Guest Column

Is the WHO Dancing to the Tune of the Myanmar Regime?

By Desmond 28 July 2022

Does the World Health Organization (WHO) have a conscience? And do the United Nations (UN) agencies have a conscience? What about the staff working for the UN in Myanmar? Do they feel guilty over what is happening in the country? Myanmar people are not sure if the WHO and UN have consciences, but they do see those organizations as useless and ineffective and they are now the subject of ridicule. A standard criticism-cum-joke for Myanmar people in response to any UN statement on the country is to be highly concerned for the health of the UN staff.

The criticism and mocking of the UN didn’t stop even when a WHO driver from Mawlamyine was shot dead on 8 June. Unconfirmed reports said that the Mawlamyine People’s Defense Force killed the driver because of his relationship with the Myanmar military.

In response, both the WHO and the UN immediately issued statements condemning the killing. Mr. Ramanathan Balakrishnan, the UN Resident Coordinator, even asked all parties and stakeholders to respect the “neutrality” of the United Nations and humanitarian aid providers, and called for an impartial investigation.

Although people do not support the killing of a person without sound justification, there are still points to be made about those statements. Some people sarcastically asked if this killing had been committed by the military, would the WHO have had the guts to demand an impartial investigation? The WHO kept its mouth closed tight when the junta was committing targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of striking healthcare workers, aid workers and members of civil society organizations (CSOs). Many Myanmar netizens assumed that the WHO only dared to speak out on the Mawlamyine killing because they knew it was not committed by the military.

In addition, people suggested that if the WHO genuinely wants justice for its slain staff, they can submit a formal complaint to the Ministry of Defense under the National Unity Government (NUG), a legitimate body supported by the people. It is an outright challenge to the WHO and other UN organizations who avoid engaging with the NUG, a legitimate government supported by the people, out of fear of the military regime, a gang of armed men killing its own people. It is also rooted in the logical assumption that justice can be only be expected from a government that protects its people. Nothing can be expected from the junta, which brutalizes the country and health workers.

Military’s inhumanity towards health workers

Since the February 2021 coup, Myanmar has become a dangerous place for health workers, who are being targeted by the regime. Over 30 health workers were killed, while 286 were arbitrarily arrested, within a year of the coup, according to Physicians for Human Rights. The junta has been constantly raiding, shutting down and destroying hospitals and clinics. In one recent case, the regime arrested Dr. Aung Aung Htun, from the well-known Thuriya Clinic in Mandalay, and his family without any reason. The WHO said nothing about the arrest. It is highly doubtful whether they are even aware of it.

Even worse, the WHO did nothing when Dr. Htar Htar Lin, who worked closely with the WHO, was arrested by junta forces in June last year. Dr. Htar Htar Lin was the National Immunization Director at the Ministry of Health (MOH) and known for her leadership in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. At the time, she said: “The military is trying to take advantage of the vaccination program. We can’t let the dictator use the vaccination program as a weapon.” Regime forces inhumanely arrested Dr. Htar Htar Lin’s seven-year-old son along with her. But despite that grave human rights violation, the WHO stayed silent.

Vaccination and health services situation in Myanmar

While the WHO has failed to deter the killings and arrests of health workers, it was also unable to prevent the dangerous actions of the junta during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second COVID-19 wave came just as the health system had collapsed because of the coup. People had no clinics to visit and no COVID-19 treatment centers as had existed under the ousted National League for Democracy government. In addition, the junta was recklessly arresting the health workers and volunteers of charities providing emergency care. CSOs had to run essential health services in secret out of fear of military reprisals. Even when people were facing a shortage of much-needed oxygen, the military confiscated supplies of oxygen for its own use and so put the lives of people in danger.

But the WHO was unable to convince the junta-controlled MOH to initiate or support a community-based response, the central component to any crisis response. Some of the WHO’s staff said that they could not implement any response activities as planned and just used their funds mainly to pay their staff’s salaries. There was a widespread joke within the health community that said that while thousands of people were dying of COVID-19, the WHO was busy drafting treatment guidelines, posting them online, while also re-posting MOH figures provided by the junta without verifying them.

Currently, national vaccination programs are hardly operating. For example, BCG [tuberculosis] vaccine coverage was over 80 per cent even during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic period, but in 2021, it was only just over 40 per cent. If children cannot receive the necessary vaccines, the public health consequences will be huge. The WHO’s reaction has only been to aim to revitalize mechanisms via the junta-run MOH to reach the children. The WHO’s lack of creativity means that they probably don’t know any alternative approaches.

In fact, it is the junta who for no reason restricts the transportation of medicines to conflict-affected areas such as Sagaing and Magwe regions. No one in their right mind believes that the regime-run MOH, which doesn’t put the health of the people first, would be able to get vaccines to the places where they were most needed. Public health experts and CSOs are pushing for the cross-border vaccination campaign, but the WHO continues to ignore them as it follows the will of the regime. The WHO’s argument that it is too much of a technical challenge to implement a cross-border campaign is just a lame excuse.

If the WHO and UN accept the reality that Myanmar is heading for a bigger public health crisis, they must act now. Providing unfettered humanitarian assistance and essential health services to the people, regardless of where they live, is a must. In response to the killing of the Mawlamyine WHO driver, the UN Resident Coordinator called on all parties to respect the “neutrality” of the UN. But is the UN acting in a neutral manner?

The reality suggests otherwise. WHO senior staff have been going back and forth to the capital Naypyitaw and waiting for a green light from the MOH. It has been suggested that the WHO is eager to return to business as usual by refusing to see what is actually happening: a public health emergency. One recent example of that is the fact that the WHO is recruiting staff to support the MOH in Naypyitaw. The job ads state clearly that the responsibilities of successful applicants will be to cooperate and provide technical assistance and supervision to the MOH, although no specific activities are mentioned.

Is the WHO acting alone here? Perhaps it isn’t. As the UN’s main public health body, the WHO has to follow strictly the direction set by the UN resolutions on Myanmar to not recognize the regime. In order to do that, there are guidelines for all UN organizations in Myanmar to carry out risk assessments before resuming operations. The risk assessment is meant to assess whether a UN program legitimizes the military or not. It is only allowed to run a program if it doesn’t.

Only the WHO leadership and staff know if the organization is following these instructions, because no public information is available. One also has to question whether the UN Resident Coordinator agrees with the current approach. As for the people of Myanmar, they will continue to keep a close eye on the WHO. They won’t hesitate to blame any organization that dances to the tune of the military.

Desmond studies international development with a focus on peace processes and transitional issues.

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