Myanmar: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid

by International Crisis Group

Since the 1988 uprising and 1990 election in Burma/Myanmar, foreign governments and international organisations have promoted democratisation as the solution to the country’s manifold problems, including ethnic conflict, endemic social instability, and general underdevelopment. Over time, however, as the political stalemate has continued and data on the socio-economic conditions in the country have improved, there has been a growing recognition that the political crisis is paralleled by a humanitarian crisis that requires more immediate and direct international attention. Donors face a dilemma. On the one hand, the humanitarian imperative raises difficult questions about the sustainability of international strategies based on coercive diplomacy and economic isolation, which have greatly limited international assistance! to Myanmar. On the other hand, there is widespread concern that re-engagement, even in the form of limited humanitarian assistance, could undermine the quest for political change and long-term improvements.

This policy dilemma raises two basic questions: Should international assistance to Myanmar be increased? And, if so, how can this be done in a responsible and effective way? This report answers the first of these questions with an unequivocal ‘yes’. There should be more international assistance in Myanmar, more resources, more agencies, and more programs in a wider number of sectors. The human costs of social deprivation in Myanmar are simply too large to be ignored until some indefinite democratic future, which could be years, or even decades, away. In the meantime, international development agencies are making a significant difference bringing relief and new opportunities to vulnerable groups, building local capacities, even helping to rationalise policy-making and planning – and they could do a lot more. Importantly! , so far at least, there are no indications that these efforts are having significant political costs, whether in terms of strengthening the regime or undermining the movement for change.

Those who oppose international assistance, or at least are cautious about it, point out that Myanmar’s development for a long time has been hostage to political interests and that any sustainable, long-term solutions would have to involve fundamental changes in the system of government. They are also concerned that the current government will reject international advice and maintain development policies and priorities that are partly responsible for the current problems.

However, these obstacles should be actively addressed rather than left for some future democratic government to tackle. Instead of placing absolute constraints on international assistance, the focus should be on improving monitoring and distribution to minimise existing problems and facilitate more aid reaching people in need. If properly applied, international assistance could in fact serve to promote political reconciliation and build the social capital necessary for a successful democratic transition.

Foreign governments and donors do not face a choice between promoting political change or supporting social development in Myanmar. Both strategies would have to be integral parts of any genuine effort to help this country and promote stability and welfare for its 50 million people, as well as the broader region. In order to facilitate responsible and effective delivery of more international assistance, all the main protagonists, inside and outside the country, need to reassess their positions and do their part to generate the kind of cooperation and synergy that has so far been lacking.



1. Accept that it is not necessary to choose between promoting political change and supporting social development in Myanmar: both strategies need to be part of an integral effort to create stability and improve social welfare.

2. Provide more aid to tackle poverty, illness and the shortfall in education.

3. Work with both local civil society organisations and government bodies to help develop overall capacities for aid management.

4. Strengthen current oversight mechanisms, in particular by setting up an inter-governmental aid consortium with monitoring functions to liase with UN and international non-governmental development organisations (INGO) inter-agency groups in Myanmar.

5. Use aid to attract increased government funding, for example, by ‘matching’ government expenditure in priority sectors and encouraging specific ‘joint-venture’ development projects.

6. Take care that other political tools are wielded with due consideration to their humanitarian and human rights impact – and, for that purpose, commission an impact assessment of all existing and potential future sanctions by a neutral body of economic and development experts.


7. Place a greater emphasis on human development by:

(a) cutting back defence spending and moving more resources to health and education; and (b) reconsidering the current top-down approach to development, which fails to activate all the country’s resources.

8. Facilitate increased international assistance by:

(c) demonstrating clearer commitment to resolving the country’s socio-economic problems by providing more resources and changing policies that do not produce results; (d) minimising the obstructions currently placed on foreign aid organisations in the country; and, (e) increasing the scope for international actors to work with local NGOs.

9. Take more advantage of the wealth of knowledge and development experience outside the country, including in neighbouring countries and among fellow members of ASEAN.


