hundi System". This is where an individual or organisation wires foreign currency to a Hundi dealer overseas who then converts the foreign currency to kyat at the market exchange rate and wires it to the intended recipient.
NGOs in Myanmar typically hire both foreign and local staff. The Guidelines prescribe various official approvals and requirements for the appointment of NGO staff. All persons employed in and carrying out work in Myanmar will be protected by the employment laws in Myanmar. It would be prudent to have the employment contracts of these workers reviewed by a Myanmar-qualified lawyer.
The best approach to adopt in setting up and operating an NGO in Myanmar will to a large extent depend on the nature and objectives of the NGO. As more NGOs find their place and purpose in this new frontier, one can, at the same time, expect greater clarity, transparency and flexibility in the regulatory framework surrounding the registration and operations of NGOs.