Guest Column

‘Humanitarian’ Focus Does Harm and Prolongs Myanmar’s Crisis

By Igor Blazevic 9 June 2021

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar caused by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s attempted and so far failed coup is deepening every day. For those outside the country, the humanitarian catastrophe evolving in Myanmar is still a bit like the explosion of a very distant star. The explosion has already happened, but its light and waves have still not fully reached us.

There are still not enough dramatic calls and dramatic pictures drawing enough attention. Anybody familiar with the dynamic and depth of the current crisis is aware that this will change soon. The economy has already come to a standstill. Millions of citizens have been without any income for months and their already meagre reserves are running out.  Many are trapped in regions where front lines, old and new, have been reactivated. Tens of thousands of highly vulnerable civilians, including women, children and the elderly, are already on the move, fleeing from the punitive military operations of the Myanmar army. The Indian strain of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly from Chin State on the western border of the country.

An ASEAN delegation met Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on June 4 to discuss “humanitarian issues”. Because the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar will soon become urgent and dramatic, we will see many more international actors rushing to discuss “humanitarian issues”. For that reason, it makes a lot of sense to discuss such issues a bit more carefully and thoroughly.

Humanitarian aid is usually a “sacred cow” that most of us are reluctant to question and criticize. In a messy, multi-dimensional conflict, at a moment when we face the spiraling of the whole country into the situation of a failed state and Hobbesian brutish “Warre”, and when, faced with the prospect of large-scale suffering among the civilian population, it seems that humanitarianism is the only option that is left.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of the “international humanitarian effort” during the war in my country, Bosnia, and who has also raised funds and provided humanitarian aid, I dare to share some experiences and raise a few questions.

In a situation like the one we have in Myanmar now, humanitarian aid has several very problematic aspects and it is good, I believe, to be aware of that.

What are these problematic dimensions? Let me address them one by one, because, as stated, there are several.

Let us start with the recent visit of the ASEAN delegation, because it illustrates well when and how humanitarian aid starts to be a problem. There are many critical issues that need to be discussed when one wants to try to facilitate an international process that will bring a solution to a deepening crisis. However, other issues have not been discussed. Priority is given to the need to respond to the humanitarian crisis. So instead of addressing the critical questions of the Tatmadaw waging war against the nation, state violence and a systematic spree of arrests that already counts in the thousands, instead of opening and discussing critical question of political dialog between Myanmar’s stakeholders, it seems that ASEAN has abandoned all of the other points in its “five-point consensus” and decided that the only important topic that remains is the “humanitarian issue”.

This is the first possibly problematic side. When “humanitarian issues” replace all other issues as the main priority, then “humanitarianism” starts to become a cover for the absence of action on the issues that really matter to end the violence, conflict and spiraling crisis.

Another problem is that the humanitarian approach always blurs the issue of responsibility. When you need to secure access for humanitarian deliveries in times of war and violent circumstances, then you negotiate with the one who controls the guns and territory, without regard for whether he is right or wrong, whether or not he is legitimate, whether or not he is a war criminal. You, like it or dislike it, start to talk about “all sides in the conflict”, about a “need for restraint”, about “humanitarian concerns and priorities”.

The mass humanitarian crisis in Myanmar was triggered and created by, and is being sustained by, the aggressive, violent, murderous and oppressive behavior of just one “side”—Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to stage the coup and to try to reimpose, against the will of the population, direct, full and illegitimate military rule. That is the only reason for and the only generator of Myanmar’s current crisis. There have not been two sides in that, and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is still, as of today, the sole and only obstacle to starting to de-escalate the current crisis.

Fueling the continuation of the crisis, in spite of all the disastrous consequences—and escalating it into a multi-dimensional war of many against many—is Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s belief that ultimately he can win and consolidate the coup. He cherishes this belief not only because of his blundering, power-hungry ambition, but much more so because of the hugely disproportionate military strength he wields. This is why he is uncompromising and why he will not “restrain” his forces from the violence and arrests, and why he will reject any negotiations that can only lead to a political settlement.

