New Approach Needed for Aid to Burma
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024


New Approach Needed for Aid to Burma



Burma urgently needs humanitarian assistance; the country’s HIV/AIDS sufferers are dying and require medical attention.

But the generals who rule the country are not ready to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis facing the country. Worse still, they prevent aid workers from delivering assistance to the needy.

Burma’s political prisoners—including Buddhist monks and nuns—are denied proper medication and food. The International Committee for the Red Cross ceased prison visits in 2005 due to persistent restrictions imposed on them by the regime. 

Around the Thai-Burmese border area, more than 100,000 refugees continue to live in camps, facing food shortages, while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons live deep in the jungle, hiding from military offensives.

In a move to help the poor and needy in Burma, Douglas Alexander, Britain’s secretary of state for international development, recently announced that his government will double its aid to the poorest people in Burma from £9 million (US $17.6 million) in 2007 to £18 million ($35.2 million) in 2008.

Alexander made the announcement after he visited refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and met with foreign experts and informed Burmese in Thailand.

Doubling aid to Burma, he said, “will allow us to help more children go to school, treat more people suffering from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, and tackle humanitarian needs. We will also continue to support civil society groups addressing the development needs of Burma. All our work is monitored carefully to ensure it reaches those most in need.”

Delivering humanitarian assistance to Burma isn’t an easy job—in fact, it’s a challenge. The xenophobic military rulers who fought against British colonialists have always been highly suspicious of foreign aid.

In recent years, the Burmese authorities have tightened controls on aid workers, UN agencies and civil society groups. However, in spite of the draconian Burmese laws and restrictions, some aid and assistance gets through and is transformed into useful health, education and agriculture projects.

In Rangoon, a United Nations Development Programme’s confidential report in April pointed out that since the demise of military intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt in October 2004, the UN has lost its access to the decision-making levels of the military regime.

The report stated that following the move of the capital to Naypyidaw, an even stricter, more centralized, “top-down” decision-making authority had emerged.

Then, in 2005 and 2006, the French medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the ICRC had their field offices closed. A report by the then head of the UNDP mission in Burma, Charles Petrie, criticized the junta’s “uncompromising attitude.”

In the eyes of many opposition groups in Burma, Petrie then began to dig his own grave. They argued that for the past few years the UNDP office in Rangoon, and Petrie in particular, had tactically nurtured a positive rapport with the regime, knowing full well that any perceived support for opposition groups, especially the National League for Democracy, would undermine their position.

Petrie sent signals to international donors claiming that there were signs of progress in the implementation of humanitarian projects in Burma.

Finally, after witnessing the regime’s brutality in the September crackdowns, Petrie realized that he could no longer paint a rosy picture of the situation and took a stance against the junta.

He publicly spoke out, releasing a statement deploring the “deteriorating humanitarian situation” in military-ruled Burma and suggesting that UN agencies could help the country address “poverty and suffering and their underlying causes.” He soon found himself unwelcome and had to leave the country. 

Simultaneously, some 13 international non-government organizations operating in Burma issued a bold statement, saying “the humanitarian space for organizations to operate is frequently at risk.”

Indeed, the question is really two-fold—even when aid reaches Burma, how can it be effectively delivered to those in need?

The implementation of any aid project in Burma faces untold obstacles and restrictions. Staff from foreign NGOs traveling to project sites in the countryside require special permits from the authorities; and that’s a bureaucratic song and dance. So much so that in 2005, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria cancelled its program in Burma.

Faced with this kind of governmental pressure, some foreign NGOs and UN agencies in Rangoon have decided to cooperate with the junta.

Of course, it is vital to provide assistance to HIV/AIDS patients and the poor.

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