By Thompson Chau and Guy Dinmore
BANGKOK, Feb 21 2023 (IPS)
Nearly 18 million people – about one-third of Myanmar’s population – need humanitarian aid this year because of civil war and the post-coup economic crisis, according to the latest United Nations estimates.
The numbers needing support continue to rise from the estimated 14 million people needing aid last year. More than 10,000 people were displaced by fighting in southern Kayin State in early January alone, joining more than 1.5 million IDPs across the country.
The UN says it recognises the urgent need to remain in Myanmar and step up humanitarian operations, but it is caught between a hostile military junta imposing restrictions on its activities and a loose network of resistance groups accusing the world body of legitimising an illegal regime.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also facing increasing criticism for his apparent hands-off leadership in the crisis.
“Almost 18 million people – nearly one-third of the Myanmar population – are estimated to be in humanitarian need nationwide in 2023, with conflict continuing to threaten the lives of civilians in many parts of the country,” said Ramanathan Balakrishnan, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar.
He told IPS that international and local humanitarian aid organisations are “using a range of approaches” in different areas and had reached over four million people in 2022 despite severe underfunding and what he called “heavy bureaucratic and access constraints”.
Balakrishnan defended the importance of the UN’s engagement with General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime, which has ruthlessly crushed dissent since seizing power two years ago and overthrowing the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Principled engagement with all sides is a must to negotiate access and also to advocate on key protection issues. Advocacy to stop the heavy fighting and airstrikes in populated areas that are threatening the safety of both civilians and aid workers is as important as reaching people in need with humanitarian aid,” he said.
Aid workers accuse the junta of further restricting aid operations and blocking urgently needed aid from reaching millions of people. The regime admitted this month it cannot effectively administer about one-third of Myanmar’s townships. But it is able to choke access to some areas controlled by resistance groups and ethnic armed organisations that have been fighting the military for decades.
The junta is seeking to impose its authority with a new law making registration compulsory for national and international non-governmental organizations and associations and introducing criminal penalties for non-registered entities with up to five years of imprisonment.
“Civic space has been decimated in the country already due to the military’s actions, particularly its systematic harassment, arrest, and prosecution of anyone who opposed their coup,” said James Rodehaver, chief of the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia (OHCHR) Myanmar Team. “These new rules could greatly diminish what operational space is left for civic organisations to deliver essential goods and services to a population that is struggling to survive.”
Many of the more than one million refugees outside Myanmar also need help. Most are stateless Rohingya Muslims forced out of Rakhine State into Bangladesh in waves of ethnic cleansing before the 2021 coup, with many held in border camps.
The UN’s reputation was already battered before the coup over its handling of the long-festering Rohingya crisis in which it was accused by aid workers and activists of being too accommodating with the Myanmar military. And it has come under further fire since.
In a joint letter last September, more than 600 Burmese civil society organisations said they “condemn in the strongest terms the recent public signing of new agreements and presenting of letters of appointment to the illegitimate Myanmar military junta by UN agencies, funds, programmes and other entities working inside Myanmar.”
“We call on you and all UN entities to immediately cease all forms of cooperation and engagement that lends legitimacy to the illegal, murderous junta,” said the letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General. The signatories argued that letters of appointment and agreements should be presented to what they regard as the legitimate government of Myanmar – the parallel National Unity Government established by ousted lawmakers – and “ethnic revolutionary organisations.”
A Myanmar researcher specialising in civil society and international assistance highlighted the role of Burmese CSOs in delivering aid. “Local CSOs comprehend the complexity of specific local needs in the current crisis as the communities they serve struggle with security concerns and essential public services, including healthcare and education,” said the researcher, who goes by the name Kyaw Swar for fear of security reprisals.
He said that donors and foreign organisations had adopted risk aversion arrangements post-coup, referring to UN and INGO’s costs for capacity-building components and disproportionate country-office operations. “Local CSOs have fewer operations, and risk management options [and] have no choice but to channel international aid to their respective communities.”
UN officials reject the notion that they are legitimising the regime and insist that only by operating in the junta-controlled heartland and also through cross-border assistance can aid be delivered to a substantial part of the population in desperate need.
“The UN finds itself in an almost existential bind. It can’t engage with an oppressive regime without being seen to condone its actions,” commented Charles Petrie, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and former UN chief in Myanmar.
“Somehow, the UN’s senior leadership needs to convince all that engaging in a dialogue with a pariah regime is not the same as supporting it and that it should be judged on the outcome of the discussions rather than being condemned for the simple fact of engaging,” he said.
“But being able to do so successfully implies that it has the level of credibility that right now it still needs to rebuild,” he added.
Questions have also been raised about the apparent lack of hands-on leadership on the part of Guterres. The UN Secretary-General seems to have made little personal intervention beyond routine statements, such as the latest marking the second anniversary of the coup in which he condemned “all forms of violence” and said he “continues to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and to support their democratic aspirations for an inclusive, peaceful and just society and the protection of all communities, including the Rohingya.”
Since the coup and despite the unfolding humanitarian crisis, Guterres is seen as having taken a back seat and delegating to two successive special envoys. This stands in contrast to his predecessor Ban Ki-moon who actively intervened during the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008, personally meeting then-junta leader General Than Shwe and negotiating the opening of Myanmar to aid workers.
Petrie suggested Guterres should take a page out of Ban’s book and provide much more active leadership on Myanmar and be “more openly engaged and supportive of the work done by his special envoy.”
While China and Russia lend military and other support to the junta, much of the rest of the diplomatic world has taken a step back from the Myanmar crisis, leaning instead on ASEAN to assume the lead.
But the 10-member bloc has been ineffective so far. It has coordinated an unprecedented shunning of the junta’s leadership in regional meetings, but neighbouring countries – with their own blemished democratic records – are unwilling to penalise the regime. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) has been charged to respond to the humanitarian crisis, but with no success.
Laetitia van den Assum, the former Dutch ambassador to Myanmar and Thailand, said the aid response would have been more effective if ASEAN had set up a partnership between AHA and experienced UN and other organisations.
“That, in fact, is what happened in the aftermath of Nargis, when under the strong leadership of Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN and UN worked in tandem. It took time to put the effort together, but ultimately it took off,” van den Assum told IPS.
As with the UN leadership, Lim Jock Hoi, a Bruneian government official who was ASEAN chief until last month, was barely noticed on the issue of Myanmar, in stark contrast to Pitsuwan, who helped persuade Than Shwe to accept humanitarian assistance in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis killed over 100,000 people.
“UN agencies like OCHA, WFP and UNICEF, as well as many dedicated INGOs, continue to provide assistance, more often than not under difficult circumstances, and with countless Myanmar civil society organisations playing critical roles,” Van den Assum observed.
“But until now, the SAC [the junta’s State Administration Council] has stood in the way of more effective aid,” she added. “What is missing is an overall agreement between Myanmar and ASEAN about such assistance, how to expand it and how to guarantee that all those in need are served. ASEAN and AHA have not been able to deliver on this.”
Observers point out that AHA is set up to respond to natural disasters and has no experience in intervening with aid in conflict situations.
“That had already become clear in 2018 when AHA was tasked to make recommendations for ASEAN assistance to northern Rakhine state after the enforced deportation of more than 750,000 Rohingya. The initiative died a slow death,” Van den Assum said.
“AHA was not to blame. Rather, ASEAN politicians had taken a decision without first considering whether it was the most advisable approach,” the veteran diplomat said.
No breakthrough is in sight. The junta has extended a state of emergency for another six months, admitting that it lacks control over many areas for the new elections it says it wants to stage but which have already been widely denounced by the resistance as a sham.
“Heavy fighting, including airstrikes, tight security, access restrictions, and threats against aid workers have continued unabated, particularly in the Southeast, endangering lives and hampering humanitarian operations,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in its latest update.
IPS UN Bureau Report