Guest Column

Myanmar Civil Society Is Right to Criticize the UN on Aid Distribution

By Igor Blazevic 26 September 2022

DW Asia editor Rodion Ebbighausen has written an opinion piece in which he argues that “Myanmar activists are attacking the wrong target”. “Activists and civil society groups in Myanmar are increasingly attacking humanitarian aid organizations, especially the United Nations, online. They are the wrong target,” says Ebbighausen in the DW article.

Let me quickly comment on why Ebbighausen’s defense of the UN agencies is wrong and why the UN agencies are coming under deserved public scrutiny and criticism.

What Ebbighausen is overlooking is that no UN agencies have signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with the legitimate National Unity Government (NUG), which does not intentionally and systematically kill the civilian population and uproot them from the land.

However, all relevant UN agencies (OCHA, UNICEF, ICRC, FAO and IOM) have simultaneously signed MoUs with the illegitimate power-usurper, which is intentionally and systematically executing cleansing operations and terror over the civilian population.

They have signed MoUs with a force that is waging a war, not against guerrillas, but against the civilian population. They have signed an “understanding” with the same force and the same people who are actually creating a humanitarian emergency and using brutal violence to expel the population from the land.

In addition, the military junta—after 19 months in which the people have mounted a heroic self-defense operation—currently controls only about half of the country’s territory. There is a long history of the junta using a “Four Cuts” policy, which means cutting the civilian population off from food, supplies, medicines, fuel and anything else in order to blackmail the insurgency into conceding defeat through the heavy price imposed on the civilian population. The military did that for decades and is doing it now.

So once the UN agencies sign an MoU with the junta, they agree that they will not deliver aid to half of the territory where the situation is the most dramatic and urgency is the greatest. If at the same time there is not a single UN agency that has signed an agreement with the NUG and Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (EROs) about delivering much-needed aid to non-junta controlled territory as well, then what we have is UN agencies assisting the brutal counterinsurgency operations of the junta.

This is a problem and this is a big problem, and that is why the UN agencies are coming under deserved public scrutiny and criticism.

Cheap, pathetic arguments about “a starving child receiving food does not starve to death” should not hide this ugly reality. There is a systematic, murderous and brutal counterinsurgency operation going on in the rural areas of the country. This is being done by the military junta. This must be stopped. This is a humanitarian imperative.

If that is too much for the UN to do, then at least the UN agencies must be on both sides of the conflict lines, and not only on the side of the aggressor.

Activists and civil society groups, as well as the people of Myanmar, are rightly outraged because the UN agencies have signed an understanding with the junta and have not made any agreement that aid will also be delivered to the NUG- and ERO-liberated territories.

Myanmar society has enough determination and strength to defend itself from the attempted military power grab. Myanmar society and its own civil society also have enough determination and capacity to keep under scrutiny what the UN agencies are doing—and what they are not doing.

The UN has a long history of failures in Myanmar. The 2019 Rosenthal Report analyzed and highlighted “systemic and structural failures” of the UN agencies during the Rohingya genocide in 2017. The same military under the same command structure that committed the crime of genocide in 2017 in Rakhine State is now applying the same cleansing operations in other parts of Myanmar. The UN agencies have obviously not learned anything from their own previous failures. The people of Myanmar have learned. They have learned enough to know that they have only one way to gain security, peace, development, rights and freedom, and that is by liberating themselves from predatory and repressive military rule.

They have also learned enough about the humanitarian neocolonialism of the UN agencies. That is why the UN agencies will get pushback from Myanmar society whenever they start to do harm. The UN agencies have started walking down the very slippery road of doing more harm than benefit.

Myanmar civil society is ringing alarm bells. The UN agencies would do well to hear those alarm bells, and not to make themselves blind and deaf, hiding behind an argument that it is fulfilling a “humanitarian commitment that can alleviate the suffering of the people”.

In places like Myanmar, where the junta (and only the junta) has weaponized humanitarian aid, it is not enough to say that one is “alleviating the suffering of the people”. One must be more precise and say where the aid is going and where the aid is not going, and why. It also matters a lot when the aid is delivered and when it is not delivered, and why. It also matters through whom the aid comes and through whom it does not come.

At this moment UN agencies have committed themselves to deliver aid where the junta wants them to send it, to deliver it when the junta allows them to send it, and to do it through structures that are affiliated with the junta—the same junta that is the sole and only source of all suffering and of the humanitarian emergency.

This is rightly criticized.

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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