10. Formulate a public plan for international assistance that recognises needs and priorities for expanded humanitarian assistance.

11. Support efforts to strengthen the state’s capacity to formulate and implement policy, in preparation for a smooth political transition.

12. Encourage donors and aid organisations to fund local development NGOs and work with community groups.


13. Expand the UNDP’s mandate in Myanmar to allow it broader involvement in policy issues and administrative capacity building.

14. Use the significant leverage of the UN system with the government to negotiate a framework more conducive to the effective functioning of all aid organisations in the country, including the INGOs and local civil society organisations.

15. Do more to challenge inaccurate official figures and other data, whether overly pessimistic or optimistic, which distort the situation in the country.

16. Work to maintain current standards of accountability of NGOs as their numbers expand and funding increases, for example, by formalising the INGO Joint Operation Principles and establishing an NGO Council, which could service individual organisations and liase with donors and the national government.

17. Be prepared to lower standards of transparency and accountability in exceptional circumstances, viz. where needed in order to reach people in sensitive areas and sectors where security requires full confidentiality.

18. Strengthen coordination to avoid duplication of projects and pool information and ideas.

Bangkok/Brussels, 2 April 2002


Critique Of The International Crisis Groups’s Report

By Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe


N.B. The Executive Summary (pp.1-3) contains all the points and arguments raised in the paper. As such, comments and critical notes of the Executive summary provided herewith, can be regarded as a critique of the whole paper, or as addressing the salient points of the paper as a whole.

ON THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY [referred in the report as “overview”] [1] First of all, it is not clear in the paper what it means by “international assistance”. In the Burma context, is it in reference only to humanitarian assistance or to development assistance as well?

The two are different international aid categories. The paper contributes to the confusion by making no distinction between them, and by going from one to the other in an arbitrary, confusing, and ambiguous manner.

Development assistance in the Burma context is problematic, very much so. Humanitarian assistance on the other hand will however not be as problematic.

The lack of clarity, gives a strong impression that the paper (and the author or authors) is arguing for development assistance, while using the humanitarian assistance point of reference and context. This is what is most troubling about the paper as a whole.

[2.A] **p.1, col.1 and 2, in the Executive Summary** The paper says that international development agencies (IDAs) are making significant difference to the most vulnerable groups (…etc) in Burma.

The above is a sweeping statement, and which may apply perhaps to the Kachin State, to a certain extent. The people in this state and in Burma Proper are, comparatively speaking, not the most vulnerable. The most vulnerable are population living (or hiding) in areas decreed by the military government (military GOM) as BLACK and GREY areas. There is very little presence of the IDAs there because they are – according to the military GOM — “sensitive” areas, or lacking in security.

The Black and Grey areas are literally free fire zones, and the population are not only IDPs, but treated by military patrols as outlaws, and are therefore at great risk of being killed, raped, etc., at will. They are reduced to living in hiding, and are hunted by the regime’s troops, and whatever meager crops they plant for bare survival are destroyed by search-and-destroy patrols or columns. They live lives that are not better than hunted animals.

[2.B] **Site, as above** The paper says that the assistance provided by the IDAs do not have “any significant political cost” vis-B-vis strengthening the regime or undermining the movement for change.

The above raises this question: What is meant by “political costs”? This is a puzzling statement, even meaningless at a deeper level, and lacks proper or defined context.

One could interpret the statement as saying that the IDAs do not make any difference either way, and more importantly, that they (the IDAs) and the assistance they provide are politically neutral. How true or valid is this statement? Can assistance in a context where the government (or the state) is military-run, military-led, illegitimate, and repressive, and wedded to the status quo – opposed to political change — be politically neutral, or not costly to the movement for change? Or is the paper saying that all things being equal, the people are the only ones gaining the most from the IDAs’ presence and actions? This is not the case (See note 2.A, above).