No level of humanitarian effort will change anything in this underlying situation. The senior general can allow ASEAN to focus on “humanitarian issues” while he continues his war against the people until he can exhaust and crush the resistance. At the same time, with behind-the-scenes support from China and Russia, he will most probably not allow UN humanitarian missions to get involved in Myanmar, in order to avoid a situation in which any “Western” influence will be smuggled in via UN agencies. The EU, US, Canada and Japan will be welcomed to pay for the ASEAN humanitarian effort, but otherwise both Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and China will do all they can to keep them at a distance from any aid effort. Some international humanitarian NGOs will be allowed to operate—under the very tight scrutiny of the junta’s ministries and Special Branch—within the country, to provide window dressing for the EU and others, creating the impression that they are “doing all that is possible” in the given circumstances.

This is not the kind of humanitarianism that alleviates the suffering of the civilian population, reduces the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and contributes to the solution of the crisis. This is humanitarianism that is doing harm by helping the junta win the war against the people and helping Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing consolidate a new military dictatorship.

Anything that gives time and legitimacy to the junta and anything that strengthens the current disproportionality of the capacity to use violence on the side of the junta, and the lack of capacity to defend itself on the side of the people of Myanmar, is prolonging and deepening Myanmar’s crisis.

ASEAN’s “humanitarian aid effort”, which will be ineffectually negotiated for several more months, and “non-interfering” talks with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in the spirit of “ASEAN unity” will boost the junta’s belief that they can win. So, the violence will continue, the war will escalate further, the crisis will deepen and the humanitarian crisis will intensify.

There is a clear alternative for ASEAN, as well as for all other players in the international community, which they should implement without delay:

  • Start to talk with representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) without further delay. Make clear to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) that the NUG is legitimate and a full-fledged participant in any ASEAN-facilitated negotiations about a settlement in the Myanmar crisis.
  • Make clear that the NUG will be invited to any further ASEAN special meetings on Myanmar.
  • ASEAN must actively support the UN resolution to impose an arms embargo, instead of secretly and shamefully lobbying against it behind the scenes.
  • Issue a clear statement that the attempted military takeover has no grounds, has no legitimacy, has plunged the country into disaster and has created a serious threat to regional security and stability. Put the condition forward that any future transition period must be civilian-led—agreed by all stakeholders including the Tatmadaw, but civilian-led. Put the condition forward that any future elections can be managed and overseen only by a civilian-led election commission, not one imposed by the military junta.
  • Demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners detained or sentenced after the Feb. 1 coup, and leverage that demand with the threat that Myanmar will be temporarily suspended from ASEAN membership if this condition is not met by a specific date. Strictly demand that no new arrests take place.
  • Demand an immediate end to the use of state violence and an end to all military operations. Through negotiations it will not be hard to get ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and people’s defense forces (PDFs) to “restrain” themselves. Anyway, their actions have been defensive and have been prompted by arrests, indiscriminate killing, raids and punitive operations undertaken by the military and police. Once the junta’s state terror stops, all other stakeholders will be happy and ready to “restrain” their actions.
  • Immediately, without delay, start to deliver humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons and refugees in EAO-controlled territory. EAOs and the NUG will be glad to issue invitations and agree on a Memorandum of Understanding with both ASEAN and the UN. No need to wait on the good will of the junta to agree on the terms of international humanitarian engagement in Myanmar. The junta is not the legitimate representative of the Myanmar state and its people and should not in any way be allowed to decide under which conditions aid should flow into the country. Once it becomes obvious to the junta that aid is coming to Myanmar through local civil society and is reaching territories not controlled by the Tatmadaw, junta representatives will be quick to open access to humanitarian aid to the territory controlled by the Tatmadaw. They will not allow themselves to fall behind. Assertive, confident action will do much more than pleading for good will and humanitarian concern from Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. He does not have any “humanitarian concerns”.

This alternative approach will much more quickly activate much-needed humanitarian aid channels to the population and at the same time move us several steps closer to the possible de-escalation of the currently escalating conflict. It will also help us avoid the consolidation of yet another predatory and highly repressive, prolonged military dictatorship.

Igor Blazevic is senior adviser with the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer at the Educational Initiatives program.

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