Politicisation Of International Aid

Myanmar’s Human Rights Crisis

Anne Décobert

The february 2021 military coup has plunged Myanmar into chaos, rolling back progress achieved over the past decade in terms of human rights, development, and peace-building. Local populations are now facing a humanitarian catastrophe, with large-scale suffering caused by violence and displacement, an economic and food security crisis, and a public health emergency within which the junta has used COVID-19 to suppress the people.

Myanmar’s multi-pronged crisis is not just a humanitarian one. This is a political and human rights crisis, within which international aid will inevitably have political impacts.

The decisions that international donors and aid organisations make in providing humanitarian assistance need to be guided by Myanmar’s people, who have overwhelmingly rejected the military regime. In Myanmar’s human rights crisis, pretences at neutrality would do more harm than good and a solidarity-based approach to aid will have far more positive humanitarian and human rights impacts.

On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) seized power, deposing the country’s democratically elected leaders. Myanmar citizens, political parties and most Ethnic Armed Organisations have rejected the military’s actions and refused to recognise the military-run State Administration Council. Over the past months, a Civil Disobedience Movement and popular protests have spread throughout the country. In historically disputed border areas, armed conflicts have reignited between the military and multiple Ethic Armed Organisations, driving further nails into the coffin of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

In response to the coup, elected Members of Parliament formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The Committee, along with pro-democracy parties, leaders of the Civil Disobedience Movement, civil society groups, and Ethnic Armed Organisations agreed to the 2021 Federal Democracy Charter, leading to the formation of the National Unity Government.

The National Unity Government is widely seen by Myanmar people and many Ethnic Organisations as a legitimate governing body, with many being hopeful that—if it succeeds in overriding the State Administration Council—it may finally realise long-thwarted aspirations of ethnic groups for federal democracy, self-determination, and lasting peace. The National Unity Government has established a People’s Defence Force, as a precursor to a Federal Union Army and to protect its supporters and other civilians from violence instigated by the military.

Amidst a political stalemate that could lead to full-blown civil war, civil disobedience and popular protests continue. And the military’s brutal repression of these movements and increasing attacks on populations in areas controlled by Ethnic Armed Organisations are driving ever more suffering.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, three million people are in need of humanitarian aid, with numbers likely to keep rising. Close to a quarter of a million people have been displaced since the coup, due to military violence in urban centres and increasing conflict in ethnic states.

Myanmar is also heading towards deepening economic collapse and many areas are facing an impending food crisis. Poverty and insecurity are escalating throughout rural and urban populations, with incomes and livelihoods severely impacted.

All of this is compounded by a collapse in public health systems. Many of those who spearheaded the Civil Disobedience Movement were doctors, nurses and others in the government health system, who took a stand against renewed military rule. Health workers critical of the coup have been persecuted by the junta, with many arrested, abducted and/or killed, and many more forced into hiding.

Meanwhile, the country is facing a major public health crisis and a deadly new wave of COVID-19 is being weaponised by the junta, which is blaming medical professionals from the Civil Disobedience Movement for deaths, using COVID-19 restrictions to intensify repression of ethnic and democratic opposition groups, and denying medical assistance to people in need. Many hospitals are closed or occupied by the military, facilities are severely understaffed, and private clinics are unaffordable for most. Ongoing military attacks on health personnel and facilities further jeopardise the COVID-19 response, and constitute violations of medical neutrality and war crimes under international humanitarian law.

The people of Myanmar are in dire need of humanitarian aid. But this aid needs to be politically sensitive. And it is essential to ‘frame’ the current humanitarian crisis as a political and human rights crisis. Indeed, and as highlighted by Professor Hugo Slim in a talk hosted by Chiang Mai University, Myanmar is facing a political emergency in which a civil resistance movement is legitimately opposing a violent regime.

