The Aid Debate Rages On
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Monday, July 23, 2018


The Aid Debate Rages On

By Don Pathan JULY, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.6

A letter written by representatives of United Nations agencies in Rangoon has brought the debate over giving aid to Burma back into the international spotlight. The debate over humanitarian assistance to military-ruled Burma has been around ever since the army seized power after gunning down students and pro-democracy activists over a decade ago. The issue is a very sensitive one. And every time it has surfaced, the international community—United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, labor and human rights groups, as well as the exiled community—remained as divided as ever on the matter. A recent controversial letter calling for more aid, signed by all nine UN representatives in Rangoon, is a case in point. In the letter, the nine UN representatives collectively called on their respective headquarters and the international community for a "dramatic overhaul of the budget allocations" for Burma because the country is "on the brink of a humanitarian crisis". The letter, dated June 30, 2001, and distributed to the agencies’ heads throughout the world, was leaked to the press in early August. Naturally, the UN representatives downplayed the significance of what they referred to as an "internal document". They maintained that it has "no political implications". Moreover, they gave the impression that they were confused by all the media attention. After all, they were just asking for more money for a trouble-plagued Burma that they said was on the brink of a crisis. The letter cited a UNAIDS report claiming that at least 530,000 Burmese were infected with HIV, and that the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in the country is high, with estimates ranging between 230 and 580 per 100,000 live births. Moreover, the report claimed that by the time children reach the age of five, one in three will be "moderately to severely" malnourished. "This is compounded by the fact that one in 3.6 million children and 1.1 million pregnant women live in areas considered to be high or moderate risk for malaria transmission," according to the report. Let us, for the sake of argument, say that these figures are accurate and that the claim that Burma is on the brink of a disaster holds water. Nevertheless, the letter, signed by men and women who are supposed to be in the know, begs the question as to why some in the pro-democracy camp, as well as those in exile, strongly object to the idea of seeing more aid to Burma. To be fair, the letter did state that actions towards Rangoon must be viewed in the context of Burma’s "political environment" and that this environment "formed the backdrop for all humanitarian assistance to this country". However, the letter goes on, "The nature and magnitude of the humanitarian situation does not permit delaying until the political situation evolves." It goes without saying that supporters of pro-democracy movements see international aid as a political tool to get the Burmese military regime to move towards democracy and develop a real political solution where all parties, including minority groups, can participate and have a say about their future. In other words, the democratic opposition believes that a policy that consists of all carrots and no sticks will not work against the regime. There are many who fear that in the final analysis, nothing will change, and that the much-condemned regime, which is also hated by its own people, will remain in power indefinitely. For the regime’s critics, the letter out of Rangoon could not have come at a better time. As it was being leaked out to the press, the generals in Rangoon were preparing for the arrival of a squadron of jet fighters. Rangoon had purchased a squadron of ten MiG fighters from Russia as part of the regime’s effort to modernize Burma’s armed forces. It should be noted that the deal was reached at about the same time Thailand closed a deal with the US over the purchase of Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or Amraams—one of the most sophisticated weapons designed to take down any jet fighter out there. Rangoon spends around forty percent of its annual budget on defense. And while Burmese people suffer, military spending continues to eat up money that could have gone to more immediate needs, such as public health care, strategies for combating HIV/ AIDS and programs to suppress drug trafficking—the exact same concerns pointed out by the nine UN representatives. Indeed, it is disappointing to note that the letter did not mention the argument that the Burmese military regime is itself to blame for the appalling conditions under which the majority of Burmese live.

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