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HomeOpinionHumanitarian Dialogue - Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? Part 1/3

Humanitarian Dialogue – Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? Part 1/3

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman 

In 2018, Nay San Lwin, a prominent Rohingya spokesperson and commentator, sent out a tweet accusing an E.U.-based agency of deceitful actions towards Rohingya refugees, suggesting they were acting as brokers for the Myanmar government. 

This secretive agency was aligning itself with a ‘Mafia’, he claimed, and targeted refugee camps.The subject of this accusation, although not stated in the tweet itself, was the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

Naturally, Nay San Lwin’s choice of words raised eyebrows about its activities. At first glance, HD presents itself as an organisation with an impeccable pedigree and distinguished reputation. 

Its website states that it is committed to preventing and resolving armed conflicts globally through mediation and discreet diplomacy. Originally known as the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, HD, named after the Swiss philanthropist and co-founder of the Red Cross, indeed appears to have a pristine reputation. 

Its board members have included notable figures like Bangladeshi lawyer Irene Khan, a former Secretary General of Amnesty International, and the current U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. 

Such credentials paint a picture of an organisation deeply embedded in humanitarian work. Yet, the question looms: what prompted Nay San Lwin’s warning?

In 2023, HD experienced a dramatic blow to its public image when 661 civil society organizations (CSOs) condemned its actions. In an open letter, these CSOs accused the governments of Finland and Switzerland of lending legitimacy to the Myanmar military regime by inviting it to a clandestine meeting in Helsinki.

The meeting was organized by the Finnish government through the CMI – Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation  – while the regime is deliberately targeting and killing civilians across the country. 

This was perceived as a direct violation of democratic principles and an affront to the people of Myanmar. The open letter specifically criticized Finland for hosting this meeting, as well as Switzerland for its involvement in a workshop on the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in conjunction with HD, which denied its involvement to Myanmar Now. 

The NCA peace process, labelled as futile and deceptive, is viewed as a tool for the military to maintain control and perpetuate its violence. Support for the NCA has been criticized as a failure in promoting peace in Myanmar and helping to prolong the military’s grip on power.

Despite this outcry from 661 CSOs, the media has largely neglected to scrutinize the work of HD. Indeed, investigating its operations and motives over its 25-year history remains a challenge, with very little information accessible in the public domain. Online searches predominantly return content authored by HD itself, with independent analyses or reports on its activities noticeably absent. 

The contrast between the HD proclaimed mission of “fostering dialogue, securing peace agreements, and reducing the human suffering caused by war” in many conflict zones and its limited visibility in public discourse is striking. 

This lack of external insight into its  dealings raises significant questions about the transparency and the true nature of its role in conflict resolution and mediation. 

Are its actions as a peace broker genuinely discreet and beneficial, or is there a deliberate attempt to obscure its methods and engagements? This ambiguity around HD role and impact in conflict zones fuels speculation about whether their low profile is a principled choice or a cover for more contentious activities.

I’m labouring this point for a particular reason. Their aversion to the press can no doubt be explained away as part of their methodology. However, what about the parties involved in the conflict? 

All of the 661 CSOs are fighting for Myanmar without the military. On its website, HD proudly declares itself as ‘Impartial, Independent, Connected, Effective.’ So, one must question why, as supposed peacemakers, and impartial ones at that, HD doesn’t deign to address its criticisms or attempt to make them understand. 

In a quest for answers, I reached out to Khin Ohmar, the founder and chair of Progressive Voice, one of the 661 CSO signatories. Her response was unequivocal: “Neither HD nor CMI have contacted us. I am amazed by the arrogance and lack of ethics, transparency, and accountability displayed by these so-called peace-brokering institutions like HD and CMI.”

Secret Singapore Meeting

In September 2023, HD conducted a secretive meeting in Singapore. This gathering, which included regime officials, along with the Bangladeshi government and U.N. agencies, focused on Rohingya repatriation. 

