Opinion: The Aid Conundrum in Myanmar

9 March 2022

Putting human rights first is no easy feat for humanitarian organizations in Myanmar. Right after last year’s coup, aid going through the military regime was cut or paused. But some projects have quietly restarted — as has their looting.

The military has carried out air and ground attacks, displacing more than 440,000 people since the coup d’état on February 1, 2021. In one hard-hit area, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR sent emergency aid to camps for internally displaced civilians in Chin state. The head of one camp told the local news outlet The Irrawaddy that COVID-19 preventative materials and other non-food items never arrived.

“We heard the UN’s aid only goes to the areas where the military regime’s governing council permits,” said Dr. Bu Htang, a member of a displacement camp committee near Mindat village in Chin State.

The junta also blocked private donations. An aid worker told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that “junta authorities were confiscating aid packages that local humanitarians had tried to bring to displacement camps” in Chin State. Security forces took over the sale of products in town at higher prices, the anonymous aid worker told HRW.

So it came as no surprise that by December, food was running low in Mindat and “people are becoming desperate,” as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported.

Similar actions by the junta to block or redirect aid are documented in other parts of the country. Meeting notes from a virtual meeting of UN agencies in May show the junta trying to take over food distribution in Karen State from the World Food Programme (WFP). WFP asked for “suggestions/experiences” from meeting participants to help it “manage the food distribution itself.”

Cutting off food supplies is part of the military’s decades-old “four cuts strategy” to clamp down on resistance even though it is prohibited under international humanitarian law. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations envoy negotiated a four-month ceasefire to deliver aid starting in September, but this was breached the same month with “increased deployment of troops and ongoing clashes,” OCHA notes.

Weaponizing aid

This isn’t the first time the Myanmar military has stolen aid intended for vulnerable populations. After a cyclone hit Myanmar in 2008, “diversion of aid,” “serious allegations of favoritism” and “contracts awarded to politically connected companies” were seen across the country, according to HRW.

Researchers at John Hopkins University also found at that time that relief materials were confiscated and sold at local markets. And WFP noted that “government authorities had attempted to seize the WFP shipments and control its distribution” in a way eerily similar to current attempts.

The real question is what the impact of stolen aid is. According to Igor Blazevic, senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre who was based in Myanmar from 2011 to 2016, the junta is treating aid like “any other military asset.”

Access to aid is used “to gain [an] advantage over adversaries” by cutting off access for opponents, says Blazevic. While the international community pays for people’s basic needs, the military’s resources are used to “blackmail or lure passive opponents and turn them into passive co-operators” in an attempt to forcefully expand the military’s base.

Aid as a weapon of war is welldocumented from conflicts around the world. And Neil Narang, assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that “[f]rom 1989 to 2008, increased levels of humanitarian assistance lengthen civil wars, particularly those involving rebels on the outskirts of a state.”

Dutch reporter Linda Polman notes that aid can deepen and prolong conflicts when relief materials are blocked from reaching civilians and instead are used to feed soldiers and generate income at markets. Common tactics to divert money from aid organizations include imposing import or other taxes on aid, charging fees for travel permission, and skimming money off the top through artificial exchange rates.

Of cyclone relief funds sent to Myanmar in 2008, up to 25 percent was diverted to the military government by imposing “currency exchange rules,” the UN Development Program stated. Exchange rate manipulation was officially stopped in 2012, but after the 2021 coup d’état the military junta “reinstated a set exchange rate” at the central bank.

Previously, Sean Turnell, the economic adviser of state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, both detained after the coup, called the disparity between the official and market exchange rates “a most extraordinary invitation to corruption.”

Nonetheless, the short-term benefits of aid for the people may still outweigh the impact of prolonging the civil war, Narang notes while pointing to a lack of research to answer that question definitively. Instead, Narang advocates for a preceding assessment by policymakers and scientists of the likelihood of aid contributing to the end of hostilities in a particular context, compared to such other interventions as mediation and peacekeeping.

Notably, in Myanmar, civil society organizations argue that all aid involving the junta should be halted because of risks to “human security” and “legitimacy.” They point to alternative routes to distribute aid through the areas under the control of Ethnic Armed Organizations, though in some areas fighting and military checkpoints reduced the ability to deliver aid that way. Similarly, fighting in Kayah State led to the suspension of centralized aid by humanitarian agencies since December.

Do no harm

Considering that aid can prolong civil war under certain conditions and that the Myanmar military repeatedly blocked or diverted aid, it is important to assess the impact of aid in the current situation to minimize negative consequences.

The OECD’s Do No Harm principle and the UN’s Human Rights up Front initiative, well-known in the humanitarian community, were devised for situations like this.

In 2020, the UN country team in Myanmar explicitly adopted a human rights strategy after the UN chief acknowledged “systemic” failure in its response to the “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya.

Civil society organizations have warned UN agencies not to repeat mistakes from the past. The letter, signed by 256 civil society organizations, calls for delivering humanitarian aid “to those most in need, without placing further risks to human security.”

This is a manmade crisis resulting in a jump in humanitarian need from 1 million people before the coup to 14.4 million this year. The OCHA estimates US$826 million is needed to address the crisis. With all of this aid pouring into Myanmar, some uncomfortable but necessary questions need to be asked and countermeasures taken.

First of all, the net effect of aid needs to be assessed taking into account the concerns raised by local civil society and Do No Harm principles. This assessment should not be conducted in a few years; it must be done before more aid is sent to Myanmar and should compare centralized aid to alternative means of distribution through the ethnic regions and other types of intervention.

If the assessment indicates a net positive impact of centralized aid — and this is a big if in the current context and some regions especially — Polman argues the need for aid organizations “making a fist” against the misuse of aid. Humanitarian agencies should share the imposed taxes and fees, and collectively negotiate for better terms, as well as an exchange rate in line with the market rate to reduce the chance of corruption. It goes without saying that as little as possible, preferably nothing, should end up in the hands of the junta in Myanmar.

Humanitarian agencies already active in the country should define when the net effect of a distribution route or aid project is negative and pull out when those conditions are met. If aid is repeatedly blocked, the agencies must immediately and publicly sound the alarm and assess alternative strategies, such as public diplomacy, to regain access, exploring routes through areas under the control of Ethnic Armed Organizations and pull out if necessary. (In 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of Sudan after its medical aid was “systemically blocked.”)

There is a severe lack of measuring and publishing reports on the diversion of aid, imposed fees, exchange rate manipulation and other looting risks. Addressing the data gap would facilitate an honest discussion about the overall impact of aid and can be used in public diplomacy efforts to restore access and minimize looting opportunities. Attempts by the junta to create opportunities for looting, such as those raised by WFP, must be discussed among humanitarian agencies and they must collectively agree to not let the military distribute aid.

Aid is rarely the sole or even main way of financing war, but it is important that as little as possible ends up financing the war effort in Myanmar. Only then will we be able to look back confidently at post-coup aid in the country.

Article by Anrike Visser.

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