sexual abuse

In Myanmar, a Nonprofit Icon Enjoyed Foreign Funding Despite Allegations of Sexual Abuse

The alleged failure by the US embassy and a UN agency to prevent abuses reflects systemic gaps in safeguarding mechanisms, that are common within local nonprofits in the developing world.

by Jacob Goldberg
14 October 2019, 4:55am

In November 2013, government officials and women’s rights activists gathered for the National Women’s Dialogue. In a glittering hotel ballroom in Yangon, they discussed the role of women in peace building and the need to eliminate gender-based violence.

Zinmin Thu, a young activist from the Myanmar countryside, surveyed the decorations on the walls, and one poster caught her eye. It showed a man holding two women by the waist, one in each arm. Across the image were the words: “Behind every successful man there is a woman! If U need more success, increase the number of women!!”

She recognised the image instantly. There was only one person in Myanmar’s tight-knit gender equality community, she thought, who would conflate such a demeaning image with women’s empowerment.

It was a man she used to work for, a man who trained her and launched her career, a man who, she says, sexually harassed and assaulted her for months.

She called a few friends over, and they decided to launch an impromptu protest. Across the back of the poster, they wrote with markers: “We know what you are doing.”

“Get this attitude and behaviour out of civil society.”

“Don’t mask your sins with women’s rights and women’s empowerment.”

But rather than raising questions about why numerous young women felt threatened by the poster, the organisers of the conference quickly hid the poster from view.

This would be Zinmin Thu’s first of several failed attempts to expose her former boss, a well-connected gender equality advocate named Chan Nyein Aung. According to six survivors who shared their stories with VICE, Chan Nyein Aung would continue to physically and psychologically abuse women on his staff for several more years.

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The poster in a conference that frustrated the survivors. Photo obtained by VICE.

Their stories, like numerous other recent scandals involving development and humanitarian institutions in Asia, reveal how safeguarding mechanisms designed to prevent sexual abuse frequently fail to consider the power and gender dynamics that make whistleblowing more risky for victims than for abusers. In many cases, these failures allow abuses to continue long after they become common knowledge.

Zinmin Thu, 30, first entered Myanmar’s nonprofit sector at a time when workplace sexual exploitation was common throughout Asia and largely met with impunity. A 2006 UN report estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of women working in Asia-Pacific countries had experienced sexual harassment at work. According to one 2017 survey of aid workers, “87% noted that they knew a colleague who had experienced sexual violence in the course of their humanitarian work. 41% reported having witnessed a sexual violence incident against a colleague, and 72% of those reporting were survivors of sexual violence.”

In Myanmar, which has no laws explicitly outlawing workplace sexual harassment, domestic violence, or marital rape, safeguards against abuse have been especially weak.

But when Zinmin Thu enrolled in a leadership training course at the pro-democracy organization Charity-Oriented Myanmar (COM) in 2011, she was certain there was no safer place for a young woman to work.

Since its founding in 2004, COM and its founder, Chan Nyein Aung, were lauded as champions of women’s empowerment and attracted a steady stream of funding from international organizations and foreign governments. Most recently, in August 2018, COM partnered with the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation in publishing a Myanmar-language handbook on legal protections against gender-based violence and discrimination. Chan Nyein Aung wrote the foreword.

“He was a hero among us. We admired him and were inspired by him,” Zinmin Thu told VICE.

However, after she took a full time job at COM, she says, she started to notice disturbing patterns in her boss’s behaviour. “During trainings, he tickled female trainees, pinched our cheeks, patted our foreheads, and messed up our hair. The way he did it was as though he were teasing children out of affection, so we assumed it was,” she said. When she relayed her discomfort to her parents, they assured her that Chan Nyein Aung was only treating his staff the way an older brother would treat his younger sisters.

Over time, Zinmin Thu says, the harassment intensified. On various occasions, Chan Nyein Aung allegedly lifted her into the air, pressed his body against hers, and slapped her buttocks. In late 2012, while the two were alone together in a Yangon café, he allegedly professed his love for her, and she rebuffed him. A few days later, she says, in the COM office, he sat on her lap and detached her bra straps. On another occasion, he allegedly stalked her through the office until they were alone together and forcibly kissed her.

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A section of the poster used by Zinmin Thu and several other women in their protest. Photo obtained by VICE.

After several months of abuse, Zinmin Thu submitted a resignation letter, but Chan Nyein Aung rejected it, allegedly telling her that if she tried to resign again, he would make sure she could never get another civil society job in Myanmar. She stayed at COM for another five months, struggling to make sure she was never alone with her boss. But in April 2013, she says, he cornered her in the office and told her: “No matter where you run, you won’t escape. One day you will be in my hands.”

