Guest Column

Myanmar Junta Weaponizing Aid

By Igor Blazevic 30 July 2021

Chris Sidoti from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar is right, the situation in Myanmar is a humanitarian disaster created by the generals. The combination of the spread of highly infectious COVID-19 variants and a collapsing healthcare system caused by the military’s coup has created a humanitarian emergency in the country.

People are dying in big numbers and most of those deaths are preventable. But even as there is a dramatic need to provide rapid public health assistance, the junta has been quick to weaponize aid.

With thousands of healthcare workers on strike in protest at military rule and a population that deeply distrusts the regime, it is obvious that the junta does not have the capacity to tackle the crisis.

But, more importantly, the junta does not have the will to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his regime have only one aim – to win a war of terror against the people of Myanmar and to prevail at any cost and by all means.

Myanmar’s military is now trying to grab and centralize in its own hands all resources for providing medical aid: medications, oxygen, vaccines. Its purpose is not to use them as a responsible government would do, or even as an irresponsible government would do in such an emergency situation, which is to provide health assistance where it is needed and where the pandemic hotspots are.

Instead, the junta is deploying medications, oxygen and vaccines in the way the generals would deploy any other military asset: to gain advantage over adversaries, to cut access to its main opponents and to use its own resources to blackmail or lure passive opponents and turn them into passive co-operators.

This is no surprise to anybody. It is just one more crime against humanity committed by the regime, which has already committed a long list of genocidal actions, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

What is really making the situation serious is not the junta’s decision to use aid as weapon, but that a number of key countries are handing over aid resources to the regime, at a time when the junta is in need of urgent help to strengthen its hold on the country.

It might look nicer and more ‘humanitarian’ and more neighborly to partly donate [to a lesser extent] and partly sell [to a larger extent] vaccines, medications and equipment for oxygen plants, as China and India are doing, than to sell weapons, as Russia is doing.

However, in the current situation, handing over large supplies of medical aid to the junta is the same as providing the regime with weapons.

Chinese medicines, vaccines and oxygen are just as efficient tools of war as Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets against an unarmed civilian population ravaged by a highly infectious and deadly virus.

For six months already, China [along with Russia] has been blocking any coordinated and meaningful international response to the post-coup turmoil and is using all its leverage on the international stage and among regional players to keep the West out and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) inactive.

China is smart to let Russia do the dirty job of openly supplying a murderous junta with killing tools. The Kremlin, with no real long term strategic interests in Myanmar and with none of its citizens in the country, could not care less about its reputation among the people of Myanmar.

At the same time, China is also being clever by interfering in the internal affairs of Myanmar in a very calculated way. Like the proverbial thief who cries “catch the thief”, Beijing is assertively calling on everybody not to interfere in the internal matters of Myanmar, while doing precisely that in a very patient and systematic way.

By providing vaccines to the junta and to the ethnic armed organizations (EAO’s) based close to the Myanmar-China frontier, Beijing is clearly following its own long-term game plan. That plan consists of keeping other countries out, discreetly providing the regime with limited investment and patiently waiting until the junta prevails, while all the time doing so in a low-profile way in order not to add to the anti-China sentiment that already exists among the population.

Another strategic dimension of China’s game plan is to strengthen its own allies among Myanmar’s EAO’s and to increase the level of autonomy in the territories under their control. That is why China’s vaccines go directly to the junta, as well as to the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army.

It is hypocritical to talk about humanitarian neutrality and impartiality in the current situation. The junta has already changed the rules of the game. It has done so, firstly, by creating a massive emergency situation and by taking almost the whole population hostage. Secondly,  by preventing aid from reaching the people who need it the most, the regime has created the underlying context in which aid is not aid anymore, but a resource to be used as a continuation of war by other means.

Nevertheless, the junta’s actions would have less impact and not be so game-changing if Myanmar’s neighbors – China, Thailand and India – were not playing on the junta’s side.

By essentially keeping the country’s borders closed to any flow of truly neutral and impartial humanitarian aid and medical assistance, China, India and Thailand are actively helping the Myanmar regime to hold the population hostage. By providing much needed vaccines and medical supplies almost exclusively to the junta, China and India are helping the regime weaponize aid.

What the various United Nations (UN) agencies, international NGOs and main donors – the United States (US), European Union (EU), Global Fund, Japan, Switzerland and others – need to do is not to sit and wait and plead for impartiality and neutrality in a game in which the other players are obviously and intentionally breaking the rules.

Instead, they should use their money, capacity, influence and leverage to re-balance a situation that has been dramatically distorted by China, India and Thailand’s geopolitical decision to bet on the junta winning out against the people of Myanmar.

That means using UN agencies, NGOs and main international donors’ resources, influence and leverage to provide immediate cross-border assistance via the National Unity Government’s COVID-19 task force and through local civil society organizations and religious charities operating in Myanmar, including in EAO-controlled territories.

Everyone is aware that there are serious limits to how much territory and how many people can be reached through those channels right now. But many more people will be helped by doing that, rather than waiting for the junta’s approval.

In a situation when Russia is openly and shamelessly planning to deliver war planes and China is sending millions of vaccine doses to the regime, waiting for a Memorandum of Understanding from the junta to deliver much-needed aid is just another way of enabling the regime to prevail. Russia and China are doing just that through action, while the UN, ASEAN, US and EU are doing that through non-action.

The people of Myanmar desperately need and deserve far better targeted aid than what we have seen so far from those who claim to be friends of Myanmar.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Junta Sells Off $90m Since Coup

Myanmar Military-allied Karen Armed Group Commander Dies of COVID-19

Half of Myanmar’s Population Could Have COVID-19 in Two Weeks, UN Told