[3.A] **p.1, col.2** Agree with the paper that there is a need for “fundamental changes” in the system. However, the paper does not talk about this need, although it does constructively, and often obliquely, refers to the flaws of the current system here and there

[3.B] The paper says that the military GOM rejects international advice and maintains “development policies and priorities, which are partly responsible for the current problems.” However, this statement,

(a) understates the destruction to the country and the population wrought by the military GOM’s arbitrary rule and repression (by representing it as “development policies and priorities”). It gives the impression that the military GOM was well-intentioned, but things went wrong, anyhow, and

(b) underestimates what it terms “problems”. They are not problems. They are major crises, and are owed largely to the military GOM’s protracted misrule, etc.

[3.C] The paper states that the military GOM rejects international advice and refuses to change its ways – i.e., to change its “development policies and priorities” (sic). If this is the case, one may usefully ask if there is any point in giving the regime international assistance, even though the bulk of the aid may be intended by donors for the people, not the government? This is a slippery down-slope road to travel.

[3.D] The paper recommends the inflow of international assistance and urge improved monitoring and distribution. To comment, “monitoring” is good sounding, but it is most problematic, all the more so if the IDAs do not have the political will and are moreover fearful of offending the military GOM, or are overly sensitive and responsive to its sensitivities.

[4.A] **p.1, col.2** The paper states that foreign governments and donors should both promote political change and social development. This is a curious statement in the Burma context especially.

What is meant by “social development” is not made clear in the paper, however.

Common sense however tells us that social development is geared to promoting or achieving something better, usually – and more so, nowadays — political change in the democratic direction, or is meant to.

If such is the case, does the paper mean that the goal of international donors in providing development assistance is to promote political change? Or is the paper saying that the inflow of development assistance will result in or bring about social development and thus political change in Burma (albeit in the very long run)? [ NOTE: The thesis that social development (or, as is often argued, economic development) will bring about political change, although generally valid in the abstract, does not always hold true. This is a very slippery and dubious argument.]

The simple fact of the matter is that the military GOM does not want any change, much less political changes, and wants “development” as it defines it – i.e., maintain its hold on power and achieve greater control and repression capacity.

The question that therefore arises is: will the military GOM allow or welcome social development that is geared to political changes in the democratic direction? In this regard, the paper does acknowledge however that the military GOM does not want any kind of development that will erode the status quo it prefers.

[5] **p.2, col.1** The paper recommends that the main protagonists reassess their position and do their part to generate cooperation and synergy that has been lacking. This seems like a “sound good, feel good” statement.

The military GOM – the military regime – do not want to cooperate with anyone inside the country. It only wants to be obeyed and to maintain tight control. It is quite obvious that the military will not cooperate with anyone – including the IDAs and foreign governments – unless forced to by circumstance or is actively pressured.

A question that should be raised but is not, is what will international actors – governments and donor – do to persuade the military GOM to cooperate with the opposition if or when it (the opposition) wishes or agrees to work with the military GOM as a problem-resolving partner? Another question is, to what length will the international actors go in persuading the protagonists to cooperate?

[6] **Recommendation 1** Even though excellent, the recommendations alone, and the inflow of foreign assistance — in the “business as usual” or conventional way — will not persuade the military GOM to go this route. It is not interested in formalizing the current talks, sharing power, nor in including major stakeholders in the political process. What is needed is a firm, focused, and solid international front that does not believe in appeasing the military GOM in the faint or wistful hope that it will become and behave more like a government.

[7] **Recommendation 4** The points mentioned, i.e., the GOM’s need to demonstrate a realistic understanding of the problems; minimize the obstructions currently placed on aid organizations; and increase the scope for international actors to work with local NGOs – these are good points. It is however unrealistic to expect much attention to these points from the GOM in particular, and the military in general, in the current situation, and without firm international persuasion.

[8] **Recommendation 6** Most useful. Perhaps NLD leaders inside have not been approached in this regard, requested a detailed policy paper on humanitarian aid.

