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Myanmar : The Politics of Humanitarian Aid
Myanmar : The Politics of Humanitarian Aid
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Myanmar Edges Toward State Collapse Following Coup
Myanmar Edges Toward State Collapse Following Coup
Report 32 / Asia

Myanmar : The Politics of Humanitarian Aid

Since the 1988 uprising and 1990 election in Burma/Myanmar, foreign governments and international organisations have promoted democratisation as the solution to the country’s manifold problems, including ethnic conflict, endemic social instability, and general underdevelopment. Over time, however, as the political stalemate has continued and data on the socio-economic conditions in the country have improved, there has been a growing recognition that the political crisis is paralleled by a humanitarian crisis that requires more immediate and direct international attention.

Executive Summary

Since the 1988 uprising and 1990 election in Burma/Myanmar, foreign governments and inter­na­tional organisations have promoted democratisation as the solution to the country’s manifold problems, including ethnic conflict, endemic social instability, and general under­deve­lop­ment. Over time, however, as the political stalemate has continued and data on the socio-economic condi­tions in the country have improved, there has been a growing recognition that the political crisis is paralleled by a humanitarian crisis that requires more immediate and direct inter­national attention. Donors face a dilemma. On the one hand, the humanitarian imperative raises difficult questions about the sustainability of international strategies based on coercive diplomacy and economic isolation, which have greatly limited international assistance to Myanmar. On the other hand, there is widespread concern that re-engagement, even in the form of limited humanitarian assistance, could under­mine the quest for political change and long-term improvements.

This policy dilemma raises two basic questions: Should international assistance to Myanmar be increased? And, if so, how can this be done in a responsible and effective way? This report answers the first of these questions with an unequivocal ‘yes’. There should be more international assistance in Myanmar, more resources, more agencies, and more programs in a wider number of sectors. The human costs of social deprivation in Myanmar are simply too large to be ignored until some indefinite democratic future, which could be years, or even decades, away. In the meantime, international development agencies are making a significant difference bringing relief and new opportunities to vulnerable groups, building local capacities, even helping to rationalise policy-making and planning – and they could do a lot more. Importantly, so far at least, there are no indications that these efforts are having significant political costs, whether in terms of strengthening the regime or undermining the movement for change.

Those who oppose international assistance, or at least are cautious about it, point out that Myanmar’s development for a long time has been hostage to political interests and that any sustainable, long-term solutions would have to involve fundamental changes in the system of government. They are also concerned that the current government will reject international advice and maintain development policies and priorities that are partly responsible for the current problems.

However, these obstacles should be actively addressed rather than left for some future democratic government to tackle. Instead of placing abso­lute constraints on international assistance, the focus should be on impro­ving monitoring and distri­bution to minimise existing problems and facilitate more aid reaching people in need. If properly applied, international assistance could in fact serve to promote political recon­ciliation and build the social capital necessary for a successful democratic transition. 

Foreign govern­ments and donors do not face a choice between promoting political change or suppor­ting social develop­ment in Myanmar. Both strategies would have to be integral parts of any genuine effort to help this country and promote stability and welfare for its 50 million people, as well as the broader region. In order to facilitate responsible and effective delivery of more international assistance, all the main protagonists, inside and outside the country, need to reassess their positions and do their part to generate the kind of cooperation and synergy that has so far been lacking.

Bangkok/Brussels, 2 April 2002

Video / Asia

Myanmar Edges Toward State Collapse Following Coup

Two months after the 1 February coup, Myanmar is in a deep crisis. The military seems bent on imposing its will, using draconian tactics that are only strengthening demonstrators’ will to resist. International actors should stay united in urging the junta to change course.

In this video, Richard Horsey, Crisis Group's Senior Adviser on Myanmar, explains what is happening in the country.

Click here to read the full briefing.

CRISISGROUP