That day, she left COM for good.

Zinmin Thu is one of six former COM employees and trainees who say Chan Nyein Aung harassed and assaulted them between 2011 and 2015.

In July 2018, each alleged victim submitted a written complaint to COM’s three foreign donor organisations – the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the Swedish development organization Diakonia, and the Irish development organization Trócaire. The official complaints submitted to the donors, which VICE reviewed with the permission of the alleged victims, include six allegations of unwanted touching or groping, four allegations of unwanted kissing, and two allegations of attempted rape. They also paint a portrait of a predator who used humour, intimidation, and his reputation as a champion of women’s rights to avoid accountability.

One instance of attempted rape allegedly took place in October 2013, when Chan Nyein Aung and his accuser were training political activists in Chin state – a remote region in Myanmar’s mountainous northwest. The accuser, who asked not to be named, says in her complaint that Chan Nyein Aung forced her to drink wine, took the key to her hotel room, and pressured her to join him inside. She says she feared he would “commit the worst sexual acts” against her. Inside the room, she says, he positioned his body over hers and tore her clothes off while promising to give her a promotion. She says the assault was only cut short because she began to have an anxiety attack.

She reported the alleged assault to Chan Nyein Aung’s deputy, a woman named Nway Nway Tun. According to her complaint, Nway Nway Tun promised to help. But by the time she returned to the office, she says, Chan Nyein Aung and Nway Nway Tun had told the rest of the office that Chan Nyein Aung had actually been a victim of the complainant’s advances. The complainant quit COM immediately.

Another accuser who requested anonymity says Chan Nyein Aung tried to rape her sometime in 2014 or 2015, when she was a 16-year-old trainee at COM. She says she fell in love with him after he unexpectedly touched and kissed her in his office. “I was so young and inexperienced with love matters,” she says in her complaint. “He misused his position and status to manipulate me to sleep with him.”

One day, while they were driving in his car, the complainant says she was overcome by fear when she realised he was heading toward a hotel. “I screamed and told him to take me back home. He tried to take off my clothes and tried to rape me. I struggled so hard to escape from him,” she says. When she tried to end the relationship, he allegedly threatened to expose their “sexual conversations.”

Most of Chan Nyein Aung’s alleged victims say they stayed silent for years because everyone they initially turned to dismissed them, from COM staff to their own parents. One survivor writes in her complaint: “We were reluctant to make formal complaints because we knew he was a high-profile person who has very close relationships with famous [civil society] leaders and development partners.”

Four complainants allege that senior staff at COM buried internal reports of misconduct.

Numerous calls and emails to Chan Nyein Aung went unanswered. When reached by VICE by phone in October 2018, Nway Nway Tun declined to comment on the allegations.

After the allegations started circulating on Facebook in July 2018, COM issued a statement threatening legal action against any media outlet that publishes “false accusations [that] have caused psychological, physical damage to the organization.” The statement was issued on behalf of Nway Nway Tun and signed by the high-profile human rights lawyer Robert San Aung and by the lawyer and former lawmaker Labutta Kyi Win.

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In October, when reached by VICE by phone, Robert San Aung denied the allegations on behalf of Nway Nway Tun and questioned the motives of Chan Nyein Aung’s accusers. “In our country, NGOs are always trying to sabotage each other,” he said. “[COM] are successful at what they do. They regularly meet with members of parliament and government representatives and work with them. Because of this, there are people who are jealous.”

He went on: “We are getting closer to the 2020 elections. During the 2012 and 2015 elections, COM supported the National League for Democracy [Myanmar’s ruling party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi]. COM are being attacked because of their politics.”

The accounts of Chan Nyein Aung’s alleged victims bear eerie similarities to other cases of abuse allegedly perpetrated by nonprofit leaders in Asia around the same time.

In 2015, Lei Chuang, a prominent campaigner for the wellbeing of people with hepatitis B in China, who had also spoken out publicly against sexual assault, allegedly raped a 20-year-old supporter during an outing he organised to raise publicity for his charity. He allegedly earned his victim’s trust by paying special attention to her throughout the trip and telling other participants that she was his “little sister.”

After the alleged rape, the victim continued to have a relationship with him, telling herself: “Lei Chuang is a good guy, so it must be my problem.”

Lei apologised to the victim and stepped down from his position as head of the charity in July 2018, after the victim shared her experience on the Chinese social media platform WeChat. He later said his sexual relationship with his accuser had been consensual.

That same month, Chinese environmental campaigner Feng Yongfeng apologised and stepped down from several leadership positions at nonprofit organisations after he was accused on WeChat of sexually harassing and assaulting a female employee during a business trip in October 2017.

Like these women in China, most of Chan Nyein Aung’s alleged victims say they never saw any point in sharing their stories until the advent of the global #MeToo movement. Discouraged by the threat of blackmail, the inaction of COM’s senior staff, the absence of hard evidence, Myanmar’s weak sexual assault laws, and the layer of plausible deniability Chan Nyein Aung created by touching his victims out in the open and passing it off as playful, they say, none of them sought help from law enforcement authorities or from COM’s donors.

Zinmin Thu, on the other hand, says she was never silent. “I've been talking about it since 2013,” she says.

Shortly after her failed protest at the National Women’s Dialogue in 2013, she took a job at another women’s rights organization, where she recounted her abuse to a colleague. The colleague compiled the allegations into a letter and sent it to the US embassy in Yangon, which funded COM directly between 2012 and 2013, and indirectly, through a fund managed by United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), starting in 2014. Zinmin Thu’s colleague was called in to discuss the letter with embassy staff, but no investigation was launched. The Office of the Inspector General at USAID, the source of the funding, was not alerted to the allegations.

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COM's office in Yangon in October 2018. Photo courtesy of Jacob Goldberg.

Embassy spokesperson Aryani Manring told VICE: “We were contacted in 2014 by a third party, and an embassy officer met with the letter’s author to learn more. We took the information seriously and shared it with partners working with Charity-Oriented Myanmar.”

However, UNOPS said it “found no record of any complaints about the alleged perpetrator prior to July 2018.” Until then, the funding continued.

Similarly, in early 2015, Zinmin Thu’s colleague forwarded the same letter to a staffer at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) office in Myanmar, which began funding COM on behalf of another agency – the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – that year. But the staffer who received the report did not forward it to the Office of Audit and Investigation in New York, and it was not logged as a formal complaint. COM continued to receive funding from UNDP until 2017, when it was discontinued for unrelated reasons.

A UNDP spokesperson told VICE that the agency “didn’t receive any complaints regarding allegations in the concerned organization through the designated channels available at the time.”

After these attempts failed to trigger any accountability for Chan Nyein Aung, Zinmin Thu and her colleague considered giving up. For the next three years, they believed no one would be held accountable for the abuses allegedly perpetrated at COM.

According to experts in the field of protection against sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA), the alleged failure by the US embassy and UNDP to prevent abuses at COM reflects systemic gaps in safeguarding mechanisms that are common within international development and humanitarian institutions as well as local nonprofits in the developing world.

“Incidents of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the global aid and development sector are hugely underreported,” says Colleen Striegel, executive director of HumanitarianHR, an organization that offers PSEA training and investigation services to global development institutions.

“When incidents are reported, often the response is inadequate or worse – no response at all. It is not uncommon for sexual abuse or harassment to be an open secret. In the vast majority of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment cases we investigate, staff in the organization knew that abuse was happening but did not report it,” she told VICE.

“Many organisations choose to protect their reputations first, which comes at the expense of the survivor’s safety and wellbeing,” she says.

According to safeguarding guidelines published in 2015 by CHS Alliance, another organisation that promotes accountability for abuses within humanitarian organisations, “those receiving a complaint have a responsibility to effectively respond to the complaint and/or refer it to the correct entity for action,” regardless of whether the complaint is made by the affected person or a third party.

However, complaint recipients often fail to refer unofficial complaints to official channels, creating a blindspot that may allow abuses to continue for years after they are first reported.

“Reports of sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse do not always come through official whistleblowing channels, and there needs to be more understanding of this and training and awareness-raising on how to recognise, identify, and refer sexual exploitation and abuse concerns,” says Lucy Heaven Taylor, an independent safeguarding specialist who helped develop the CHS Alliance guidelines. The same guidelines were adopted by the investigation team that UNOPS, Diakonia, and Trócaire hired to investigate COM after they received the six women’s complaints in July 2018.

Striegel added: “In our work, we stress the need for organisations to have multiple and varied complaint mechanisms, both formal and informal. A hotline is not enough. An HR email address is not enough. Complicated paperwork for filing complaints may deter survivors or other staff from reporting abuse. It is critical that management responds to unofficial complaints and rumours with the same urgency as formal complaints to determine if an investigation needs to be conducted.”

According to Matthew Friedman, CEO of the anti-slavery organization The Mekong Club, weaknesses in international organisations’ PSEA mechanisms are compounded by weaknesses in local laws.

