The Tangled Politics of Humanitarian Aid in Post-Coup Myanmar

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The Tangled Politics of Humanitarian Aid in Post-Coup Myanmar

ASEAN has come under fire over a plan to channel its humanitarian assistance via the country’s military junta.

The Tangled Politics of Humanitarian Aid in Post-Coup Myanmar

Internally displaced women talk at their makeshift tents at Pu Phar Village, Demawso Township, Kayah State on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Tomorrow, Cambodia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will host a high-level consultative meeting to discuss the bloc’s provision of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. According to a statement released today by the Cambodian government, the meeting will be co-chaired by ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi and Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, the bloc’s special envoy for Myanmar, and is intended to help “advance ASEAN’s humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar on humanitarian principles and without discrimination.”

In particular, the meeting will facilitate a discussion of “mutually agreeable solutions on how to enhance the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Myanmar while leaving no one behind,” how to address the operational challenges facing the distribution of aid, and “how to support the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to all communities in Myanmar.”

The meeting represents the Cambodian government’s attempt to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar via the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance, or AHA Center, one of the goals of the Five-Point Consensus agreed by ASEAN last April. The peace plan also calls for “an immediate cessation of violence” and “constructive dialogue among all parties” aimed at ending the conflict that exploded following the military’s seizure of power on February 1, 2021.

However, the meeting has been the subject of some controversy, raising difficult questions about how ASEAN has approached not just the question of humanitarian assistance, but also of Myanmar’s interlocking crises writ large. The controversy centers on the inclusion of representatives of Myanmar’s military junta in discussions as to where and how the AHA Center’s humanitarian aid will be delivered.

According to a copy of a draft meeting agenda seen by The Diplomat, Ko Ko Hlaing, the chairman of the junta’s Task Force for Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance, will attend the meeting in person, and is scheduled to address its first session on the theme, “Humanitarian Assistance to Myanmar: Leaving no one behind.”

Ko Ko Hlaing’s inclusion reflects ASEAN’s broader approach to the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, which has been to engage with the party in nominal control of Myanmar’s territory and institutions of government: namely, the military. Similarly, during a May 2 video call with junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed the junta’s “cooperation on humanitarian relief delivery,” according to a Cambodian Foreign Ministry statement.

There is no doubt about the urgency of getting humanitarian aid to those most in need. The military’s disastrous seizure of power last year as sparked new political conflicts across the country, while inflaming long-standing ethnic struggles for autonomy and self-determination. Military offensives and indiscriminate attacks on those resisting the military takeover have displaced tens of thousands, while the U.N. estimates that as a result of the economy’s near-collapse, as many as 25 million out of Myanmar’s 54 million people would be living below the national poverty line by early 2022, “a level of impoverishment not seen in the country since 2005.” The U.N. claims that around 14.4 million of these are in need of humanitarian assistance.

ASEAN pushing forward with the provision of humanitarian aid to Myanmar is therefore well past due. But the question of how this aid should be delivered, and through which channels, has far-reaching political implications. To start with, the junta’s inclusion in tomorrow’s meeting, and its centrality to ASEAN’s humanitarian effort as a whole, axiomatically implies the exclusion of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which the junta last year designated a “terrorist organization.” The NUG was formed last April to coordinate resistance to the military administration and compete with it for international recognition.

For some time now, the NUG and local civil society groups have urged foreign nations not to deliver humanitarian assistance via the military regime. They have argued not just that dealing directly with the military junta will help legitimize and normalize its seizure of power, but also that aid would very likely be manipulated to political ends.

Last month, for instance, Ko Ko Hlaing, the same leader who will address tomorrow’s meeting on the importance of “leaving no one behind,” reportedly told an ASEAN delegation that humanitarian assistance could only be channeled through Yangon’s international airport and seaport. He said that the coup government would not permit the use of overland routes, presumably because many of these areas are controlled by non-state armed groups, including some aligned with the NUG.

Moreover, local and international advocacy groups claim that since the coup, the military has blocked aid shipments and taken a host of steps that have hampered the delivery of aid within the country. These include the imposition of new travel restrictions on humanitarian workers, the blocking of access roads, the obstruction of aid convoys, and attacks on aid workers.

All this means that when the Cambodian government speaks of “mutually agreeable solutions,” it really means solutions that are mutually agreeable to ASEAN and the military junta. This in turn effectively rules out its pledge to “leave no one behind” and to do disperse humanitarian aid “without discrimination.” As the NUG’s Humanitarian Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye said in an interview with The Irrawaddy late last month, “The regime views civilian victims as the enemy. So assistance will not come through the regime.”

This reflects the wider tensions in ASEAN’s approach to the Myanmar crisis. As mentioned above, the price of junta cooperation has been the exclusion of any formal (or even informal) contacts with the NUG, a primary party to the country’s conflict, and one that represents a vastly more popularly legitimate government.

When Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah suggested last week that ASEAN should establish informal contacts with the NUG, a proposal that is very much in the spirit and letter of the Five-Point Consensus, the junta’s Foreign Ministry condemned the idea as “irresponsible and reckless” and reminded him that it views the NUG and its allies as “terrorist” groups. This has effectively left ASEAN in the position of trying to broker an end to a conflict without engaging at all with one of the main parties to that conflict.

A similarly paralyzing dynamic is at play in the humanitarian aid space, though it need not be. To be sure, the challenges of delivering humanitarian aid in a situation as complex as Myanmar’s are not simple. For some actors, such as United Nations agencies, whose operations depend on state consent, it is not possible to avoid engagement with the military government if they want to operate within the country. The same is true of foreign governments that desire to maintain their embassies inside the country.

In principle, however, the delivery of humanitarian aid would appear to be less zero-sum than the question of whether diplomatically to recognize the junta or the NUG. Long-established aid delivery channels already exist along the Thailand-Myanmar border, and the delivery of aid to the NUG and its allies in these regions is eminently feasible. This would obviously require the Thai government’s consent, and for the remainder of ASEAN’s member states to endorse such an approach, which would not be easy to achieve. At the same time, it is not clear whether the current or past chairs have seriously considered this option, or tried to bring it about.

“Given the complexity of Myanmar’s conflict it is imperative that humanitarian assistance is delivered through a diverse range of channels, without discrimination or favor, and reaches the most vulnerable in every part of the country,” Noeleen Heyzer, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, said in a statement on May 3.

“It is imperative that we build strong, effective and equal partnerships with local and informal humanitarian networks, who have unique access, local knowledge and established trust on the ground, to support the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people, especially in the hardest-to-reach areas, including through cross border assistance.”

The political considerations involved are complex, but ASEAN humanitarian aid deliveries that solely involve the military administration , the primary source of the crises that this aid seeks to alleviate, are unlikely to be of much benefit to Myanmar’s people.