The Quality of Mercy in Myanmar

By David Scott Mathieson 21 April 2023

Myanmar is experiencing multiple humanitarian crises. Post-coup conflict and military repression has fueled new and old emergencies, and exacerbated already protracted insecurity, with millions displaced and urgent needs affecting some 17 million people. So too much of the world, from Ukraine, Turkey, Yemen and multiple other states affected by war, climate change and natural disasters. Myanmar illustrates just how quickly things can fall apart, but also the limits and contradictions of how the world responds.

Hugo Slim’s Solferino 21 is a compelling examination of the origin story of modern humanitarianism, from Henri Dunant’s war tourism at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, which led to the formation of the International Red Cross movement. This book questions the state of humanitarianism in the 21st Century, the changing nature of warfare, the plight of civilians in modern conflict and, finally, the state of the modern international [mostly Western] humanitarian aid system. This is exactly the book that demands to be read by multiple audiences working on Myanmar today.


Slim opens with a compelling treatment of conflict. Changes in modern warfare are broken down into ten characteristics. The first is that many modern conflicts are relatively smaller than big wars such as the protracted Indochina Wars, although the conflict in Syria has been devastating, battles such as Mosul, Fallujah, or Marawi have taken a major toll, and now with protracted war in Ukraine and the conflict between Ethiopia and Tigray it’s at first hard to take Slim’s point.

However, there are few if any major conventional wars between large powers, and whose involvement in wars such as Syria are ‘limited’ to some extent, although Ukraine is certainly changing this equation. In terms of casualties, both civilian and combatant, the toll of many contemporary internal wars is not as egregious as previous conflicts during the period of post-colonial national liberation.

Myanmar has multiple ‘small’ wars that taken in entirety are truly national, but in practice and range of fighting are localized. That conflicts have claimed over 3,000 civilian deaths, likely an underestimate, at the hands of the Myanmar military since the 2021 coup is undoubtedly significant, especially if combatant deaths of at least several thousand are included. The mass ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in 2017 displaced over 700,000 and killed an estimated 6,700 people.

A third factor is the growth of internationalized civil wars, domestic conflicts with international involvement of some kind. Strikingly, Slim contends that the number of non-state armed groups has grown eight times in the past eight years, with literally thousands of armed groups around the world. The International Committee of Red Cross maintains contacts with 465 of those armed groups. The growth of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) in Myanmar pre- and post-coup means that they now number at least 300-400.

Further changes include the spread of urban warfare, as experienced by Yangon and Mandalay in mass protests after the coup and in targeted killings and bombings over the last two years, and the long wars of protracted and asymmetric nature because the reasons for revolt “often mutate as the war goes on…(n)ew warring parties arise with new interests and new grievances.” Another factor is chronic political violence, which are often not deemed full-blown wars and are paradoxically often more violent than conflict zones, in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador.

A major transformation in modern conflict is increasingly computerized warfare, with major leaps in cyber warfare, autonomous weaponry including ‘loitering munitions’ and drones. Myanmar is not immune to this innovation with many resistance groups increasingly fielding drone assets, such as ‘Federal Wings’ that attack regime bases. Sub-threshold and hybrid war is a form of limited engagement conflict, often through proxies or low level destabilization.

Of particular note to Myanmar are the two final elements to modern conflict: hyperlegal warfare and public participation in war, the rules governing armed conflict, or international humanitarian law (IHL). The Myanmar military has war crimes in its DNA, and has enjoyed impunity for widespread crimes for decades, despite a widespread architecture of international law and comparative international accountability measures. Yet as Slim cogently observes, “IHL is as weak in legal enforcement as it is elaborate in legal detail.” With so much spontaneous local involvement in post-coup resistance, issues of legality are becoming more relevant as direct participation in hostilities becomes harder to determine.

Fascinating as it is, if less directly relevant to Myanmar, is Chapter 2 on Next Generation Warfare, especially the specter of killer robots. Yet the crucial necessity to factor in climate change for changing modes of modern warfare is germane to Myanmar’s future, as are ‘non-traditional security threats’ where pandemics and natural disasters are challenges for states to predict and prepare for. Myanmar’s wars are slowly becoming more digital in key ways, but in many respects the military’s long approach has been analog atrocity: arson, shootings and decapitation, a form of savagery that has remained remarkably consistent for seven decades. Even the war in Ukraine has more hallmarks of a tank, artillery and infantry attrition planned for the Cold War between East and West, than a fully ‘wired war.’


The protection of civilians is the core of modern humanitarianism. Slim rightly questions some of the assumptions we have concocted on how to understand the role of civilians in war, including data fog and humanitarian hype, when United Nations (UN), humanitarian and human rights group use questionable data for fund raising or to attract attention to a neglected crisis, that “encourage(s) a pattern of misleading statistics and stereotypes which give rise to the misrepresentation of civilian live statistically, spatially and by gender.” Notorious examples include the inaccurate claims that two million children were killed in wars between 1986 to 1996 and that there are currently more civilians displaced than at any other time [World War II displaced hundreds of millions], which generates so much moral panic and contributions to aid organizations.

Dehumanizing and diversionary terminology plays a role in this confusion, such as ‘conflict affected’ which is routinely abused [as is ‘post-conflict’]. Myanmar endured a decade of dubious data generation from international donors, and post-coup the reporting on the crisis is being obscured by many of the same people who fetishized misleading numbers to downplay the conflict then and to exaggerate it now. “This wide spatial framing of ‘conflict’, which is similarly routine in Red Cross, UN and World Bank rhetoric, catastrophizes whole countries in a way that is simply not accurate for most twenty-first century wars,” the author contends.

Slim then expounds on the death-displacement ratio, the socio-economic disasters that conflict often bring, and the gender dimensions of war. Similar to ‘humanitarian hype’, the role of women in many modern wars is often miscast as victim stereotyping. Myanmar’s conflict survival strategies are often honed by well-organized women’s groups and key leaders in aid and community organization. Exhaustive reporting “show how dynamic women are in conflict as earners, carers, rescuers, copers, adapters and organizers, and how the rapid social change brought about by war often opens up new space for women to act.”

Similarly, many civilians in conflict are not bystanders or victims, but often active participants and well aware that civilian loyalty is something all armed groups are mindful of, except the Myanmar military which sees all civilians as the enemy to be bludgeoned, plundered and violated.


The third and final section of the book, on humanitarianism, is the strongest and most pertinent for Myanmar. Slim’s major target for criticism is what he calls “big aid”: ever expanding agendas and programs that justify large international organizations getting more intricately involved in people’s lives through longer-term programming that look much like development or peace building or urgent humanitarianism. It means becoming involved in issues such as gender ‘empowerment’ [as if women in Myanmar weren’t already empowered], elaborate ‘protection’ mandates that utterly fail at ‘protecting’ civilians, or climate change, right to water, plus education and health and social divides that predated the reasons for humanitarian intervention.

Look at a number of elaborate international programs in Myanmar over the past decade and ask what they really achieved, and if so for whom? Did the people suffering in war zones really benefit from paint-by-numbers conflict sensitivity projects such as RAFT Myanmar? Did international staff really get much of worth either?  Do we construct all these projects as substitutes for reason, or the illusion of impact?

The major proposal of the final chapter, and Slim’s central argument, is to re-center aid to benefit people in needs, to strip aid down to its fundamentals and increase genuine localization: in effect trimming down services and circumventing the UN-led system and bloated international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to transfer aid direct to communities. As Slim firmly notes, the object for national level aid providers should be “to stop being the humanitarian subjects of an international aid emperor in Geneva and New York who designs their response and liaises over their heads with their government.”

The status quo crowd resist these major changes through five major arguments. First, that national collapse during conflict makes it difficult to fully realize localization when institutions are so weak; that local organizations can be captured by predatory elites; that the localization push is too ‘purist’ and many INGOs are sufficiently ‘local’ with partnerships so do not have to go any further; the defense of liberal values in the face of rising authoritarianism; and last, global fairness and the role of internationalist humanitarians to decide what is a fair distribution of aid.

Slim makes his major points convincingly, several times, that a new pursuit of fundamental humanitarianism must be pursued: “If wartime humanitarian aid is to reach farther in the worst of the climate crisis, new global health crises and possible big war, then it must become simpler to conceive, deliver and receive.”

The long-standing tensions between ‘classical humanitarianism’ and ‘resilience humanitarianism’ are directly relevant to Myanmar, where debates over moving aid through the junta or through multiple resistance forces have been raging since the coup. Slim has been rightly celebrated for promoting ‘humanitarian resistance’, which he has defined in a recent working paper as “the rescue, relief and protection of people suffering under an unjust enemy regime. It is specifically organized by individuals and groups who are politically opposed o he regime and support resistance against i because of their political conscience.” This form of humanitarianism has existed in Myanmar for many years, and has expanded since the 2021 coup.

Slim’s study is refreshingly free of the excesses of humanitarian jargon.  There is a merciful absence of the term ‘nexus’, the vaunted ‘Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus’ which despite the millions of words shed on obscuring its meaning, is the basic idea that programs in all fields should coordinate more to ensure they don’t cancel each other, and avoid the silos of international aid operations. Or it’s another way for donors such as the European Union to squander aid money, such as the multi-Euro Nexus Response Mechanism being managed by the Death Star of international aid, the UN Office for Project Services.

Put another way, words that are joined together to have little meaning in order to justify little reform. Other sinister terms propel the pathology of pointless activities around ‘conflict sensitivity’, ‘social cohesion’, ‘resilience’, ‘fragility’ and that most abused term in modern aid: ‘localization.’

Many humanitarians, despite the hair-shirt complex, are genuine about localization. But so many are not, expressing frustration and calling for reform, but yielding whenever donor demands are stated. This is the INGO Pavlovian posture of competitive supplication, which has been evident in Myanmar for many years. It doesn’t include the UN. They are late-Pavlovian development actors, performing supine fealty to dictatorships, all with Western donor connivance.

