Guest Column

UN’s Refusal to Talk to Myanmar’s NUG Will Lead to Convoy Attacks

By Paul Greening 14 March 2023

The only reason that World Food Program convoys haven’t been attacked in Myanmar so far is the restraint being shown by the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). The junta has been disguising its own convoys as UN convoys and the UN has not been coordinating with the National Union Government (NUG), so Local Defense Force (LDF) troops on the ground have to make difficult decisions.

As the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported on Friday:

“The junta is deliberately using impounded civilian vehicles, otherwise driven by plain-clothed armed soldiers, as military transport to preemptively put the blame on Chin resistance when their convoys get attacked én route to Chin State.”

On Thursday last week, a convoy of seven junta trucks was attacked by a Local Defense Force (LDF) with a drone. Two trucks were disabled but there were no injuries and the other five trucks returned. An assistance vehicle was sent and took the other two trucks back. One truck had a World Food Program (WFP) banner on it but the PDF group realized this was not a UN convoy. Luckily, they were correct.

However, it is going to be difficult for PDFs to always be sure whether a convoy is UN or not. One way of course is if the Myanmar United Nations Country Team (UNCT) communicates with the NUG and ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (EROs) about their travel movements. They are not doing this.

The WFP and UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have been warned of the danger of not informing NUG of convoys travelling through their areas many times. Both the WFP and UNHCR and in fact the UNCT have been asked to just communicate information about convoys to the National Unity Government and warned of the dangers of not doing so. But the UNCT has chosen to ignore this. This author also raised it with WFP, UNHCR, Resident Coordinator and in fact to the whole UNOCHA group email including UN and donors but with no result. This is disrespectful, arrogant and dangerous. International UN agencies know that if one drives through an area controlled by an armed group, they need to inform the armed group. It is basic procedure and common sense for the protection of their staff and aid, besides the political considerations.

In January, the NUG raised this concern with the UNCT, explaining that they just need to be informed and that it was in everyone’s interest. On January 31, this author wrote the following in an email to an UNOCHA group email addressed to WFP and UNHCR:

“I have just had a disturbing report that WFP and UNHCR are sending relief convoys, with junta permission, through Sagaing to Kachin. As we know NUG has control of most of Sagaing but even after requests to WFP, UNHCR and RC they are not communicating with NUG. They are bypassing NUG control and ignoring it. The convoys have been checked and copies of the documents made but the convoys have been allowed to continue for humanitarian reasons. However, NUG troops on the ground are understandably angry. NUG would at least like some communication when the UN agencies plan to send convoys through Sagaing. This is obviously common sense for the UN agencies also concerning conflict sensitivity and do no harm.”

On February 4, I wrote to Adrini Wahjanto, UNHCR Deputy Representative for Myanmar and acting Representative, to stress that not communicating with the NUG is putting their staff at risk, but just received a standard generic response and then no further reply. I reiterate that the NUG does not want a complex bureaucratic system of travel permission as the junta imposes, they just want to be informed when a convoy is going to travel through areas the resistance controls, which is in everyone’s interest.

The NUG has instructed Local Defense Forces not to attack aid convoys, but how do they know it is a UN aid convoy, and not transporting junta troops and/or supplies? An email to the NUG to inform them is not such a bureaucratic burden, especially considering the complex procedures for obtaining a travel permit from the junta.

Unfortunately, while the UNCT’s attitude towards the legitimate NUG has been arrogant and dismissive they have complied to all of the illegal junta’s demands as if they were the legitimate government of Myanmar rather than a criminal military force that is killing, torturing, raping and burning its own people. If the UNCT doesn’t communicate with the NUG about convoys, sooner or later they will be attacked by mistake and it will be the UNCT’s mistake.

Paul Greening is an ex-UN senior staff member with over 20 years of experience in six Asian countries working for six UN agencies and four INGOs. He worked in Sittwe, Arakan for IOM from 2017 to 2020 and since then has been involved in advocacy against the illegal attempted coup and supporting those who have suffered from it.