It is however not clear in this paper on what is meant by “international assistance”. See #1, above. [ NOTE: Development assistance was provided the previous GOM (of General Ne Win) in the 1970s. The end result was that it appealed to the international community to grant Burma the status of Least Developed Country in 1987, after claiming for decades that it was developing the country. ] [9] **Recommendation 7** Ambiguous. What is meant precisely by “state capacity”, and which or what kind of state? The context is missing.

In Burma, the state managed by the military – the GOM — is not neutral, not the government of the people, i.e., it is the creature of the military, highly partisan, excludes broader society, and is not public service oriented. “State capacity” is patently defined by the GOM (and the military brass) as its capacity to maintain power and control, etc. It is most inappropriate therefore for any responsible scholar or well-intentioned group to recommend that the NLD and everyone to strengthen the capacity of the current state.

If by “state capacity” is meant serving the public or the people, there has first of all to be a fundamental political change.

[10] **Recommendation 10** International donors – and international NGOs as well – should certainly work with both the state and broader society forces, but it should be on an equal footing and formally/officially as well.

[11] **Recommendation 17** “Be prepared to lower the standard of transparency and accountability…” Why? This recommendation seems directed at encouraging international aid actors to defer tamely to the GOM, and to accept its arbitrary definition of “sensitive areas”, “security”, and “confidentiality”.

[12] **Recommendations 14-18 (excepting the above)** These are excellent. But it seems that there is lacking political will on the part of outside actors to take on these recommendations in a serious and focused manner. The excellent recommendations, #14-18, are more or less, and in varying degrees, negated or subverted by recommendation #17 above.

Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe tutored at Rangoon University’s English Dept. from 1960-62, joined the Shan armed resistance in 1963. He was with the Shan State Army till 1977 and came to Canada in 1985. He went back to school at University of British Columbia to get a Master and a Phd and taught, mostly 3rd year classes, for more than 7 years at UBC and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

A Test Case for Preventive Diplomacy (The Burmese Scene)

By Kanbawza Win

The “Hush Hush Talks” between the Junta and the pro democracy movement led by the Burmese Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been going on at a snail pace for more than a year and the UN special Envoy Razali Ismail will soon be on his 7th trip but so far nothing has been achieved. Likewise the International Labour Organization, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Burma, the European Union’s Troika mission and several government missions have come and gone with no definite milestone to report. Now it has dawned on the international community that Burmese Junta is very reluctant on dialogue lest their hold on the power may be threatened and exposed their gregarious human rights violations.

In this aspect the Burmese military Junta is somewhat like a “bull”, a drought animal for pulling plough in agricultural Burma. The “bull” is so lazy to pull the plough that some one has to pull him by the nose front while another person has to whip him from the back. Thus in the dialogue process, the Burmese Nobel laureate, together with the exiled provisional government better known as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the ethnic forces have to pull it from the front, while the ILO, the UN and the Western countries have to baton him from the back to make it move. Even then it move slowly.

Talking to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instead of wild attack in their media, releasing a few political prisoners and allowing the National League for Democracy (NLD, the winning party in the elections) to open their office in Rangoon are just some small positive gestures responded grudgingly by the Junta to ease both domestic, economic and international pressure. The dialogue have help them to gain some legitimacy for international aid while at the same time consolidated their position such as business deals with neighbouring countries so much so that they hope the international community would eventually have to bite the bullet and accept the status quo.

One can ask of why did the bull move so slowly, the answer is simple, because it is strong having eaten a lot of grass and other nutritious food i.e multilateral corporations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) led by Malaysia and Singapore under the smokescreen of “Constructive Engagement” have been given tactical support to the Burmese military Junta. Imagine TotalFinaElf alone has to give $400 million annually just for the right to extract oil, not to mention Premier Oil of Britain and UNCOAL of the US. In this age of globalization where more and more power has been transferred from the governments to the big companies whose! sole motive is to make profit, Burma seems to be the test case where the Western moral values have to yield to business considerations.

