Burma: An Opportunity to Expand Humanitarian Space

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After nearly 50 years of brutal military rule, Burma is embarking upon a landmark transition to civilian administration. The country has seen some promising political reforms. But the world’s longest civil war, coupled with natural disasters within the country, has created serious humanitarian needs which still persist. Recently, the Burmese government has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with humanitarian agencies. The international community must seize this opportunity to ensure that the needs of the displaced are met, the military’s abuse of human rights are stemmed, and ethnic conflicts progress toward peaceful resolution. Only by addressing both political reform and ethnic conflict will policymakers be able to break the cycles of violence that have gripped the people of Burma.


There are an estimated 500,000 internally-displaced people (IDPs) in Burma, and three million Burmese refugees in other countries. There are also some 800,000 stateless Rohingyas in the west of the country, who live in dire humanitarian conditions because of their lack of basic human rights. Now is the time for the humanitarian community – led by the UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC) and supported by key donors like the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States – to expand operations in Burma to meet these humanitarian needs. While it is premature to plan any refugee returns, the long-neglected humanitarian issues have to be prioritized and addressed by both the government and the humanitarian community.

Burma’s new government has demonstrated a willingness to work with the international community on humanitarian needs created by both natural disasters and conflict. The government has finally recognized the existence of IDPs, and invited the UN to assess the displaced’s needs in Kachin State. In December, the government also took the unprecedented step of allowing UN agencies to assist IDPs in areasoutside of its control. The government is also working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to identify potentially stateless Chinese and Hindu populations, and has so far approved two communities for naturalization. While these steps may seem inadequate considering the vast need, history has shown that persistence in pushing the boundaries in Burma can effectively expand humanitarian space.

The new, decentralized government structure has improved bureaucratic processes and increased channels to expand access to conflict-affected areas. Previously, all approvals passed through both the military and ministries. Now the military has been removed from the process, and there are multiple decision-makers. Over the past year, the government has signed numerous Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), some of which had been languishing in bureaucracy for years. In addition, INGO officials told RI that the government has improved the approval system for visas and travel permits for international staff, although the process remains highly bureaucratic. Some government officials at the regional levels (such as the chief ministers of Kachin and Karen States) are now able to act independently of the central government, which has helped to expand access for international aid agencies assisting IDPs. While many of these efforts remain personality-driven, they illustrate the new entry points to engage authorities on humanitarian issues.

While overall access to conflict areas remains challenging, it is possible for humanitarian aid to be provided independently and impartially. Over the past decade, local NGOs in Burma have developed significantly and are now estimated to number in the hundreds. The devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 served as a catalyst in mobilizing and strengthening local civil society, as well as re-establishing a dialogue between the humanitarian community and the government. In conflict-affected areas, which are more sensitive for the government, supporting and strengthening local NGOs and civil society is critical to expanding humanitarian space. Religious organizations – primarily Buddhist and Christian – are the primary focal point in providing IDPs with food, shelter, and livelihood support. In Kachin State, church and monastery compounds are hosting thousands of IDPs organized by volunteer groups, with assistance provided by UN agencies.

International aid agencies should increase partnerships with local organizations to strengthen their capacity to reach the most vulnerable. While many INGOs in Burma do not invest the time necessary to gain government-approved access to conflict areas, some do partner with local NGOs, provide funds for small-scale programs, and build organizational capacity. These partnerships can leverage INGOs’ technical expertise and access to international funds with local NGOs’ connections to communities and authorities. Some UN agencies have expressed reservations about engaging with local organizations because of assumed ties to armed groups, but this assessment should not be generalized. The UN Humanitarian Country Team should develop tools to assess local organizations’ capacities and compliance with the humanitarian principles to identify reliable partners.

In recent years, the UN’s advocacy efforts have languished following the expulsion of the RC/HC during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF have established offices throughout Burma’s border regions, yet the UN has failed to leverage its comparative advantages to strengthen the humanitarian dialogue with the Burmese government. The recent arrival of the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Burma and its growing dialogue with the government is an excellent opportunity for the incoming RC/HC to strengthen advocacy with the government to expand access to meet both immediate and long-term humanitarian needs, as well as request donors to increase humanitarian funding. To better focus efforts on this undertaking, the RC/HC position should be de-linked from its additional role as the head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The demands of the two positions are too great to be handled by just one person. UNDP’s head will need to exercise strong leadership as it recalibrates its operations in Burma to the changing political climate. It is essential that this new role not detract from addressing critical humanitarian needs.

Limited humanitarian funding inside Burma remains a significant barrier to increasing operational space within the country. In recent years, the UK, EU, and Australia have significantly increased assistance inside Burma. However, the majority of the U.S. government’s $38.5 million contribution to Burma goes to organizations based in Thailand.

USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has spent only $100,000 in Burma since its response to Cyclone Nargis, despite widespread humanitarian needs resulting from conflict, natural disasters, and climate change. As demonstrated by recent deadly cyclones, droughts, and earthquakes, Burma is considered one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters and climate change. OFDA should leverage the Burmese government’s interest in disaster preparedness and response capacity by investing in disaster risk reduction, while supporting local partners who work in conflict areas. U.S. assistance inside Burma must be increased, but this increase must not undercut existing funding for humanitarian programs for Burmese refugees in Thailand.