Of course, Myanmar has a long history of conflict between the Tatmadaw and Ethic Armed Organisations struggling for self-determination in border areas. But if international actors frame the whole of the situation in Myanmar as the result of conflict (or, worse, ‘ethnic conflict’), it makes it far too easy for the State Administration Council to deny any responsibility. Opposition and ethnic nationality groups can then too easily be blamed for the situation—as indeed they are in the State Administration Council’s labelling of the National Unity Government and other opposition groups as ‘terrorist organisations’.

Instead, what is needed is recognition that, firstly—as analyst David Mathieson has highlighted—the humanitarian crisis cannot be isolated from what is a human rights crisis driven by a military bent on terrorising local populations to retain power; and, secondly, that deeply embedded structural violence and injustices lie at the root of Myanmar’s decades-long conflicts. The post-coup human rights crisis has then aggravated long-standing conflict dynamics and deepened the historical vulnerabilities and insecurities of local populations—with all of this compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Framing’ the crisis in Myanmar as a political and human rights crisis is obviously important from a moral perspective. It is also essential for the development of humanitarian programmes.

Indeed, any humanitarian intervention in a political crisis will inevitably have political impacts. And any intervention in a conflict situation ‘will inevitably have an impact on the peace and conflict environment—positive or negative, direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional’. The decisions that international donors and aid organisations make in Myanmar today therefore carry heavy consequences.

Myanmar’s military has many times in the past restricted humanitarian access to conflict-affected populations and other civilians in need of aid—including during the initial response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. It is highly likely that the new regime will create an increasingly difficult operational environment for international aid workers.

The military has already blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid in many ethnic areas, as well as deliberately destroying food and medical supplies, diverting aid away from its intended recipients, and attacking aid workers. These acts constitute violations of international humanitarian law. And the more the military diverts and politicises aid, the more this will undermine humanitarian—as well as longer-team development and peace-building—aims, as it will bolster a regime that is the main driver of Myanmar’s present crisis and of its historical impoverishment and insecurity.

There is also the risk that humanitarian aid will signal recognition by international actors of the State Administration Council. As highlighted by Thomas Weiss, decisions about how to channel assistance in situations of conflict and disputed governance inevitably entail ‘judgements by outsiders about what is right and just, about whose capacities are built, about which local groups are favoured’.

There are good reasons why international organisations might want to maintain some engagement with the State Administration Council. It would enable them to preserve an official presence inside Myanmar, with this (hopefully) enabling access to populations in need of aid, as well as protection for their staff.

However, the regime is already preventing humanitarian organisations from accessing people in need. Staff of international organisations fear that the situation will only get worse, with some international Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) already required to sign new Memorandums of Understanding with the State Administration Council or to provide lists of staff. And there are major political and ethical implications in maintaining any kind of relationship that might signal international recognition of the State Administration Council.

For one—and even if this is not the intention of the agencies involved—international aid could legitimise a regime that is committing widespread and systematic attacks against the Myanmar people, which amount to crimes against humanity. Secondly, if international agencies are seen as ‘siding’ with the State Administration Council, this may sow distrust amongst local populations who overwhelmingly oppose the coup. Thirdly, this could create major tensions within aid agencies themselves—with many local staff opposing the State Administration Council.

Dilemmas around political recognition and legitimacy in turn link to ongoing debates about the principle of humanitarian neutrality. In the classic International Committee of the Red Cross definition, neutrality means ‘not tak[ing] sides in hostilities or engag[ing] at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.’

Despite a long history of divisions over the viability of neutrality as a guiding principle for humanitarianism in complex political emergencies, many international donors and aid organisations still maintain that it is essential to humanitarian action. Yet as Hugo Slim highlights, ‘neutral humanitarian action is one version of humanitarianism – not the only version’ – and it is not necessary to be neutral to be a good humanitarian.

In Myanmar’s political minefield, no matter how much they claim to be neutral, how international actors channel aid will not be perceived as a neutral act. Attempts at neutrality can also do real harm, particularly if—by not taking a stand or by having their aid politicised by the military regime—international actors end up emboldening and enabling those behind Myanmar’s human rights crisis.

[Source: Melbourne Asia Review]

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Vol 54, No. 26, Dec 26, 2021 - Jan 1, 2022