In the early hours of February 1, a dramatic power grab by the Tatmadaw led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing served a severe blow to Myanmar’s fledgling democratic transition. The coup presents critical foreign policy challenges for countries who had negotiated significant bilateral and multilateral foreign aid commitments with the civilian government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. More urgently however, the coup could mean a grim future for aid groups, including international non-government organizations (INGOs) and local organizations that provide life saving services in various parts of the country.
The 2021 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan calls for an investment of $276 million to support the humanitarian needs of close to 1 million people across five states in Myanmar. Much of this is targeted towards internally displaced populations and poor communities in Rakhine State, with a focus on food security, health, and protection needs. Beyond addressing humanitarian needs directly, aid groups have also received funding from donors to pursue policy engagement with the Myanmar government on key sectors such as health systems strengthening and social protection. Not only does the coup present a moral challenge about whether foreign governments and INGOs should persist in their engagement with the newly formed military cabinet; it also bound to present logistical challenges for aid groups as they try to make sense of this new reality.
Although it is still early to say whether aid groups have identified a coordinated response strategy, two large INGOs – the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee – have reportedly suspended operations. The day after the coup, The Myanmar Times reported that relief flights for foreign citizens have resumed, and domestic flights are also scheduled to resume on February 4. Several staff members from Myanmar-based NGOs and startups have started fundraisers and information campaigns on Facebook to fund the evacuation of their Myanmar and international staff members. At this stage, it is clear that a coordinated response is unlikely given that organizations face very different and often conflicting operational constraints, especially in remote areas of the country.
A source with experience working for a major international health NGO agreed to comment on the situation on the condition of anonymity. In the source’s assessment, the coup will certainly affect the various Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) that aid groups have negotiated with the civilian government since 2015. Indeed, some may now choose to end their MoUs with respective ministries now that they are under military control. While access to remote areas such as northern Rakhine State has always been severely limited, particularly since the outbreak of violence there in August 2017, aid groups might face challenges in securing travel authorizations to continue their work and perhaps face increased scrutiny and pressure to reveal their operational strategies to the government. The source expects, however, that “critical services will continue, particularly in health because Myanmar spends less that the recommended 5 percent of GDP on healthcare so they need NGOs to deliver services across the country.” This dependence on international humanitarian support has been observed in the past, when Medicins San Frontieres (MSF) was invited back into Rakhine State after being asked to suspend operations in the wake of sectarian violence between Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities in 2012-13.
Internet services have been available intermittently in Myanmar since the coup on February 1, but both cable and mobile data services were cut off over the weekend, during which thousands of people took to the streets in protest across major cities in Myanmar. The situation is evolving rapidly, and several local journalists and activists have called for increased local engagement in determining the path forward for aid groups in Myanmar. Winnie Thaw, a Myanmar citizen based in Yangon tweeted on February 3, “The West is planning to stop funding for aid and development work. How do we stop this or end this? Would they even listen? Local orgs are in the front lines carrying out that aid and without funding they will be completely immobilized to help communities who will def be left now.” While it is unclear which direction western donors will go, Japanese manufacturer Suzuki has halted production in Myanmar, signaling that further loss of foreign investment might be in store for the country.
What lies ahead? Aid groups will need to address three key challenges as they move forward: accountability gaps in aid delivery; direct humanitarian access restrictions; and the possibility of increased military involvement in decision-making. This is not the time to pull critical aid from Myanmar. Indeed, aid groups must lobby their governments to increase support on developing accountability mechanisms that help ensure that aid reaches target populations instead of filling up military coffers.
Even with continued funding, however, humanitarian access to areas such as Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states might come with additional scrutiny and military pressure to declare details about target populations which several aid groups might refuse to do. Finally, it remains to be seen if the military plans to exercise increased control over how aid is spent and who it is given to. These challenges could mean local organizations such as church groups and monasteries might play a larger role in meeting public service provision gaps in the interim, while NGOs reassess their plans for the future. It could also mean channeling aid back to areas such as the Thai-Myanmar border where organizations continue to support displaced communities even though funding has dried up in recent years due to a shift in donor strategy.
At this stage, challenges are plenty and aid groups face a difficult balancing act between accountability to their target populations and the reality of necessary engagement with the new military government. It remains to be seen if the coming months will present a modified business-as-usual or a more dramatic change in the way aid groups have thus far engaged in Myanmar.
Shagun Gupta is a PhD Student in International Relations at the School of International Service, American University in Washington, DC. Prior to this, she lived and worked in Myanmar for four years, coordinating humanitarian and development projects for various large international organizations.