Outgoing ICRC Head Weighs in On Progress, Challenges in Myanmar

By San Yamin Aung 23 June 2017

YANGON — Outgoing head of the Myanmar delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Jurg Montani has emphasized progress made in recent months regarding improved humanitarian access to conflict affected areas.

At a press briefing on Thursday at the ICRC office in Yangon, Montani, who is set to finish his four-year duty at the end of June, cited the organization’s growing operations in northeastern Myanmar as a success, adding that the organization was now able to work in civilian hospitals in Laiza and Mai Ja Yang in the Kachin Independence Army-controlled areas of Kachin State.

“I think that is the result of the dialogues we have with the Tatmadaw when our president was here. We have good access as well in the northern part of Rakhine, where we were among the first to be operating in the areas most affected by the military operations,” he said.

ICRC President Peter Maurer visited Myanmar in May and met with the military’s commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The two agreed to strengthen the dialogue between the Tatmadaw and ICRC.

In 2016, access to conflict areas in northern Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states was limited by Myanmar Army checkpoints and government policy, leaving displaced people without aid for several months.

The ICRC is engaging with the Tatmadaw’s engineering unit, which is leading mine clearance operations from the armed forces’ side, as well as non-state armed groups.

Montani said mine clearance operations remain difficult to discuss, as landmines are still being used in northeastern Myanmar. The ICRC is encouraging the government to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, as it would open the door for further international support and funding for mine clearance.

“I think over the years, we really gained the trust of all stakeholders—be it the civilian government, military, police, non-state armed groups, civil society organizations–which really allows us today to access [more] areas in Myanmar and to do humanitarian operations in Myanmar.”

He said it is important that the access continues not only for the ICRC, adding that humanitarian aid plays a role in stabilizing the community and reconciling communities, using Rakhine State as an example.

“This is where we can see that it is possible to achieve longer term stability and peace. For that, we need to be able to work with those communities,” Montani said.

The outgoing head said he believes his organization will be beneficial to the National League for Democracy government’s peace process, by contributing to the resilience and stability of local populations and by strengthening infrastructure, as well as by addressing the immediate needs created by displacement.

Montani emphasized revisions to Myanmar’s outdated prison law concerning the country’s detention centers—where health care and medical services are widely reported as inadequate, and prisoners live in overcrowded conditions, alleging various rights violations and corruption. Changes to this law are underway, and Montani described them as a central point on which to build upon the improvement of the prison system as a whole.

“I think the country really needs a modern prison law which will allow the prison department to implement the changes that need to be implemented,” he said.

He urged the Myanmar government to look into the judiciary system, including laws and sentencing statutes, as a way to address overcrowding in prisons.

The Ministry of Home Affairs appears to want to reform the prison system, he said, and to implement the ICRC’s recommendations based on their findings during visits to detention centers. He added that the organization has seen some improvements because of these visits.

In Rakhine State, the outgoing head said that at community level it is possible to find solutions, and to develop reconciliation and trust between the divided communities there, as the ICRC has several project areas where different groups are interacting, using the same markets and health facilities.

“It’s slow progress but this is possible… Some of the very nationalist talk, of course doesn’t help the reconciliation,” he said. “The two communities lived side by side for a long time… I want to believe it can work again.”