This meeting’s timing was particularly contentious, occurring just weeks before regime officials pushed for pilot repatriation from Bangladesh. The session aimed to discuss creating conditions for safe, voluntary, and sustainable repatriation, including the need for third-party monitoring to address humanitarian, security, and local development issues in Arakan State.

When key figures from the Rohingya community and Myanmar’s political landscape were approached for their perspectives on this covert assembly, the response was nothing short of incredulity. 

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya and the Deputy Minister at the National Unity Government (NUG) Ministry of Human Rights, was outspoken in his criticism. He made it abundantly clear that neither he nor the NUG had received any invitations to the meeting, nor would such an invitation be welcome.

His stance was as unyielding as it was unequivocal: “Engaging with the junta, or any entities remotely affiliated with them, was a non-starter without substantial preconditions,” he said. These prerequisites include the military’s relinquishing of its grip on the state in Myanmar, and accountability for the heinous crimes it has committed.

Aung Kyaw Moe’s response showed a deep-seated mistrust in the entire process. He viewed initiatives involving the regime as “futile and insincere.” He underlined it all by saying “I do not believe the situation is appropriate for any cowboy diplomacy!”

The composition of the Myanmar delegation at the secretive Singapore meeting, which included the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) and the Thayninga Institute, drew sharp criticism from Justice for Myanmar (JFM). 

Yadanar Maung, JFM’s spokesperson, expressed strong condemnation of these groups’ involvement. “MISIS is a military think tank that is trying to legitimise the military’s illegal coup attempt and its ongoing war of terror against the people,” said Yadanar Maung. 

In its critique, JFM sharply questioned the selection of participants, highlighting the glaring absence of legitimate voices crucial for any authentic dialogue on Rohingya repatriation. 

“The fact they are seeking analysis on the humanitarian and security situation in Arakan State and Rohingya repatriation from someone like Naing Swe Oo, a staunch supporter of genocide that has tried to help maintain the military’s total impunity, is concerning,” Yadanar Maung added, pointing out the absurdity of engaging with those who have actively supported or tried to justify the Myanmar military’s actions.

The Thayninga Institute’s involvement in the HD-led meeting becomes clearer when considering its farcical claims presented to the ICC. It had asserted that over 600,000 “Bengalis” — a term they used to refer to the Rohingya — left Myanmar “voluntarily” following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Additionally, it claimed that the International Criminal Court (ICC) lacked any mandate to investigate the allegations of deportation levelled against Myanmar.

Khin Ohmar, Aung Kyaw Moe and Yadanar Maung unmask Humanitarian Dialogue’s (HD) so-called impartial and inclusive approach as a façade. Secret meetings that exclude pivotal actors like the NUG, while cozying up to regime-affiliated organizations contradicts the equitable mediation HD purports to champion.

The cloak of confidentiality HD wraps itself in, ostensibly to nurture trust, breeds instead an aura of suspicion and opacity, eroding the very foundation of trust it purports to cement. 

Engaging with human rights abusers, the HD strategy doesn’t just flirt with controversy – it blatantly endorses the oppressors of the Rohingya, throwing its claims of humanity and results-driven ethos into question. Its methods are not just misaligned according to the three anti-military Myanmar leaders; they’re in direct conflict with the urgent needs and rights of the affected communities, thereby making a mockery of the “expert-driven, humane resolution” it promises.

To close this first part of the series, it’s worth considering a contrasting statement by Dennis McNamara of Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), who said: “Ending entrenched conflict involves dialogue between enemies, no matter how unpalatable that is to some.” 

While this self-serving sentiment may sound reasonable and even necessary in the context of conflict resolution, it masks a multitude of underlying complexities and ethical dilemmas. We will look into these hidden layers in the next two articles in this series. 

HD was initially approached on Dec. 1 regarding its activities and role in Arakan State. However, there was no response. Subsequent attempts to contact them, including additional emails and direct messages sent both to the HD centre and to specific individuals within the organization, also went unanswered.


Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]o

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