It is outrageous how the U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and other U.N. agencies are constantly misinterpreting the reality of what they do and how they provide humanitarian aid in Myanmar. At the same time, they are helping the military create humanitarian incentives to pull the country away from the resistance to it.
The overall logic is very clear. Nationwide, the military systematically creates humanitarian emergencies. But only in areas under its control, is it allowing international organizations to deliver humanitarian aid. So on one side there is a carrot of aid. On the other, a stick being used to beat the people into submission. This carrot is funded by the E.U., the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Japan and other major donor countries to the U.N. and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Oil and gas revenue is paying for weapons, or the stick, while democratic countries pay for the carrot.
The standard line of defense by U.N. agencies and international NGOs is that they are providing humanitarian aid across any perceived lines. They just can’t talk about it as it could put local civil society organizations (CSOs) at risk. This is a big manipulation for two reasons:
1) What is channeled as aid funds across the “invisible but very real line” is peanuts compared both with needs and with what is spent on the military side of the line. This is less meaningful aid and more excuse, to have something to say when asked about the military’s weaponization of aid.
2) Being public about aid deliveries matters as much as the aid. Aid is used for propaganda purposes by the military, and it is used to create the impression that the population is assisted and secure under military rule. By being secretive about the international community’s solidarity with people that are the primary target of military terror, we are creating a strong psychological impact of people feeling abandoned, demoralized and in despair.
It is possible to do things differently.
I have no problem at all with Danielle Parry, as UNOCHA representative, meeting with the military and trying to negotiate access to as many victims of Cyclone Mocha as possible. If at the same time, there will be some other high ranking U.N. representative publicly meeting with representatives from the National Unity Government (NUG), Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs), and CSOs which are trying to provide as much aid as possible with extremely meagre resources – funding mainly comes from local and diaspora communities. If substantial funds were to come from major donor countries, these actors will be able to deliver huge amounts of aid which are out of reach of agencies based in Yangon. It would be at least 10 times more cost effective.
I have no problem at all with UNOCHA and other U.N. agencies channeling funding to the territories where the military is a gatekeeper. I am aware that there are a lot of people in need there. But a larger amount of funding should be channeled to territories where access is restricted by the military. This is where there’s desperate people in need. This cannot be done by agencies and organizations based in Yangon, who are in a hostage-like situation with the military.
The U.N. agencies and donors like the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), E.U. and USAID are constantly using the argument that they are also supplying aid to CSOs on the “other side of line” but cannot make this information public. The U.N. in Rakhine states that it has reached more than 10,000 people through local organizations but don’t want this reported because they do not have travel authorization from the military.
I do not question this. I am aware of some aid funding is reaching some regions in urgent need. But I am also aware that:
1) This is peanuts.
2) The whole system is so bureaucratic that aid is coming very slowly and very late in extremely small quantities.
3) There are many more territories where no aid is reaching, and it is not coming because it is impossible to reach those areas based on travel authorization needed from the military, and it won’t give it. It’s that other channels need to be used. As long as aid agencies are sitting on funds and trying to negotiate “travel authorization,” they have accepted the military as ultimate decision-maker of where aid goes (although they will not honestly admit it). If this is the case, there are significant territories and huge numbers of people who will remain outside the reach of aid indefinitely. I am in contact with many people on the ground and what I am hearing again and again – from places where the humanitarian situation is truly devastating is: “we have received no aid from international organizations so far.”
Let me share one more piece of conversation which is quite telling. It is exposing something that I call the “unpleasant and hidden truth” of the international aid sector in Myanmar. I have recently heard communication between foreigners working in senior positions for international NGOs that have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the military in order to be able to implement USAID, E.U. and FCDO funded projects. In a frank and open conversation, they admitted that they were “protecting our future market.”
This is the reason why U.N. agencies and international NGOs are failing the people of Myanmar. They all calculate that the military will prevail. They do not want to be kicked out of the country, wanting to keep its presence “on the ground.” They want to be well placed and competitive for future post-conflict development, peace, reconciliation and civil society empowerment programs. The underlying motive for appeasing the military is for: “protecting the current and future market.” True “neutrality” and “humanitarian imperative” would dictate the opposite of what’s being done now, allowing the military’s weaponization of aid.
For Myanmar CSOs, the NUG, and EROs, humanitarian and public services providing aid to communities and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that have been terrorized by the military’s “Four Cuts Strategy,” or clearance operations, the only effective way to counter misuse of humanitarian aid and UNOCHA’s manipulative communication is by starting to produce credible reports and maps on a regular basis. It should show how much aid is not reaching territories where the military is waging war against the civilian population.
Igor Blazevic is a lecturer at the Educational Initiatives Myanmar and Senior Advisor at the Prague Civil Society Centre
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