The traditional approach to humanitarian aid embraces principles like impartiality, neutrality, independence, and humanity. United Nations agencies and international non-profits cherish these ideals, and yet they also empower the legitimacy of a genocidal military regime.
The failure to criticize military atrocities and name the junta as perpetrator tells us they fear the regime more than bereaved mothers, fathers and loved ones across the country who courageously speak out.
It is Min Aung Hlaing and his generals who caused the suffering – before opening the door just enough so that aid would flow through the military and give it legitimacy.
In fact, some of the neediest citizens are in Sagaing and Magway, where resistance is fierce and the junta is losing territory. Analysis by Special Advisory Council for Myanmar finds that the junta has stable control of only 17% of the country.
The junta terrorists will lose more territory in the future, but the destruction will only get worse: the path ahead is towards even more suffering.
Yet, relying on behind-the-scenes pressure and engagement will not work now. It has never worked in the past. UN agencies and international non-profits must engage in principled criticism to remind the military junta that the world is still watching.
This was most recently demonstrated on September 16. At least 12 people, including seven children, were killed in a military junta airstrike and ground assault at a monastic school in Depayin Township, northwestern Myanmar.
We know it was the military that committed this crime, with first-hand testimonies and cross-referenced local sources in media and civil society reports confirming it within days.
The UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) released a statement on September 27, saying the atrocity may be a war crime and that the school “came under attack by Tatmadaw forces”.
Graphic images of heads blown off, bone fragments, and distraught mothers outside the monastery school in Depayin circulated online. These recent victims join a total 32 civilians murdered in junta airstrikes since the coup, and this remains a conservative figure, verified by our documentation and research department.
Images and statistics like these are all too familiar to Myanmar netizens since the coup, but it doesn’t make them any less traumatizing. Language matters: letters of concern and vague statements will be used by the military and its international pariah allies to “blame both sides”.
The same can be said for choosing to cite or not cite AAPP data, which the military made a political act punishable by “severe action” when it labeled us an illegal organization in April 2021.
Independent media and civil society documenters need support – through direct criticism of the military junta. Journalists are being targeted with arrests, torture, rape, and murder. A terror campaign that extends beyond airstrikes is impacting the documentation of the other human rights violations ravaging Sagaing Region.
AAPP has observed the junta increasingly use property seizures to collectively punish the pro-democracy movement. The AAPP team has interviewed several victims who have had their homes – built after years of saving, or passed down the generations – raided and seized by junta militia.
Across the country, some 30,000 buildings including schools, churches, and other religious buildings have been burned to the ground. It is the junta that is looting and targeting these buildings. Other reports have implied ‘both sides’ are perpetrating similar violations, but these reports are neither neutral nor impartial, and therefore useless.
Children as young as one year old are being taken into secret detention to threaten and punish pro-democracy supporters on the run. According to the AAPP database, 47 children have been taken hostage since the coup, and 40 remain in detention.
The junta is using hostage-taking as a weapon, demonstrating a brutal worldview where anyone who resists them is an enemy of the state and a legitimate target.
The internet is cut across huge swaths of the country, informers and junta officials hold night-time inspections; 74 captured pro-democracy forces have been brutally tortured to death in interrogation. In rural areas they are burnt alive, with 80 of these victims documented since the coup.
When student protestors resist with peaceful flash strikes, junta soldiers don’t think twice about ramming them with a speeding car. Seven civilians have been killed like this since the military takeover on February 1, 2021.
Combine this daily terror with a collapsing economy and it is no wonder that the mental health of people is under incredible strain. We know humanitarian needs, including the need for psychosocial care, are immense. But time and time again, we tell donors that this cannot be delivered through the junta.
There are practical alternative channels, who are not responsible for the country’s suffering. These include the National Unity Government (NUG) and its interim-People’s Administrations, local-aid and cross-border providers, and Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs) who have been doing this work for decades.
Attempts by the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Center) to deliver humanitarian aid to the people are doomed to fail if the military junta, which is directly causing the crisis, is in control of distribution.
Ultimately, aid organizations’ decision to ignore the culprit of crimes like the September 16 atrocity makes sense if they have signed memoranda of understanding with the junta and want to avoid antagonizing a very-antagonizable Min Aung Hlaing.
In the past it was the same: UN agencies were pressured by the military not to hire former political prisoners and others with a pro-democracy background. They rented their office buildings and residences from military leaders and relatives. We did not get transparency then, and we are not getting transparency now. The UN ought to uphold transparency in their interactions with the military, guided by the same principles they work by.
It is time for principled criticism of the rights abuses by the military.
All data quoted is as of October 3, 2022, and available at https://airtable.com/shr9w3z7dyIoqdUv4 & https://airtable.com/shrYUbzQe1hKXQ68x/tblswChRJGSzJWr7k
Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and current joint secretary of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma.