The humanitarian sector in Myanmar has shrunk considerably because of operational challenges surrounding the post-coup political environment. Even as political uncertainties remain, the restoration of humanitarian aid for the people is urgently needed.
Following the military coup on 1 February 2021, many in Myanmar hoped that the international community would invoke ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) principles. The principles, while not enforceable, embodies a political commitment to ‘end the worst forms of violence and persecution.’
When it became clear that any intervention from the international community was not likely, the Myanmar people took the quest for justice and freedom from military rule into their own hands. They declared a ‘people’s defensive war’ against military violence across the country. The consequences of this on the Myanmar people are worrying, to say the least. The clashes between the Myanmar military and various ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have significantly increased the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). An estimated 3.4 million people are in various stages of food insecurity. A survey by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that the compounded impact of the coup and Covid-19 saw nearly three-quarters of households in Myanmar reporting a drop in income.
Myanmar is no stranger to humanitarian challenges, given its seven-decade civil war, particularly in ethnic states, which continues today. The Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State is still unresolved, with many Rohingya refugees stranded in camps in Bangladesh. Myanmar has also experienced its share of climate disasters, several recurring and some unprecedented. These experiences resulted in the creation of mechanisms that allowed humanitarian aid to be delivered effectively. Efforts include fostering coordination between different partners and recognising the role of international and local non-governmental or civil society organisations (NGOs, CSOs). However, the current moment presents a unique, different challenge.
The February 2021 coup disrupted most aid programmes and projects. Myanmar has now reverted to its former status quo of receiving limited humanitarian aid. The Covid-19 pandemic and the coup presented challenges for the Myanmar people, but the aid community has struggled with responding to these needs in the post-coup environment. The complex operational context in Myanmar now features obstacles centring on contested legitimacy. Many CSOs and NGOs operate in Myanmar under Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with government departments which allow the delivery of aid to proceed smoothly. They are now uncertain of MoU renewal when the terms end.
That is just one of the complex operational challenges facing regional and international organisations. When Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, the authorities in Myanmar agreed to the coordinating role offered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN brokered a tripartite consultative mechanism between Myanmar, ASEAN and the United Nations. Today, ASEAN faces challenges in delivering humanitarian aid effectively due to the requirement of state consent for cross-border assistance, among other legal and ethical challenges of working with the current junta.
The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded matters. The World Health Organisation (WHO) COVAX Facility was set to distribute 6.2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Myanmar, but implementation was stalled in the shadow of the coup. The WHO is still in ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders to identify distribution modalities. Legitimacy issues affect the choice of modalities. For instance, there are concerns about whether the junta would be fair and impartial in its delivery of vaccines. It is possible that they may deny vaccines to opposers of the coup and to regions held by EAOs who similarly oppose their rule. Though there is an option to bypass working with de-facto authorities and still deliver aid, this is easier said than done. The regime does not trust NGOs and aid agencies. As a result, these entities operate in a hostile environment.
NGOs play a vital role in providing on-ground support and responses in emergencies, but they now face significant risks. For instance, the junta froze the bank accounts of Open Society Myanmar (OSM), which is linked to George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The junta alleged that OSM had violated foreign exchange rules and blamed it for supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The junta has also issued arrest warrants for OSM staff.
The people who are in survival mode cannot wait for drawn-out discussions on political legitimacy and political settlements in Myanmar. The dire humanitarian situation requires urgent action, especially as ongoing fighting both heightens humanitarian needs and limits humanitarian access.
OSM is not the only NGO being targeted. Arrests targeting civil society personnel have forced them to go into hiding. Different civil society actors, including both national and international NGOs and journalists, have faced physical threats, raids and seizures of their offices and homes. The Christmas Eve massacre in Kayah State killed 35 civilians including two staff from Save the Children who were carrying out humanitarian work shows the high risks involved.
In light of these events, it may be worth encouraging all concerned stakeholders to comply with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). IHL emphasises protection for civilians who are not party to the conflict, though strict enforcement is at times difficult. Its application is especially important in Myanmar’s context as vulnerable populations — children, women and pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities — are in need of humanitarian assistance. Western nations have termed the recent airstrikes on civilians in Karen State as violations of IHL and called for an immediate stop. Rather than words, people in these conflict areas require lifesaving aid. All armed actors should allow humanitarian aid to reach the communities in need by setting aside their armed struggle momentarily. This will allow aid workers to carry out their tasks.
A year after the coup, Myanmar’s humanitarian sector is shrinking. There is no solution in sight to assist those in need while avoiding issues of regime legitimacy. The people who are in survival mode cannot wait for drawn-out discussions on political legitimacy and political settlements in Myanmar. The dire humanitarian situation requires urgent action, especially as ongoing fighting both heightens humanitarian needs and limits humanitarian access. How can the international community help ease the Myanmar people’s suffering? This question remains open to answers.
Aung Tun is Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.