“Weak laws and a taboo about reporting such incidents are common in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. Many laws within these countries are not victim-centred. Because the people who committed these crimes often have power and influence, they can intimidate or threaten the person,” he told VICE.

“In many ways, the laws work in their favour. Even if the victim had nothing to do with the offence, they are the ones that carry the shame. Society can be cruel to them. For this reason, most women and girls do not report these crimes. They would be the ones who lose in this situation.”

Chan Nyein Aung’s alleged victims also faced the added disadvantage of being employed by a local nonprofit rather than by a larger donor organization with more PSEA experience.

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Zinmin Thu stands against the Yangon skyline in June 2019. Photo by Jacob Goldberg.

“For staff of national NGOs, there may be a greater risk in reporting incidents of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment,” says Striegel of HumanitarianHR. “In places where gainful employment is difficult to find, reporting sexual exploitation, abuse, or harassment at work presents a significant livelihood risk to the whistleblower or survivor. A survivor or whistleblower may be forced out of their job for reporting abuse, either by management or, in the case of some smaller NGOs, from layoffs due to withdrawal of donor funds.”

In effect, if Chan Nyein Aung’s alleged victims had reported him to COM’s donors while working there, they would have risked destroying their own livelihoods, as well as those of their colleagues. None of them was prepared to do that, until last year.

In July 2018, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs released national statistics showing a 28 percent rise in reported rapes from 2016 to 2017. The statistics, combined with the influence of the #MeToo movement, prompted a flurry of homegrown anti-harassment campaigns and inspired one of Chan Nyein Aung’s accusers to share her story on Facebook. When Zinmin Thu saw the woman’s post, she decided to do the same. Their posts were shared thousands of times, assuring her and the other five survivors who have come forward that they could approach COM’s donors directly without fear of retribution.

Zinmin Thu collected accounts from the victims, as well as from several witnesses, and sent them to UNOPS, Diakonia, and Trócaire, which launched a formal investigation that concluded in September 2018. In meetings with the investigation team, Chan Nyein Aung denied the allegations and said it was only male staff whom he “hugged, touched, and teased.”

The investigators also wrote in their report that they could not verify the alleged victims’ claims that senior staff at COM buried their complaints, because all of the senior staff they interviewed denied hearing any complaints.

However, the investigators did conclude that “the incidents of sexual harassment probably did happen” and that “there was a lack of an adequate complaints procedure within COM through which allegations could have been reported and managed.” The three donor organisations permanently terminated their grants to COM.

That same month, however, UNDP’s Office of Audit and Investigation said it “found no fault” with the staffer who received the complaint about Chan Nyein Aung in 2015 and neglected to forward it. It cited a lack of a “contractual relationship” between UNDP and COM.

UNDP’s spokesperson told VICE: “Today, UNDP has in place more robust policy and procedures related to sexual harassment aimed at strengthening how we tackle this abhorrent behavior and is providing better support to those affected...We express sincere sympathy and regret to anyone who has suffered sexual harassment or has felt let down by the organization.”

The Asia Foundation, which partnered with COM to produce its women’s rights handbook last year, says it was unaware of the allegations until July 2018 and has not printed additional copies of the book since then. It said it would seek no future partnerships with COM.

Upon learning that the allegations against Chan Nyein Aung were found credible by investigators, the National Women’s Dialogue organiser who hid COM’s defaced poster in 2013 told VICE on condition of anonymity: “I can see that that was my fault. They wanted to raise their issues, but because of a misunderstanding, we tried to avoid their issues. I feel so sorry about that. I have said sorry to the survivors.”

Chan Nyein Aung officially stepped down as CEO of COM shortly after allegations against him were made public, but he reportedly continued to spend time at COM’s Yangon office throughout the rest of that year. Most of COM’s staff have resigned.

Zinmin Thu now works for a different non-profit that seeks to strengthen Myanmar’s democratic institutions. She says she loves her job.

The US embassy said it hopes the alleged perpetrator will be brought to justice, “if warranted.”

The survivors say they have been advised by a lawyer not to bring criminal charges against Chan Nyein Aung because they lack physical evidence to connect him to alleged crimes committed several years ago. But that, Zinmin Thu says, was never the goal.

“My intention is not only to target Chan Nyein Aung,” she told VICE. “It’s the whole system. This is an opportunity to fix civil society organisations in this country and to bring about a reckoning for people who abuse their power.”

With reports from Nay Paing. Follow Jacob Goldberg on Twitter.