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11/12/2006 | Myanmar: New Threats to Humanitarian Aid

International Crisis Group Staff

With growing signs of a humanitarian crisis in-the-making in Myanmar, the international community needs to get beyond debates about the country’s highly repressive political system.

 

OVERVIEW

The delivery of humanitarian assistance in Burma/Myanmar is facing new threats. After a period in which humanitarian space expanded, aid agencies have come under renewed pressure, most seriously from the military government but also from pro-democracy activists overseas who seek to curtail or control assistance programs. Restrictions imposed by the military regime have worsened in parallel with its continued refusal to permit meaningful opposition political activity and its crackdown on the Karen. The decision of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to withdraw from the country in 2005 was a serious setback, which put thousands of lives in jeopardy, although it has been partly reversed by the new Three Diseases Fund (3D Fund). There is a need to get beyond debates over the country’s highly repressive political system; failure to halt the slide towards a humanitarian crisis could shatter social stability and put solutions beyond the reach of whatever government is in power.

In the early 2000s, it seemed that political elites on all sides were willing to cooperate on humanitarian issues. The military rulers showed new signs of working with the international community, and opposition groups modified their call for isolating the regime. Donors led by Australia, the UK and the European Union (EU) stepped up humanitarian aid and broader social support. Agencies initiated ground-breaking programs addressing sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS and expanding into remote areas which have long suffered from conflict and neglect. Over the past few years, however, the general political environment has deteriorated, domestic repression has increased and new confrontations and mutual suspicion between the military government and international critics have put many of those programs at risk.

Since the purge in late 2004 of General Khin Nyunt and other high-ranking officials, the military government has taken a more aggressively nationalistic line with international agencies, including the aid community. Intrusive attempts to control programs and force agencies to work with government-affiliated organisations have been compounded by immense confusion within the government itself, creating a more difficult operational environment. Although conditions overall are still better than they were in the 1990s, and the impact of recent changes varies between agencies and programs, frustrations are palpable across the aid community and even within parts of the government.

The situation has been further complicated by renewed pressure from international critics. While the democratic opposition increasingly favours assistance, some parliamentarians and advocacy groups abroad have stepped up efforts to restrict and micro-manage aid flows. This was particularly evident in respect to the Global Fund, which in August 2005 terminated a planned $98 million program in Myanmar after intense pressure from U.S.-based groups undermined sensitive negotiations with the government over operational conditions.

So far, the emerging commitment of donors to assist the millions of households suffering from conflict, harsh and capricious governance and international isolation appears steadfast. EU governments, in particular, have moved quickly to replace the Global Fund, openly rejecting the U.S. position. In the coming months and years, however, the aid community in Myanmar will need to counter further moves by the military government to limit its access to vulnerable populations and abuse humanitarian programs for political gain. For this, it will require the support of donors, headquarters and critics alike to engage with the authorities on the ground in order to rebuild relations and trust, and refocus on the very real needs in the country.

This briefing updates a single element of the Myanmar situation on which Crisis Group has reported extensively in the past. A comprehensive review would have to take greater account as well of the continued effort of the military rulers to retain their authority both by refusing a legitimate role to the democratic opposition and by pursuing harsh repression of ethnic groups. Undermining of humanitarian aid by protagonists on all sides, however, not only goes against international humanitarian principles but could also rekindle a new cycle of conflict and humanitarian emergencies that would make any prospect of positive political change even more remote.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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