Written by U Ne Oo on 2002-04-11

I have taken time to examine over this weekend about two recently released reports on Burma from the International Crisis Group: (1) The Politics of Humanitarian Aid (2) HIV/AIDS Crisis. Both reports are written in the right aspiration, in their own words, to help the poorest-of-the-poor in Burma. The presentation as well as the gathering of factual contents for analysis in these reports are very good. However, in viewing overall analysis, there has been one very important point missing: the NGOs unhindered access to these vulnerable population! How are these NGOs able to get unhindered access to Burma ?

Access for humanitarian organisation to Burma has been the focal point of campaign, especially for myself and colleagues, for many years (you can certainly check it out year-by-year development over this issue at my homepage). Current director of ICG, Gareth Evans, has had his interest in Burma for many years. Not withstanding such best intention and interest of ICG on Burma, the reports have fundamental flaws in judging the behaviour and responses of military junta regarding with humanitarian issue (& NGOs). The reports, surely, have included some very good recommendations which the Burmese pro-democracy groups will be able to agree upon. However, these reports understate the unreasonable restriction placed upon NGOs and the resistance shown by the Burmese military regime. I should also note it is unhelpful to blame NLD or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the 'ambivalent attitude' towards the humanitarian issues (Do these NGOs ever think they would have been in Burma if NLD overtly approved their presence).

There is no dilemma for Burmese pro-democracy groups in choosing between economic sanctions (directed at military junta) and permitting humaintarian organisations to operate (directed at Burmese population) in Burma. The ICG be warned: DO NOT MIXED-UP THESE TWO ISSUES. In fact, the trade/economic sanction is used to PRESSURE junta to get proper ACCESS for humanitarian organisations in Burma.

There is also a call for international Governments/NGOs policy change, in its "HIV/AIDS Crisis report", to work directly with Burmese military regime citing the urgency of this epidemic. It is too far fetched to suggest a change in 'Burma overall aid policy', given the military governments conservative view on HIV/AIDS issues (this is not a way to break aid embargo).

There is unquestionable urgency to address the issue of HIV/AIDS in an effective manner in Burma. This task can only be done if the military junta firstly show its willingness to cooperate on this issue. Once such gesture of cooperation being shown by junta, the HIV/AIDS issue can be singled-out for special consideration by NLD and pro-democracy groups.

With best regards, U Ne Oo.

South China Morning Post. Monday, April 8, 2002

Forget politics, give more aid, say experts


Pressure is building for international aid agencies to boost their presence and spending in Myanmar, if necessary without the full agreement of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), analysts led by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, said the humanitarian crisis required "immediate and direct international attention".

There was increasingly the risk of a row between hardened critics of a regime that has ruled at the point of a gun for 40 years and aid professionals claiming to be acting with the best of motives, said observers in Yangon yesterday.

In June last year, eight United Nations agencies working in Yangon issued a joint call to their headquarters in New York for a major hike in aid to help a society "on the brink of a crisis".

The ICG admits in a newly published report that aid disbursement is tricky, especially when "the military leadership would prefer international donors to simply hand over the money 'at the border' and let the Government implement its own programmes". However, it argues for an "unequivocal yes" to the idea of "much greater" assistance without any right of veto for Ms Aung San Suu Kyi or any other opposition politician.

"They do not carry absolute moral authority but [their views] must be assessed on their merits," says the report.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which easily won a 1990 election, has issued very cautious, sometimes ambiguous, statements about the merits of aid that in its view risks propping up and giving comfort to a military intent on retaining power even at the cost of a miserable society.

On her release from house arrest in 1995, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi said she was not against Myanmar receiving international aid as long as it was done in co-operation with the NLD and given, properly monitored, to the deserving. Two years ago, before her closed-door talks with the regime started, she told visitors that it was impossible for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not to become tools of the ruling military: "We don't think the time is right for NGOs to come in . . . We would be happy to co-operate with NGOs and to help make sure that everyone gets a fair share. But the authorities won't allow it."

Few Myanmar-watchers dispute that decades of incompetent, arbitrary and often harsh military rule have helped create a society in deep trouble: many go hungry, most have only a rudimentary education, trained doctors are rare, Aids is rampant.

The absence of positive news from the 18 months of talks between Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and the military has given strength to those who argued that aid could not wait, said a senior aid agency official.

"We didn't want this to happen frankly, but it's getting to the point where we have to ask ourselves whether we signed up to help people or not," this official said.

Aid disbursements have fallen from between US$300 million (HK$2.34 billion) to US$400 million a year in the mid-1980s to around US$50 million - a fraction of what much smaller countries like Laos and Cambodia get. There are about 30 international NGOs in Myanmar; around 500 in Cambodia.

Ultimately, a row may be avoided if aid is directed in a transparent, independent manner; the ICG admits that there is a risk some eager givers might pour money into the hands of the regime.

"It is not a win-win exercise if the main facilitator of such aid is a central government that is corrupt and incompetent," said Maureen Aung-Thwin, of the charitable Soros Foundation.

Published in the South China Morning Post. Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

Humanitarian assistance and ICG report on Burma