Rethinking Humanitarian Assistance for Myanmar

It is time for the United Nations and the international community to change how it is delivering humanitarian assistance to people in Myanmar. According to some local humanitarian assistance providers informally interviewed by the author, too little of the aid is reaching people with the greatest need and too much of the money is ending up in the pockets of the military junta and its cronies. These humanitarian assistance providers also say that the United Nations significantly underestimates the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) created by post-coup conflict, possibly by as much as 50 percent. A few changes by the United Nations and the international community, however, should ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided more efficiently and effectively to the IDPs in Myanmar.

The first change is to stop working with the State Administrative Council (SAC), the Burmese military, and their affiliated security forces. The SAC is not the legitimate government of Myanmar, but the United Nations and the major international humanitarian assistance organizations are treating it like it is by signing memorandums of understanding with the SAC and abiding by the SAC’s directives. The United Nations’ humanitarian principle of neutrality states that providers of humanitarian assistance should “refrain from taking sides in hostilities or engaging in political, racial, religious or ideological controversies.” Treating the SAC as if it is the legitimate government in Myanmar violates the UN neutrality principle.

In addition, complying with the SAC’s regulations and restrictions severely restricts the delivery of assistance, violating the UN impartiality principle, which states that aid should go to those with the greatest need, “irrespective of race, nationality, gender, religious belief, political opinion or class.” Nearly three years after the coup, the SAC has limited administrative control over only a portion of Myanmar. The vast majority of IDPs in Myanmar are not located in areas under nominal SAC control and are generally beyond the reach of assistance programs working under SAC restrictions. As a result, the current aid delivery system is providing a disproportionate amount of the aid to Bama IDPs, and inadequately delivering help to more needy non-Bama IDPs in more remote areas of Myanmar.

According to the local humanitarian assistance providers, cooperating with the SAC is also undermining the effectiveness of aid delivery. Too much of the aid money is going to administrative costs and overpriced goods and services; a relatively small percentage of the funds end up as direct aid to the IDPs. Plus, some of the goods and services are being procured from SAC-affiliated companies, thereby providing the military junta with additional revenues.

The second change is to shift to cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance. Small, local providers are already providing assistance to IDPs from neighboring India and Thailand, largely funded by donations from Myanmar’s diaspora. These local providers have developed a substantial network that can not only deliver humanitarian assistance along the border, but also reach as far as Bago, Magway, Mandalay, and Sagaing. Many of these local providers are also Chin, Karen, and Karenni, making it easier to operate in the areas where most of the IDPs are located. Plus, they have working relations with the major ethnic resistance organizations and their affiliated People’s Defense Forces, which are willing to provide safety and security for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

A switch to cross-border operations would not be unprecedented. Starting in the 1980s, The Border Consortium (TBC), operating out of Thailand, was a major provider of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar refugees in Thailand, as well as IDPs in Myanmar. Over time, TBC became the nexus for the coordination of international assistance to refugees and IDPs near Myanmar’s border with Thailand. The United Nations and the major donors could turn again to the consortium, or establish a new coordinating entity, to more effectively and efficiently deliver humanitarian assistance to the current IDPs in southeast Myanmar, and a similar entity in India’s Mizoram State to deliver humanitarian assistance to IDPs in northwest Myanmar.

Of course, such an arrangement would require the cooperation of the Modi government in India and Thailand’s current military government, which may be difficult. Since the coup, both Indian prime minister Modi and Thailand’s military have established relatively cordial relations with the SAC. Convincing them to allow the establishment of multilateral humanitarian assistance coordinating entities along their borders with Myanmar will be challenging.

Another major challenge will be convincing the United Nations and the international community to adjust their internal policies to facilitate working directly with smaller, local humanitarian assistance providers. Concerns about possible accountability issues has led major donors to rely on larger, international entities who have extensive experience with the bureaucratic procedures and paperwork required by the major donors. If a coordinating body, like the TBC, could be established in both India and Thailand, its staff could train and assist the local organizations on compliance with donor procedures, while making the delivery of aid more efficient, effective and in accords with the UN principles of humanitarian assistance.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program