On the other hand the pro democracy and ethnic leaders have quietly attended the Paris Conference on their way back from Oslo where at the French National Assembly they paint the likely and alternative scenario to the international community .The most conspicuous point is that will the international community accept Burma as Yugoslavia or Afghanistan? For throughout history; the Burmese kingdoms were founded on military strength and not through the hearts and minds of the people. It was only in 1947 prior to independence from Britain did Bogyoke Aung San leader of the Myanmar, a major militant tribe somewhat equal to the Taliban of Afghanistan attended the “Panglong Conference” as an equal partner of the nationalities, and founde! d the Union of Burma. However, Karen, Karenni (Kayah) Arakanese and Mon nationalities having experienced the long treacherous traits of the Myanmar leaders which was amply demonstrated during the Japanese occupation refrained from attending the Conference which later resulted in outright rebellion.

But the spirit of the Union prevailed, the proof of it was demonstrated when one nationality (e.g. Karen) or the Burmese Communist threatened Rangoon all the other ethnic groups joined hands to defend the Union. But this Union spirit was destroyed by the Burmese army coup in 1962 led by General Ne Win, who with his “Burmese Way to Socialism” took the country to the least developed status in the world. A mass demonstration resulted in 1988 was put down cruelly by shooting into the crowds and killing some 20,000 in six Burmese cities. The popular leader, the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi daughter Aung San (the founding father of the Union of Burma) was effectively put under house arrest up to this day ! while the ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of the ethnic groups was carried on with might and main.

So after half a century of civil war, the ethnic leaders have taken the initiative by launching a ‘Tripartite Dialogue’ proposal i.e the military, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities based on the spirit of the former “Panglong Conference” to promote a peaceful political settlement and is appealing to the international community. It is to be remembered that Burma faced a constitutional problem – not a minority problem because the word minority will be just a few percentage of the population while the ethnic nationalities consist of 47%of the population and more than 55% of the country’s area (371,000 square miles bigger than Germany itself).

The Junta used to counter the nationalities as “Tribes” or “Hill Tribes” a term which denotes that Myanmar is the only civilized people and it is the bounden duty for the Myanmar to civilize these tribes. This belies the superior complex and the chauvinistic attitude on the part of the Myanmar, when it is a historical fact that Arakan, and Mon kingdoms preceded the Burmese kingdom at least by 500 years while the first Burmese kingdom was recorded only in 1044 AD. Besides the ethnic nationalities never fight against each other as in Yugoslavia where ethnic people killed each other. The nationalities fight only against the Myanmar chauvinism spearheaded by the Burmese army which somewhat equivalent to Taliban’s version of fund! amentalism. Hence it is neither a minority problem or tribal problem or an ethnic problem which can be solved once democracy prevailed. The Burmese problem is not a horizontal problem but a vertical one, which has its bases on constitution that can be solved only through negotiations. This explicitly means that democracy, military rule and the constitution are intrinsically intertwined and cannot be resolved one without the other. This is the crux of the Burmese problem..

The Junta’s justification is that there are 135 national races or tribes in Burma implies that it is impossible to cater to everyone and therefore it is necessary to have a strong military to hold the country together. But the fact of the matter is that 65 of these so called 135 races reside in Chin hills (villages on top of the hills are so high that it is very difficult to communicate with each other naturally resulted in different dialect) which constitutes only 3% of the Burmese population. The different tribes speaking different dialects have live peaceably since time immemorial The Junta’s theory is not only to maintain a perpetual powerful army to suppress the democratic forces but also “divide and ru! le” policy over the nationalities.

The beauty of the Paris Conference is that it was initiated by non other than Karen and Karenni both of whom were not even signatory to the Panglong Conference of 1947. Together with Shan Democratic Union (the largest state in the Union of Burma) these leaders make it clear that they their only desire is to live in peace and harmony with all the people of the world once their rights are observe. It is to be seen whether the international community would use its preventive diplomacy and help oust the Burmese Taliban (Junta) and encourage the pro de! mocratic and ethnic forces (Burmese Northern Alliance) to create a Fed eral Democratic Union of Burma or left to its fate as in Yugoslavia.

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To protect and promote human rights and democratic principles