People receive food distributed by a volunteer group in Myanmar

People receive food distributed by a volunteer group in Pankai village in Kutkai township in Myanmar's eastern Shan state, where local authorities said villagers were facing difficulties in obtaining daily necessities due to ongoing conflict between the Northern Alliance military coalition and national armed forces in the region. (Photo: MNWM / AFP)

Myanmar Crisis: A Humanitarian Stalemate or Fresh Opportunities?


The upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers retreat affords an opportunity to consider fresh approaches to break the current humanitarian stalemate in Myanmar.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers are coming together in Phnom Penh for a hybrid-mode retreat this week, with the Myanmar crisis expected to feature prominently in discussions. On the agenda will no doubt be the lack of progress in implementing ASEAN’s five-point consensus, and how to deal with what seems to be a humanitarian stalemate in Myanmar.

It is important to understand that humanitarian assistance is often highly political, particularly when a crisis arises from conflict. The current stalemate has been partly due to political paralysis hindering rapid response and access to the most affected people. Applying adhoc approaches through a mechanism that changes annually, such as the rotating ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, does not provide the continuity necessary for working in conflicts.

Helping Myanmar people in conflict also requires resources. Those raising funds have to compete with other equally pressing, and, in some cases larger, more politically visible crises. The United Nations is appealing for US$826 million under its 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar to meet the humanitarian needs of 6.2 million targeted people or 11 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, humanitarian needs globally amount to US$41 billion for 2022. Myanmar has been less in the global spotlight although the number of armed clashes and attacks on civilians in Myanmar is comparable to Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Rather than confining themselves to the usual way of doing things, the Foreign Ministers should make use of this week’s retreat to creatively expand humanitarian space, without having to negotiate with the SAC.

As ASEAN Foreign Ministers begin to deliberate the Myanmar crisis, it may be useful to consider and evaluate three possible approaches that could be adopted to respond to Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis.

The classic band-aid: Currently, this appears to be the preferred approach. Humanitarian actors will try to save as many lives as possible in a constrained and contained space, but under the Myanmar military’s scrutiny. Such an approach is likely to see limited progress, as the junta continues to restrict movement of humanitarian actors and will weaponise, siphon or waste aid. Resistance groups will likely disassociate themselves from this mechanism and accuse humanitarian agencies of siding with the junta.

The pragmatic approach:  This is exemplified by China’s provision of Covid-19 assistance to both the junta and rebel groups at the border to prevent cross-border infection. Other neighbours such as Thailand and India, could contemplate a similar pragmatic approach in the interests of their own populations’ health and safety and establish humanitarian corridors at the borders to deliver assistance to crisis-affected people from Myanmar. Such ‘buffer zones’ could prevent Covid-19 transmissions and other diseases caused by extreme poverty, and minimise spill-over effects of refugee flows.

The humanitarian resistance: This means disengaging with the junta completely. The junta may well vilify those supporting humanitarian resistance as proritising resistance over providing aid. However, this approach will empower the people as it channels assistance through trusted local non-state actors and networks, and build resilience for sustainable peace. Ethnic community-based health organisations have been providing essential health and education services for decades to conflict-affected populations at the borders, and can be potential entry points.

It is also prudent to bear in mind that external shocks or unanticipated events such as extreme weather events akin to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 could bring the humanitarian situation to a breaking point.

As the Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC) will not send its representative to the retreat, the Foreign Ministers have an opportunity to consider out-of-the-box approaches, without the participation of SAC.

Rather than confining themselves to the usual way of doing things, the Foreign Ministers should make use of this week’s retreat to creatively expand humanitarian space, without having to negotiate with the SAC.

First and foremost, rather than asking the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) to be the aid provider, ASEAN should focus its collective political energy to help the crisis-affected people by supporting local non-state actors and networks that the people already trust to distribute aid.

In this case, ASEAN could call for Covid-19 assistance funds from its members and partners, international financial institutions and other international organisations to be re-purposed to scale up the efforts of ethnic community-based health organisations who are already distributing assistance along and across the borders.

Second, neighbouring countries should consider the pragmatic approach to anticipate further spill-over of refugees. There are economic, health and human security benefits to this approach. Aid provided through the buffer zones will help economies at the borders, keep the conflict-affected population in place, and insulate neighbouring countries from further negative impact.

Third, ASEAN should proactively engage the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar to establish a humanitarian coalition, and to collectively strategise with the UN, the ICRC and other humanitarian partners to start preparing for these humanitarian corridors.

Fourth, communities in ASEAN, including non-state actors and the private sector, should come together in a people-to-people solidarity movement to support humanitarian resistance in Myanmar. If the slow pace of the ASEAN inter-governmental track cannot provide what is needed to help the crisis-affected people, it is time for the people of ASEAN to move forward collectively in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.


Adelina Kamal was Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, and former Executive Director of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance.