MYANMAR’S HUMANITARIAN CROSS-BORDER AIDS: An approach to pry open conflict resolution deadlock?

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By all accounts the main legitimacy contenders the military coup-maker State Administration Council (SAC), and the parallel setup National Unity Government (NUG) led by the majority National League for Democracy (NLD) members, have created such an intense animosity of hatred due to the massive crackdown of the former and countermeasures taken by the latter, the situation can only be termed now as through and through polarized, without any leeway open for settlement dialogue.

The PDF looking family fleeing military attack at Shan Karenni border
The PDF looking family fleeing military attack at Shan Karenni border

But let us ponder on if a proposed opening approach of cross-border humanitarian aids could make a difference to thaw the frozen or no-negotiation posture of the two adversaries that would enable to create or change the dynamic of the conflict, and the stagnated crisis situation may move forward, either for the betterment of the country as a whole or worsening the prevailing status quo of no win or lose atmosphere.

It may be appropriate to look at the unfolding scenarios connected to the cross-border humanitarian aids issue proposal.

Thailand’s Red Cross approach

Lately, Thailand’s Red Cross organization called on the Thai government to formalize humanitarian aid to Myanmar refugees during the 3rd Thai foreign policy webinar series on “ASEAN’s Future and Crisis in Myanmar.”

Reportedly, The Surin Pitsuwan Foundation, Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, Thai PBS and Asia News Network, all jointly hosted the webinar.

The core message was that Thailand as a front line state should be proactive and formalized the process in providing assistance to Myanmar nationals, due to the country’s economic collapse and internal fighting, which was made significantly worse when the country’s government was disbanded by a coup on February 1, according to the former editor of Myanmar Times, Kavi Chongkittavorn.

“He says that the 2 countries share problems as they go hand in hand. The urge to provide more aid comes as numbers are continuing to grow at the Thai-Myanmar border, with some 100,000 Myanmar refugees crowding the border in need of help,” reported the Thai PBS.

The country has seen an estimated 1 million of its citizens internally displaced since the coup, in which 30% or more are reported as having food insecurity, pointed out the report.

“Thailand’s former PM, Kasit Piromya, says the current government, headed by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha cannot just stand still and that borders must be reopened to support the international community. He pointed to China remaining active across its borders with Myanmar through the Kachin State, with the help of the Chinese Red Cross.”

The Thai former PM said although the Thai Red Cross has been in contact with the Myanmar Red Cross, it has yet to receive official backing from the Thai government.

Independent researcher, Supalak Ganjanakhundee said Thailand has benefited for a decade from a stable and secure Myanmar. But pointed out that the hope of Myanmar military’s becoming “considerate” has not materialized; and with the shelling of Thai soil during an attack on an armed ethnic group last May, it appears such act of consideration may never come, writes the report.

She moreover floated a new diplomatic approach which she said should be enacted and termed as “complex engagement” with Myanmar. She said non-coercion, exercise of liberal values, and an open exchange in dialogue with all stakeholders would be part of such an exchange.

The country has seen an estimated 1 million of its citizens internally displaced since the coup, in which 30% or more are reported as having food insecurity, the report writes.

US-Thai cross-border initiative

On October 20, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Thailand and the United States are considering jointly providing humanitarian aid to the Burmese people via the Thai-Myanmar border, according to the Thai foreign ministry.

RFA News 20 October
RFA News 20 October

Due to the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, the military junta’s forces have destroyed scores of villages and homes through bombing, shelling and arson, as their clashes with rebels have increased, resulting in more than 218,000 people being displaced since then, according to the United Nations, writes the report.

During a two-day visit to Bangkok earlier, U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and an inter-agency delegation from Washington met with the Thai foreign minister and discussed the post-coup crisis in Myanmar, Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sankrat said at a press briefing.

“The two sides have discussed the situation in Myanmar, the handling of the matter by Thailand and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the feasibility of Thai-U.S. cooperation to provide people in Myanmar with humanitarian assistance – possibly handled via the Thai-Myanmar border,” Tanee said.

The displaced people of Myanmar lack food, drinking water, shelter and healthcare in an economy that has all but collapsed since the coup, economists, rights groups and other agencies said.

Dan Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that displaced persons are in “dire need of humanitarian aid,”

“There has been a tripling of those in need of aid since the coup – 1 million people to 3 million,” said Sullivan, the author of a new report by Refugees International coming out on Thursday, “Dire Consequences: Addressing the Humanitarian Fallout from Myanmar’s Coup.”

“ Burma is one of those issues where they share a border, and we want to work with Thailand in order to find a way to apply pressure on Myanmar to restore democracy there, but also look at humanitarian efforts and where we might be able to coordinate to assist the people of Myanmar,” a senior State Department official told reporters last Friday during a background briefing before Chollet and the U.S. delegation departed for Thailand, the first leg of a three-nation Southeast Asian.

If the U.S. plan to provide aid via the Thai border – with Thailand’s cooperation – works out, “it would be very welcome,” Sullivan said.

“In fact, we have been calling for cross-border aid.”

The main obstacle to getting aid into Myanmar is the military junta, Sullivan said.

“The junta has been directly blocking aid getting into certain areas; it has created bureaucratic impediments like travel authorization and visa delays at checkpoints now – all that alongside the huge spike in displaced people are the obstacles,” he said.

The benefit to working with Thailand and via its frontier with Myanmar is that there are “readily available and long established local networks” in that area already, Sullivan said, according to the RFA report.

Fortify Rights call for “bold actions”

On November 10, in a 31-page report titled “Access Denied: the Myanmar Military Junta’s Deprivation of Lifesaving Aid to Karenni State,” Fortify Rights group called on the governments of Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh to immediately authorize humanitarian agencies to provide cross-border aid to growing numbers of civilians in need in Myanmar.

Fortify Report about Access Denied
Fortify Report about Access Denied

The new report also documented the arbitrary arrests of 14 aid workers in Karenni State, creating a chilling effect among local and international humanitarian agencies, instilling well-founded fears that the junta may target them for carrying out their legitimate activities.

The ongoing attacks forced the displacement of more than 100,000 people in Karenni State and more than 223,000 nationally, according to Fortify Rights.

“ASEAN and U.N. member states should encourage the Government of Thailand to authorize cross-border aid delivery to civilians in need in Myanmar. Similarly, the governments of India, China, and Bangladesh should authorize cross-border aid to civilians in need in Myanmar. Humanitarian donors and donor governments should also immediately support cross-border aid operations, including those led by local civil society and community-based organizations,” writes the Fortify Rights new report in its key recommendation.

“Blocking aid and targeting humanitarian workers in the context of armed conflict are war crimes,” Ismail Wolff, regional director of Fortify Rights, said in a statement on Nov. 10, according to UCA News reporter.

“The Myanmar junta poses a threat to regional peace and security. UN and ASEAN member states should urgently support emergency cross-border aid for the displaced and ensure accountability for the junta’s heinous crimes.”

PPST condemnation and needs to protect the civilian population

On November 5, Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), which is the official peace negotiation setup of the 10 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatory Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), issued a statement condemning the raid of Thantlang in Chin State by the Tatmadaw and asked the perpetrators to be punished.

PPST Statement
PPST Statement

In turn on November 9, the junta’s National Solidarity and Peace-making Central Committee (NSPCC) accused the PPST stating its accusation of the Tatmadaw (military) without knowing the real situation amounts to breaching the NCA Chapter 3, Paragraph 5 (f), which writes: “Avoid hostile propaganda, defamatory, untruthful or derogatory statements, both within and outside the country.“

In an interview on the issue with VOA on November 11, spokesman of PPST Khun Myint Tun explained that his organization issued the condemnation statement after receiving reliable reports and verification on Thantlang shelling and burning hundreds of houses in Chin State.

Chin State Htantalan
Thantlang shelling and burning hundreds of houses in Chin State

“In this condition, it is very hard for us to go on with the NCA. But we still hold on to the essence of NCA, in which protection of the people’s lives and their homes and properties are included in NCA Chapter 1 Basic Principles. Besides in NCA Chapter 3, we have broadly agreed upon the protection of the citizens. In addition we agreed upon that soldiers from both sides to adhere to this code of conduct,” said Khun Myint Tun.

NCA Chapter 1 (k) writes: “Undertake efforts to protect lives and property and improve the livelihoods of all persons living within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

“That’s why our statement included that both we and the Tatmadaw have the duty to protect the people’s lives and properties, on which both sides have already agreed upon,” he added.

Junta’s mindset

Many Western Burma or Myanmar experts and watchers believed that the Myanmar military is highly nationalistic and also considered itself to be the sole guardian and savior of the country, rightly or wrongly.

Another side of the coin is that overtime it has evolved into “a state within a state” with intensive economic holdings and networks to fund the military establishment and in effect becomes a military class or exclusive group, with political power monopoly. Thus, group survival instinct is far more important and outweigh its professed guardian of the people and protector of the country role.

However, Andrew Selth’s view of the Myanmar military and the need to coax it in order to change the situation in his report ‘Myanmar’s military mindset: An exploratory survey’ may well be the opinion of most foreign western scholars on Myanmar, if not all.

“A logical first step (for every foreign government) would be for them clearly to state their policy positions and acknowledge international norms. That will be expected. After that, however, it is up to the negotiators,” he writes regarding the effort to woo the military regime’s cooperation in undertaking the humanitarian aids.

“One approach would be to acknowledge the generals’ commitment to Myanmar’s best interests, as they see them. The point can then be made that these goals cannot be achieved unless circumstances change. This would not only be in the Caretaker Government’s interests but also those of Myanmar more broadly.”

“A critical first step, however, would be for the generals to shift their current stance and embrace policies that would help relieve Myanmar’s immediate problems. If this was not done, history would judge them unkindly.”

“By citing the Caretaker Government’s own broad aims regarding matters like education, health and child welfare, many of which are uncontroversial, foreign delegations may get a sympathetic hearing. The obvious next step would be to ask how the international community can help the generals to make the necessary changes. Such an approach would not satisfy the regime’s strongest critics, who want nothing less than the overthrow of the Caretaker Government, disbandment of the Tatmadaw and the trial of the senior generals. However, it may help more of Myanmar’s people survive the current crisis,” according to the report.

Special Advisory Council – Myanmar (SAC-M) on cross-border aids

International humanitarian action for Myanmar, including provision of COVID-19 vaccinations, is a minimum response to the crisis, not a solution, and must not be leveraged by the illegal junta to reach a default political settlement, says the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) in a statement, on November 12.

SAC M statement about Humanitarian assitance is not alone solution
SAC M statement about Humanitarian assitance is not alone solution

The SAC-M statement writes: “The United Nations (UN) Security Council issued a statement on Myanmar on Wednesday (November 10) calling for full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need and for the full protection, safety and security of humanitarian and medical personnel. The Council also called for greater international support to ensure delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations.”

“International donors including ASEAN, the EU, the UK, the US and UN agencies must partner with local actors and direct humanitarian aid through cross-border channels. A people-to-people approach of leveraging existing community networks is fast, adaptive and built on trust. This is essential, as the Myanmar military has a history of exploiting humanitarian crises of its own making for political gain. That was the case in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, on the back of which the military misled the international community into accepting its handling of the crisis giving it legitimacy for its continued control of the country. It must not be allowed to happen again,” writes the statement.

Analysis

Given such circumstances the cross-border humanitarian aids may have to consider the question of legitimacy before entrance into a nation-state and how to circumvent it if people-to-people help is to be undertaken.

In official context or legal international point of view the SAC and as well the NUG are not recognized as having legitimacy to rule, as seen by the pending decision of the UN and also the ASEAN.

Even China and Russia were reluctant to show their official standing, though the latter has stepped up its engagement through its military-to-military relation by repeated visit lately. The former in contrast didn’t comment of ASEAN downgrading Myanmar’s participation during the ASEAN Summit meeting on October 26.

From the Myanmar people point of view the junta or SAC is an illegal entity which has taken over the political power from the legally installed government. And another factor is the condemnation of the PPST on the war crime and crime against humanity committed by the junta on its people, even though short of calling it an illegal regime. PPST is considered to be supportive of the military before the February 1 coup and now it is like questioning the legality of its rule through this condemnation. Thus, the junta is also losing its one and only big time supporter domestically.

In short, the UN and international community don’t need to pay much attention of asking permission to any of the contesting political entity, the SAC and NUG. But as the latter openly has already asked for cross-border support, in practical term only the former need to be either ignored or politely asked for cooperation in undertaking humanitarian aids across the borders.

The outgoing point of the western scholars solely anchored on the leniency and good will of the military junta and the need to please its ego by giving recognition to its role as the country’s savior and sole guardian, and good-doer for the people, to be able to do something good for the suffering of the population, which actually is caused by itself, is uncalled for and should be disregarded.

Thus, cross-border activities by international organizations don’t need to ask for the approval from either SAC or NUG. It should be conducted through the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) from the Myanmar side, which are in fact representatives of the indigenous people. In other words, the two said organizations EAOs and CSOs from Tanintharyi Region, Mon, Karen, Karenni and Shan states that shared borders with Thailand will come into question. People’s oriented approach of cross-border humanitarian aids will be the catchwords, so to speak.

In fact there is already an organization called Ethnic Health Committee (EHC) to undertake such task. It is the main alliance of Ethnic Health Organizations which are directly delivering health care in Mon, Karen, Karenni, and Shan Ethnic Armed Organization administrative regions along Thai-Burma border, as well as in Kachin state and Chin state border areas.

Likewise, Bangladesh and India in the west and northwest; China and Laos in the northeast and east should be pondered on cross-border aids. While India and Bangladesh may be less problematic, China is said to be already interacting in Kachin and Shan states thgrough its own Red Cross in cross-border undertakings regarding COVID-19 control and prevention. Laos may also come into consideration but the Thai cross-border undertaking may be able to cover the eastern Shan State areas.

Speaking of the people’s oriented approach to lessen the burden of the surrounding countries immediate neighbors to Myanmar, especially illegal mass migration, cross-border aids may be able to stem the tide of such catastrophe to some extent. Otherwise Myanmar would sink deeper into the conflict and poverty and become an ungovernable failed state.

In sum, cross-border humanitarian aids may be the best approach given the undecided nature of the country on who should rule, as the coronavirus pandemic, economic down turn, and illegal mass migration to the surrounding countries are programmed to exacerbate. In fact in some instances they are already happening, like in India and Thailand for example where thousands from Myanmar have already taken refuge.

As such, it is also in the interest of the Myanmar immediate neighboring countries to undertake drastic actions like cross-border humanitarian aids, and forsake non-interference and territorial integrity norms which cannot be upheld given the emergency situation of Myanmar.

Apart from that such undertakings it may even help alter the present political landscape leading to political settlement dialogue among the stakeholders which for the time being is not possible as it is highly polarized.

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