Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) building in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, where the ASEAN summit on the Myanmar crisis was due to take place. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP)

Will ASEAN Take the Side of the Myanmar People?

Published

Choosing the right approach that best serves the pressing humanitarian needs of the Myanmar people requires ASEAN Leaders to do some new thinking.

Governments usually consider delivering humanitarian assistance as having the best potential to demonstrate a ‘win’ in political crises. The ASEAN Special Envoy has dubbed humanitarian efforts as contributing “the most visible progress” under ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC). Ditching this political tool can be a lost opportunity in terms of ASEAN Member States’ access to, presence in, and engagement of Myanmar.

But the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), tasked by the ASEAN Leaders to facilitate humanitarian assistance, has failed to effectively deliver aid to those in the direst need in Myanmar. The State Administration Council (SAC) is expected to continue to restrict access and only allow aid to be distributed to sanctioned groups.

The AHA Centre has its hands full serving the world’s most-disaster prone region, Southeast Asia. The climate crisis and the pandemic have exacerbated the complexities facing the AHA Centre’s operations. Tasking the AHA Centre for this political crisis is risky because it stretches the centre’s already thin resources and capacity at the expense of addressing its core mandate, which is to address natural hazard-induced disasters.

Further, the AHA Centre does not have an institutionalised presence in Myanmar. The centre’s office in Jakarta mainly manages its activities, such as conducting needs assessments and facilitating humanitarian assistance. ASEAN Leaders could decide to maintain engagement with the SAC through other channels but release the AHA Centre from its ad hoc engagement in Myanmar.

Twenty months post-coup, humanitarian aid can no longer be used as a political tool for access, presence, or engagement with the junta. ASEAN Leaders, due to meet next week at their Summit, should honestly judge this woeful lack of progress and consider other approaches where meaningful humanitarian (not political) gains can be truly achieved. There are currently three possible humanitarian approaches being discussed:

  1. Internationally-led humanitarian corridors – Many commentators including this author have recommended a humanitarian coalition of ASEAN, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian partners, to prepare humanitarian corridors, such as what is being done in Ukraine. This would require ASEAN and international actors to negotiate with the junta and call for a humanitarian pause, to allow for safe passage of aid workers and civilians, and safe delivery of aid.
  2. Inclusive Forum for Humanitarian Engagement – The National Unity Government’s (NUG) Ministry of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management, along with a few Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs), published a needs assessment report for February 2021 to July 2022. The report recommends further support of cross-border aid and highlights that the first responders have been local civil society actors working together with local governance actors. It recommends an Inclusive Forum for Humanitarian Engagement to be set up to complement the work of the AHA Centre, and for the international community to secure an agreement with the SAC to allow access. This approach was also recommended by Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.
  3. Locally-led humanitarian platform – This approach, compared to the first two, will disengage the junta, as it does not include negotiating with the SAC for access. If carried out, a locally-led humanitarian platform will require a cohesive effort from the NUG, all interested EROs, and other resistance movements, to support local aid providers, many of whom are unregistered in Myanmar as they are part of the broader resistance movement. Such a platform could provide a means of registration for these local groups, to address concerns about their status, and to increase donors’ confidence in aid accountability. The platform will need to give operational independence to the local groups so that they can directly manage aid planning and distribution. This may be more acceptable to donors, as they may fear a diversion of funds for weapons financing.

In the first approach, the SAC’s intransigence, the ambivalence of neighbouring countries towards the situation in Myanmar, and the international community’s lack of collective political will are significant stumbling blocks. Only with strong coordinated international pressure and enforcement and strong political will and agreement by all those bearing arms within Myanmar to respect the safety of any humanitarian corridors, as the Ukraine example has shown, will this approach succeed. Further, as aid providers for this option will mainly be the major agencies such as the UN agencies and large INGOs ICRC, they could ironically undermine existing informal networks of local aid groups, which have been doing indispensable work along Myanmar’s borders and deep inside the country.

The second proposition of an Inclusive Forum may be attractive to the AHA Centre, as it will extend its ability to reach hard-to-access communities but it is unlikely that ASEAN will sanction the AHA Centre to work with the NUG and the EROs. Furthermore, local aid providers have repeatedly said they would not work with any actors who cooperate with both the junta and local aid providers, given the risks that sensitive information about aid workers and the local population may be leaked.

ASEAN Leaders, due to meet next week at their Summit, should honestly judge this woeful lack of progress and consider other approaches where meaningful humanitarian (not political) gains can be truly achieved.

The third approach builds on the capacity of local aid providers and the local governance structures that support them. Some intermediary INGOs, such as those operating at the borders, could serve as backroom aid, offering specialist services such as financial reporting, real-time mapping, and other technical support. Independent groups unaffiliated with aid implementation, such as local human rights or research groups, could monitor aid implementation, to ensure accountability and promote human rights-based humanitarian action.

This third locally-led approach will be unconventional as it moves ASEAN away from its current state-centric approach to a people-centred approach but it is this author’s view that this approach respects the wishes of the Myanmar people and protects their wellbeing, which should be ASEAN’s primary concern, as rightly articulated by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.     

The situation in Myanmar is complex, constantly evolving, and fragile. There are at least three strategic concerns that may obstruct humanitarian aid: the international community’s lack of political will to scale up humanitarian aid; ASEAN’s uneven stewardship as an actor confronting the crisis; and most importantly, respect for the Myanmar people. It is time for ASEAN to decide if it is on the side of the Myanmar people or of those who have violated their wishes and wellbeing, to find an evolved approach that works.

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