Guest Column

Myanmar Needs ‘People First’ Assistance

By Aung Myo Min 5 August 2021

The people of Myanmar face an unparalleled national three Cs (coup, COVID and climate change) crisis today as we confront a failed military coup, catastrophic third COVID-19 wave, and natural disasters engineered by changes in the climate.  As the third wave of COVID-19 spreads rampantly throughout Myanmar, it is possible that the next COVID-19 variant could arise out of Myanmar; this is a major threat to regional and global public health security, a threat that must be immediately addressed by ASEAN and Myanmar’s neighboring countries as well as the international community.

For six months, the military junta has robbed the people of Myanmar of their sense of security and dignity. The military has murdered 940 people, including over 70 children as young as 6 years old. They have arbitrarily detained over 5,400 people. Of those, 19 percent are women who have been at the forefront of leading anti-junta protests on the streets. The Ministry of Women, Youths and Children’s Affairs has reported rape and sexual violence against girls and women in detention. Along with peaceful LGBTIQ protesters, they have been sexually assaulted and harassed, made to conduct humiliating and degrading acts that amount to torture in detention.

Meanwhile, food insecurity is growing, the banking sector is in crisis, and the economy is collapsing with the World Bank forecasting Myanmar’s economy to shrink by 18 percent, and the World Food Program estimating that an additional 3.4 million people will now go hungry. This adds to the decades of military rule, and the mismanagement of essential administration, including in the health sector. Instead of funding education and health, the military focused on stealing wealth from the people of Myanmar to fund their decades-long civil war against ethnic communities, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic areas and genocide against the Rohingya with impunity. As a result, more than half a million people are now internally displaced in Myanmar. This is the reason why Myanmar requires such dire levels of international assistance today.

In the face of these challenges, the people of Myanmar, and the National Unity Government (NUG) have repeatedly called on ASEAN and the international community for rapid and expanded humanitarian aid intervention. We welcome the generous support that has been provided by the regional and international community in response to the humanitarian crisis so far, particularly in dialogue with the NUG and NUG-aligned administrative bodies, as well as civil society organizations (CSOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs), but the needs are far greater and require a more robust and coordinated intervention.

Responsibility for this human rights and humanitarian crisis rests squarely with the military junta, which, rather than tackling these issues to the benefit of the people of Myanmar, continues to weaponize COVID-19 and humanitarian aid for its own political gain.

It is vital that humanitarian assistance programs be designed and implemented in a way that ensures that they are not being used to promote or benefit the political or financial interests of the military junta.

ASEAN and the wider international community must coordinate with and empower existing governance structures that are supported by the people in all parts of Myanmar, particularly through NUG-aligned administrative bodies and CSOs/CBOs in ethnic-administered areas for localized humanitarian response to needs on the ground.

The NUG’s people-centered response to humanitarian aid prioritizes the immediate needs of the people of Myanmar. The “People First” approach places the people’s well-being and health services as our first priority, as we endeavor to work with all UN agencies and development partners to bring equitable access to healthcare and COVID-19 vaccination for all people of Myanmar in accordance with international standards, including those laid out by the WHO and UNICEF.

We urge ASEAN, and its humanitarian assistance through the AHA Center, to adhere to certain principles in provision of humanitarian aid. While the people in Myanmar are in desperate need of assistance, support must reach those most in need in a way that does not legitimize the junta, which is the cause of the people’s suffering.

While recognizing that communication with the military may be unavoidable in some instances in providing humanitarian aid, all ASEAN, UN and international partners are strongly urged to avoid communications with the military junta, which will imply or provide it with legitimacy or recognition. To this end, we strongly urge ASEAN to have regular, meaningful and inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders as set out in its five point consensus, in particular by holding dialogue with the NUG and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) as well as ethnic armed organizations.

It is crucial that resources be provided directly to local actors who can flexibly and creatively meet the needs on the ground in a way that does not legitimize or otherwise support the military junta. By resourcing CSOs, CBOs, ethnic administrations, and in some circumstances services through CDM health professionals, ASEAN and international support can meet the needs of the people without causing greater harm. This can also ensure that COVID-19 support and vaccinations are not used as a weapon against the people and those participating in the CDM.

Commitment to providing cross-border assistance is key to meeting the urgent needs of the people of Myanmar. Cross-border aid can be delivered through CSOs and CBOs with decades of experience in provision of essential services, particularly in ethnic administrations. The COVID-19 Task Force set up by the Ministry of Health, NUG and ethnic health organizations is central to such provision of assistance at this time.

Decentralized and localized aid is reflective of the emerging federal democratic union that we aspire to build and cross-border aid is currently essential in the realization of inclusive and equitable provision of aid.

These above positions of the NUG in regards to humanitarian aid are clearly laid out in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management position paper issued on June 19. On July 18, reiterating these calls, the NUG sent a letter to the UN Secretary General, requesting a robust and well-designed intervention from the international community.

Every day that passes without ASEAN and the international community’s urgent action is a day that we lose more lives. The military exists to serve its own interests and has demonstrated over the past six months that it will not act in the best interest of the people of Myanmar. Rather, it serves to perpetuate its own status quo, which will only be further emboldened by the inaction of ASEAN and the wider international community.

The attempted coup has failed. It is the people of Myanmar, despite the immense challenges and against all odds, who are keeping the future of Myanmar from falling into decades-long military rule once again. But we require immediate support.

ASEAN must act, and it must act NOW. Not only for the sake of the people of Myanmar but for the sake of ASEAN. Their continuing insistence on working through the junta is an affront to its own founding Charter, with its declaration of “adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

History is repeating itself once again. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is an aspiring dictator, a third-generation military chief who is following in the footsteps of previous dictators, appointing himself as the “caretaker” of Myanmar. This is a threat to global stability and security, and while ASEAN has an important role to play, the world must no longer wait for ASEAN to act. The current human rights, humanitarian and COVID crisis requires robust and immediate action by the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council. Their immediate action is needed to save lives.

Aung Myo Min is Minister of Human Rights in the National Unity Government of Myanmar.


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