What Matters

Humanitarian Issues: Two Approaches

By ISP Admin | August 19, 2021

What Matters No. 32

(This article is a translation of the original Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar posted on its Facebook page on June 17, 2021.)

Since the military coup d’état, armed clashes between the military council and ethnic minority armed groups have intensified in Myanmar. In some areas, fighting between the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and the security forces of the military council has also been widespread, and refugee numbers keep increasing. Moreover, in addition to the existing challenges facing Myanmar’s healthcare system, a third wave of COVID-19 infections has continued to proliferate. At the same time, the World Food Program (WFP) estimates that around 3.5 million people could face starvation in the coming months as a result of the military coup. Thus, issues relating to the provision humanitarian assistance are becoming increasingly urgent. 

∎ Key findings in brief

Generally, international organizations dedicated to humanitarian work can be sorted into one of two categories. The first category adopted and follow the ideas of Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. When engaged in humanitarian work, organizations in this category tend to prioritize those in need during the conflict, without entangling themselves in the political context of the situation. Their work is independent and implemented impartially (Barnett 2005). Examples of such organizations include Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

The second category is committed to the concept that organizations need to be able to influence and reform the political and economic foundations of the disaster-stricken country in order to effectively address the crisis facing the people (Barnett 2005). This is the approach pioneered by former President of United States, Woodrow Wilson. In addition to providing emergency assistance, the organizations in this second category also work on regional development and security in parallel with their other work. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Relief Committee (IRC), CARE, and organizations such as Oxfam and World Vision often follow this idea.

There have been extensive discussions amongst researchers regarding which of these two approaches works best in response to human conflict and disasters that cause humanitarian challenges around the world. It is important to note that, in dealing with conflict-related disasters, political considerations are often taken into account, as well as the moral imperative to provide humanitarian assistance. 

∎ Why does it matter?

It is vital to monitor the response of the government or ruler in question, when it comes to the international community’s efforts to provide relief from the disasters caused by various conflicts in authoritarian countries. It is worth noting that dictators often co-operate on issues that, ostensibly at least, have nothing to do with politics, such as the healthcare sector – especially when there are humanitarian emergencies in society that urgently need to be addressed. Access to essentials, including health services, food, and medicine are also evidently necessary in such a situation. 

However, who exactly is providing this assistance is also an important consideration. For example, if the army of an invading country gives medicine to the local people, it is questionable as to whether the locals would readily accept it. Moreover, the motive behind the provision of assistance, altruistic or otherwise, also needs to be scrutinized. For instance, if a dictator provides subsidies to the people with the aim of facilitating their political exploitation, those who oppose the dictator or the dictatorial power will be unlikely to accept that subsidy, as they would not want to do anything to legitimize or support the dictator’s authority. 

However, while there could be people who would accept the assistance, irrespective of why it was given or who gave it, it is difficult to argue that the provision of  humanitarian assistance is equally beneficial to all. Therefore, it is difficult to justify any aid associated with political conflict as pure philanthropic in nature. This is partly why the idea that an emergency humanitarian response should at least partially address the root causes of political conflict is a crucial matter for consideration. 

∎ Is it relevant to Myanmar?

Since the military coup, armed conflicts have escalated across Myanmar and the number of displaced persons has increased to more than 200,000. When combined with existing refugees, the number of internally displaced persons in the country has reached nearly 600,000. This, combined with the more than 100,000 newly displaced members of the Rohingya population in Rakhine State, the number of Rohingya refugees displaced on the Bangladesh side of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border has reached over one million.

Currently, while there are only a few healthcare services in the growing refugee camps, and the scarcity of clean water has started causing diarrhea. With the collapse of the health sector after the military coup, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 has risen significantly since last June. According to a June 13 report, 373 people out of 2902 tested in a single day were found to be infected with the virus, bringing the contagion rate up to 13 percent.  This is the highest rate of infection found in a single day since the military coup. At the same time, the prevention and treatment of other infectious diseases has also deteriorated. In particular, the fight against tuberculosis and the accessibility and distribution of ART for AIDS patients poses a major challenge. 

The successive military regimes have seen the local and international aid agencies as a disruptive presence for the government administration. Even now, this view does not seem to have changed. The military council continues to target young people who are delivering relief supplies to displaced persons, and the medical doctors assisting refugees – arresting and murdering them. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 179 attacks on health workers since the military coup; 13 people lost their lives. 

On June 9 last year, in the Dawei Township of Tanintharyi, the military authorities ordered the closure Médecins Sans Frontiéres’ (MSF) programs, which provided healthcare services and medical care in the area. It has become clear that the military regime has imposed restrictions on aid groups in the aforementioned first category, and so not politically motivated.

Before the forced termination of the activities of MSF in Dawei, the International Committee of the Red Cross chief Peter Maurer met with the authorities of the military council and discussed the possible resuming of  ICRC’s visits to Myanmar’s prisons and the provision of further humanitarian assistance to conflict areas. In the current situation, the applying of political pressure in tandem with providing humanitarian aid and assistance is surely worth considering. 

Concurrently, ASEAN’s five-point consensus to help resolve the current Myanmar crisis could also be seen as in line with this approach. The fourth point of the ASEAN five-point consensus includes providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar.  Instead of limiting the consensus to address the humanitarian issues only, the approach needed to be linked with the will to find solutions to political issues, such as ending violence in the country; the appointment of an ASEAN Special Envoy, and the maintenance of constructive dialogue, in an attempt to find a workable solution of all the groups involving in the Myanmar conflict.     

The five-point ASEAN’s approach does have the potential to apply some political pressure on the Myanmar military council. Moreover, the UN Security Council and the European Union also advocate a similar concept – that linking political pressure with the provision of humanitarian assistance can help to resolve Myanmar’s issues. 

At the same time, caution should be taken not to allow the international assistance programs to be used as a political outlet for the military council. 

One can approach humanitarian crises as distinct from the relevant political situation, or as intimately linked with it. These two approaches often produce different results – and this is an important consideration regarding current situation in Myanmar. 

∎ Further Readings 

Barnett, M. (2005). Humanitarian transformed. Perspectives on Politics, 3(4), 723–740.

Allen, T., & Schomerus, M. (2012). Complex emergencies and humanitarian responses. University of London.

International Crisis Group. (2002). Myanmar: The politics of humanitarian aid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *