Guest Column

Myanmar Junta Takes Cautious Steps With ASEAN on International Aid Access

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 28 March 2022

The three-day visit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special envoy to Myanmar last week fulfilled only one point of the five-point consensus agreed last year: point four, which deals with humanitarian assistance. Even so, more discussions are needed to work out procedures to facilitate humanitarian efforts so that the affected Myanmar people both in conflict areas and other regions get the assistance they need speedily and safely. But it is a fruitful step that will lead to more action and progress in the months and years ahead.

Since the coup in February 2021, humanitarian assistance has been one of the top priorities along with the appeal for an immediate ceasefire. As it turned out, issues related to humanitarian assistance were much easier to discuss with the military regime. The junta is not interested in negotiations but does want to receive aid from donors. 

Minister Ko Ko Hlaing, Chairman of the Task Force on Humanitarian Assistance, is the key person handling humanitarian efforts for the junta. An ex-army officer, he was previously an advisor to former president Thein Sein. 

During the minister’s 75 minute discussion with ASEAN’s special envoy, Prak Sokhonn, Ko Ko Hlaing expressed Myanmar’s readiness to assist the envoy and the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA). But, despite his friendly tone, the minister outlined pretty tough positions regarding the ways and means that humanitarian aid can come into Myanmar at the present juncture. 

But Ko Ko Hlaing has a history of being tough on allowing international aid into Myanmar. When Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008, he wrote that cyclone victims didn’t need supplies of “chocolate bars” and could instead survive by eating frogs and fish. As a result of the then regime’s negligence and inaction, over one million people were left homeless by Nargis, while 70,000 people died or were reported missing.

His article published in state-controlled newspapers said: “The government and the people are like parents and children…. We, all the people, were pleased with the efforts of the government.” In fact, the then military regime provided little assistance to the hundreds of thousands of storm victims, leaving them displaced and without food. 

In addition, Ko Ko Hlaing, who was then a retired colonel writing anonymously for regime-controlled media, said that granting free access for aid workers in the delta meant that donors “are to be given permission to inspect all houses thoroughly at will.”

He also said: “Myanmar people are capable enough of rising from such natural disasters even if they are not provided with international assistance….Myanmar people can easily get food by just fishing in the fields and ditches…In the early monsoon, large edible frogs are abundant.”

At a time when the then junta under the dictator Senior General Than Shwe was blocking aid from ASEAN, the United Nations (UN) and the West, Ko Ko Hlaing added: “The people can survive with self-reliant efforts even if they are not given chocolate bars from [the] international community.” 

This time around, according to inside sources, Ko Ko Hlaing reiterated that outside assistance can only be distributed through assigned channels such as the Yangon International Airport or Yangon Sea Port. The sources said that the regime would not allow any aid to go through the various border checkpoints with Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh, and Laos. 

Ko Ko Hlaing was very specific in stating that some of the frontier checkpoints have been used to traffic arms to the resistance movement. 

However, the civilian parallel National Unity Government, resistance groups and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have called for overseas aid not to go through the regime. So far, the junta has blocked and seized medical and food supplies intended for areas controlled by EAOs.

Since humanitarian assistance is an urgent matter and the subject of intensive discussions, the regime agreed that there would be a consultative meeting sometime during the fourth week of April. 

To prepare for future humanitarian assistance, the head of ASEAN’s AHA, Lee Yam Ming, was included in the ASEAN delegation. Ideas related to the establishment of Friends of Myanmar and arranging a humanitarian corridor, both of which were proposed last year, will be discussed further with concerned stakeholders including representatives from various UN agencies. 

At their hour-long meeting with the UN representatives in Yangon on the second day of the ASEAN envoy’s visit, almost all of them presented a very grim picture of the current situation in Myanmar. All UN agencies face the same difficulties working in dangerous situations during armed conflict. They have to engage with both the authorities and the suffering citizens. 

One of their biggest challenges is gaining access to the vulnerable people who have been displaced in various parts of the country. According to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are nearly half a million internally displaced persons in Myanmar, especially in the north, northeast and southeast.

Currently, the AHA is working with Myanmar’s Red Cross Society and UN agencies to provide much-needed aid. It is hopeful that the upcoming planned consultative meeting on humanitarian assistance may come up with a comprehensive framework that permits quick access to needy communities, as well as providing security and safety guarantees for the aid workers. 

During his visit, ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn did not meet with any representatives from the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. Myanmar’s former First Lady Daw Su Su Lwin cancelled a proposed meeting due to ill-health, although it is likely that the NLD would not have wanted her to meet with the envoy while ousted NLD leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Win Myint are being detained by the regime.

Prak Sokhonn hinted at a press conference in Phnom Penh that he may have an opportunity to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the future, following some positive responses from junta boss Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Last October, ASEAN leaders decided to reprimand Myanmar by permitting only non-political officials to attend ASEAN-related meetings. Since then, Myanmar has decided to skip several ASEAN meetings, including last November’s special ASEAN-China Summit. 

When regime foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin met Prak Sokhonn last week, he urged ASEAN to give Myanmar equal representation in all ASEAN-related meetings, like all other members of the regional bloc. However, ASEAN has made it clear that there must be substantive progress in implementing the five-point consensus before Myanmar is allowed to return to the ASEAN fold. The current ASEAN chair, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, has reiterated time and again that Myanmar must be brought back into the ASEAN family.

But, as Prak Sokhonn told reporters in Phnom Penh last week, all the various parties are fighting and are not ready to negotiate. So implementing the five-point consensus will take time. 

Fighting has intensified in recent months. However, the situation could change dramatically when the rainy season starts in June. There could be a lull in fighting, providing a new impetus for political dialogue, especially if all parties on the battlefield realize that no one can win this internecine conflict. That may jump-start much-needed negotiations.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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