Thursday, January 12, 2012

Emerging ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Burma, says report


Thursday, 12 January 2012 13:02 Mizzima News

(Mizzima) – Refugees International has release an urgent report calling on humanitarian donors, particularly the EU, UK, and U.S. government, to increase humanitarian and disaster assistance inside Burma and immediately fund the $6.4 million UN appeal to respond to ongoing displacement of Kachin who are victims of civil war.
A temporary camp for Kachin refugees who have fled from the renewed fighting by the government and Kachin Independence

The report also calls for Western donor governments to lift aid restrictions to allow their partners to support capacity-building efforts in reform-minded ministries – particularly the Ministries of Health and Social Welfare.

Western governments should also lift restrictions on aid to Burma, which it said have “exacerbated the impact of the government’s disastrous economic policies and deepened the suffering of the poorest Burmese,” according to the report.

“Now is the time for the humanitarian community to expand operations in Burma to meet these humanitarian needs,” it said. The NGO group said Burma has seen some promising political reforms in the past years, 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 some willingness to cooperate with humanitarian agencies, according to the report.

“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,” the report said.

There are an estimated 500,000 internally-displaced people (IDPs) in Burma, and 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,” the report said.

The said the Burmese government has finally recognized the existence of internally displaced persons, and invited the UN to assess the their needs in Kachin State. In December, the government also took the unprecedented step of allowing UN agencies to assist IDPs in areas outside of its control.

“Now the military has been removed from the process, and there are multiple decision-makers,” the report said. “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, the report said. 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.

The report said: “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, said the report.

 “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.”

The report said: “While in Burma, RI met with aid workers who consistently spoke of civil servants operating at all levels of government without basic management, planning, and administrative skills. One UN official said, ‘This government is like a newborn – it needs proper development and teaching.’ U.S. law, along with similar restrictions imposed by other western donors, prohibits assistance from reaching any member of the government. This means that, in practice, UNDP and U.S. implementing-partner NGOs can work freely with communities, but cannot provide any assistance or even training to teachers or health workers, thereby hindering systemic impact. Western donors should make their existing policies more flexible in order to assist high-impact, reform-minded ministries like health and social welfare, and improve working-level capacity to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Regional countries should also strengthen their engagement to build capacity of civil servants and lawmakers on public administration, policymaking, and program implementation.”

The “emerging Kachin crisis” was singled out in the report, which said: “Without effective pressure from key actors like China, Indonesia, and the U.S., the military may succeed in eliminating the KIO, thereby destroying peace prospects in the near term and widening ethnic divisions. Since June, at least 60,000 civilians, primarily women and children, have been forced from their homes due to this violence. The majority of IDPs are now caught between warring parties. OCHA was able to secure access to deliver some assistance, and this must be sustained to meet the growing need for food, water, medical supplies, and warm clothes. IDPs, primarily those dependent on agriculture, were unable to harvest their crops due to fighting and will need food aid until late 2012. Unless international donors renew their contributions, WFP will run out of funds for IDPs in February 2012. Key humanitarian donors like OFDA and the European Community Humanitarian Office should follow the UK government’s lead and fund the $6.4 million UN appeal to assist civilians forced to flee the military offensive against the KIO.”

Burma’s ethnic conflicts result from numerous grievances and are rooted in a lack of control over the issues that most affect ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities, particularly in the border areas, have been subject to atrocities and human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict. Armed groups have caused a proliferation of landmines, recruited child soldiers, practiced extortion, and profited from illegal border trade. Over the past 50 years, the Burma Army has used sexual violence against women, imprisonment, child soldiers, human minesweepers, extrajudicial killings, and the destruction of villages in its campaign to cut off food, funds, information, and recruits from armed groups. The so-called “four cuts” counterinsurgency campaign has resulted in up to one million civilian deaths and the displacement of many more, the report said.

“Engaging the government and the military is essential to transforming the Burmese government’s pledges of reform into action. For the first time, some members of the Burmese leadership, particularly President Thein Sein, have expressed a willingness to assert civilian control over the military,” the report concluded. “The Burmese government has a very long way to go in this effort, but the international community must take full advantage of this opportunity to pressure the military to reform its command-and-control structure, as well as increase engagement on civilian protection, international humanitarian law, and human rights.”

For a copy of the report, go to

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