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Walking the Tightrope: Humanitarian Assistance in Myanmar

08 Sep 2021
By Fiona Tarpey
Myanmar Red Cross

Myanmar is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. Delivering aid in Myanmar involves difficult but necessary dilemmas for humanitarian agencies, involving trust and neutrality.  

For humanitarian response agencies, such as Australian Red Cross, the current situation in Myanmar is incredibly difficult. The country is currently suffering from multiple, and intersecting, emergencies.  

Since February 2021, Myanmar has been experiencing a political crisis that has led to considerable violence and displacement of people. This has in turn led to a severe economic downturn and a subsequent uptick in food insecurity. About three million people currently require humanitarian assistance, and this is likely to increase as the broader impacts are felt across the seven regions of the country.  

Close to a quarter of a million people have been displaced, many of them women, children, and the elderly. There are significant access constraints that are limiting the movement of people, and reducing work opportunities, livelihoods, and regular access to healthcare. The banking and finance sector continues to have limited operational capacity with restrictions and limits on cash withdrawals.  

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicates an already dangerous and complex environment. There has been a significant increase in daily cases and deaths in the past few months, with this latest wave of the virus being the deadliest to date. The current state of unrest poses a significant threat to efforts to contain the further spread of the virus. What’s more, the public health system is under enormous pressure, with many saying it is close to collapse. 

There are no easy solutions to what people in Myanmar currently face, and how humanitarian organisations seek to assist them. The environment is challenging and highly changeable, where rapid localised shifts in power can alter the on-the-ground conditions for relief workers significantly. It is therefore important that organisations with local knowledge and considerable social trust are empowered to provide the best humanitarian relief possible.  

The Australian Red Cross has a long-standing relationship with the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), providing financial and logistical support towards the MRCS’s provision of humanitarian services throughout the country. The Red Cross Red Crescent movement’s fundamental principles – including neutrality, independence, and impartiality – have been critical to this response, as has the MRCS’s vigilance in upholding them. 

This has afforded the MRCS privileged access across the military-civilian divide. This in turn enables other agencies like the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) to partner with it to deliver medical assistance, food, and other essential aid at a greater scale. It allows the MRCS to do its best to safely access vulnerable populations and provide essential and frequently life-saving assistance. 

For the most part, these principles have allowed the MRCS the ability to operate across the country with less apprehension from all parties. For example, during August, MRCS volunteers reached over 1800 injured people needing emergency first aid and hospital transfers. However, continuing to operate with this level of access remains a tightrope for humanitarian agencies to negotiate in areas of complex crises. In environments where trust has disintegrated, the ability to maintain the confidence of all parties becomes an essential component of humanitarian assistance. It is something that needs to be carefully guarded.  

There is always a risk that how humanitarian assistance is distributed is deemed to be political by one group or another. The perception of legitimising regimes that instigate crises is a constant concern. Especially if this undermines trust and confidence the public has in response agencies.  

In recent weeks there have been several important critiques of the principle of humanitarian neutrality in Myanmar in The New Humanitarian, and in the Melbourne Asia Review. These articles point to different ways to respond to political and complex crises as humanitarians, referring to traditions and approaches more based on solidarity and activism that have been prevalent in other contexts, such as East Timor. 

These perspectives are acknowledged and understood. However challenging, the principles of neutrality and impartiality assist the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to navigate through the complexities and on-the-ground practicalities of delivering humanitarian assistance where it is most needed.  

There are no easy choices, and crisis zones are nearly always morally fraught environments. The question aid agencies have to ask themselves is whether abandoning neutrality will lead to no humanitarian assistance being delivered at all. For the Red Cross movement, lives saved and lives improved are the principal objectives, and the principle of neutrality is baked into its DNA. The longer-term goals of peacebuilding are distinct from humanitarian assistance, and therefore they require a different set of parameters. 

It is likely the current crises within Myanmar will be protracted. And any situation of continuing violence has a destructive impact on the social and economic infrastructure of society. This will mean that humanitarian assistance will be required in the country for the foreseeable future. Maintaining access for organisations like the MRCS is essential to ease the suffering for as many Myanmarese as possible.  

Fiona Tarpey is the Head of Advocacy for the International Programs Department at Australian Red Cross in Melbourne and co-chair of ACFID’s Development Practice Committee. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.