In an interview with the UN Office Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Center for Humanitarian Data in May 2022, Slim remarked on INGO’s in Myanmar; “Agencies there think they’re deliberating, about what’s morally right, should they work more closely with the military dictatorship, what should they do, where do the principles fit? I actually don’t think they’re deliberating anymore, they’re dithering. They’re endlessly hesitating, because they’re not courageous enough to make the choice” [about whether to stay or leave Myanmar].

For many of them, the military regime is making that choice, certainly by refusing visas and curbing operational space. Nearly a year later they’re still dithering and hoping no-one notices as the junta’s Organizations Registration Law released in late 2022 renders any agency who signs as legally complicit in the regime’s repression.

Humanitarians crave self-flagellation, professing their failings, agonizing over choices, told they can, and must, do better for the sake of all humanity. It’s an exhausting psychological burden, never better captured than in the 2012 song ‘Jan Egeland’ by the Norwegian comedy group Ylvis. There has been a steady stream of studies for years over the failure of western development aid, humanitarian liberal intervention, and human rights moralizing elites and their many disasters, and the occasional progress of aid workers. David Rieff, Linda Polman, Dambisa Moyo, classics from Graham Hancock and William Easterly, Fiona Terry, Diddier Fassin and the pitch-perfect Myanmar focused work of Anne Decobert are but just some of the more notable of the self-examination genre. Slim has produced one of the best. But unlike peace and development practitioners, most, if not all, humanitarians are actually genuine in their anguish.

The real demons here are donors. They’re the ones forcing the hoop jumping, the lack of progress, the incessant monitoring and evaluation [think of it as laundering western failure and casting blame on ‘recipients’], while reaping the big profits and sending real risk down-range to community humanitarians. Slim cites the research of Professor Shandiz Moslehi which reviewed hundreds of recent humanitarian evaluations only to find “forty-eight recurring characteristics of effectiveness” on a whole range of issues. And so much monitoring and evaluation is undertaken by compliant colleagues or insiders [think of ratings agencies for Wall Street] and “fail to report meaningfully on impact.”

Donors too are in turn captive to increasingly right-wing anti-aid governments in the West: look at recent cuts to Myanmar from Sweden and the United Kingdom. If donors only gave more space for genuine humanitarian innovation and flexibility, while rapidly expanding localization, and returning to the basics of humanitarian assistance and eschewing the Kafkaesque trap of multiple agendas, responding to needs could be improved. Yet the system is too big to change, let alone fail. There are simply too many foreigners in humanitarian action better suited as corporate storm troopers at McKinsey & Company consulting than working in complex crisis-affected countries. I read Slim’s book at the same time as Michael Forsyth and Walt Bogdanovich’s When McKinsey Comes to Town, an investigation into corporate malfeasance not uncommon to development aid dynamics, but you will find few similar examinations into donor dysfunction in Myanmar [so much for real monitoring and evaluation].

The findings of the State of the Humanitarian System report 2022, backs up many of Slim’s arguments. In its recently released plan for 2023, OCHA estimated that 339 million people are in need in 69 countries, an increase of 65 million. The costs for meeting this challenge has grown by 25 per cent to US$51.5 billion. 222 million people in 53 countries face food insecurity. 45 million people in 37 countries face starvation. Since the February 2021 coup, over a million people have been displaced, and that looks set to continue rising. Myanmar is a kind of microcosm of malaise affecting a third of the global system of nation states: war, repression, poverty, climate change and the international disparity of wealth and compassion. There is a Sisyphean quality to much of modern expansionary humanitarianism. OCHA’s forecasts have an eerie ‘too big to fail’ message, instead of a radical rethink, or a measured reform process as outlined by Slim.

If the UN has been an unmitigated, abject, morally reprehensible failure in Myanmar for many years now, why are donor states still paying them? How much should we trust INGO’s and their layer cake of opportunists pursuing so many contrived activities?

The title of this review purposefully evokes the classic 1984 book by William Shawcross on Western efforts to alleviate suffering and avert famine in Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge genocide. Shawcross critiqued the cant and clumsiness of the Red Cross, UNHCR, OXFAM, and Western states 40 years ago in ways that resonate with contemporary humanitarian dilemmas today. The noblesse oblige of rich countries assisting the less fortunate, guilt money for colonial plunder, wars of aggression, or a band aid for capitalist exploitation, or the fake modesty of the ‘twice blessed’ self-regard many humanitarians adopt, has expanded to meet the needs of a world in crisis for decades.

But has it expanded too much? Does it work any more effectively or responsibly than it did decades ago? Does the global conscience need to consider the approach of E.F. Schumacher, a developmental economist who worked in Burma in the 1950s, and see that ‘small is beautiful’, and simply seek the solutions to transforming aid that Slim outlines in such eloquent conviction? Or has the junta so weaponized aid that it is thus too late to reform, and that the promises of localization are now simply the struggle for survival?

Hugo Slim, Solferino 21. Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century, Hurst and Company, 2022, pp.289.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar.