The Way Forward in Burma
The Way Forward in Burma
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

The Way Forward in Burma

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, we must respond to the suffering of people who cannot wait for distant political change.

Megaphone moralising is not a policy and will not help the people of Burma. The west has tried it for two decades, and it has failed.

Unfortunately some, like Benedict Rogers, would rather criticise those who suggest a new direction than offer anything as practical as a policy.

Contrary to his article, the International Crisis Group's new report on Burma/Myanmar is very clear about where the blame lies for the appalling situation:

Growing impoverishment and deteriorating social service structures have pushed millions of households to the edge of survival, leaving them acutely vulnerable to economic shocks or natural disasters.

If not addressed, the increasing levels of household insecurity will lead to further human suffering, and could eventually escalate into a major humanitarian crisis.

Government repression, corruption and mismanagement bear primary responsibility for this situation.

Crisis Group does also say that the errors of western policy have played a role, noting that in their attempt to defeat the regime by isolating it, western governments have sacrificed opportunities to promote economic reform, strengthen social services, empower local communities and support disaster prevention and preparedness. After cyclone Nargis, we see another such opportunity, and we hope the west doesn't blow it again.

The truth is, the efforts to help Burma recover from Nargis are going surprisingly well. In sharp contrast to their initial obstructionism, the Burmese authorities are now cooperating with the international aid effort. If western governments can continue to show generosity - and resist the siren call of measures which punish the people for the failings of their government - there is a chance to build on this opening to address Burma's wider humanitarian and development crisis and promote change in that country.

Nargis was the worst natural disaster in Burma's recorded history. It devastated south-west Burma, leaving maybe 200,000 people dead and 800,000 displaced.

The world looked on aghast at the regime's initial response. As always, the generals put security and political concerns first, and their people's welfare last. They denied foreign aid workers visas, and turned back local volunteers attempting to reach the affected areas. They pressed ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, designed to institutionalise military power.

But what happened next is an untold story. With the referendum out of the way, and encouraged by skilful diplomacy by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the generals finally decided to open the door to foreign aid.

Western governments mostly put aside their distaste for the Burmese regime and made generous pledges of aid. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), long criticised for its lack of action on Burma, stepped up to the plate, coordinating international aid operations and helping overcome the regime's suspicions of western agendas.

By July, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes could describe the relief effort as "a normal international relief operation". While there are still problems, the cooperation between the Burmese authorities and the international community is unprecedented. Visas and travel permits are quicker and easier to obtain than before; bureaucratic obstacles have been removed; communication channels opened; and donors' demands for an independent needs assessment met.

The biggest problem today is lack of funds: the initial generosity of donors has not been maintained. The UN has asked for $482 million, but received barely half that amount. It is essential that this shortfall is met. But there is an opportunity to do much more than the humanitarian minimum. For too long, Burma has been an aid orphan, receiving twenty times less per capita aid than the average for least developed countries - far less even than other pariah states like Zimbabwe or North Korea.

Western policies have restricted aid to just a few sectors such as disease or promoting democracy. And they have severely limited the activities of agencies such as the World Bank or UNDP. Meanwhile, a development crisis of major proportions has developed. According to the UN, 90% of the population are living on less than 65 cents a day, and more than a third of children under five are malnourished. Educational levels are declining, and civilian institutions decaying: not a promising basis for political reform.

Government repression and economic mismanagement bear primary responsibility for this situation. But 20 years of sanctions and restrictions on aid have made matters worse.

Such restrictions made sense 20 years ago, when it seemed possible that the military could be pushed from power. They make no sense today, when the repression of the 2007 monks' protests, and the regime's determination to push ahead with its referendum in May, have confirmed their imperviousness to external pressure.

It is not a question of "rewarding" the generals. It is simply a matter of responding to the suffering of the people who cannot wait for the distant prospect of political change.

Donors now need to meet the shortfall in funding for post-Nargis recovery work and expand the scope of bilateral aid programmes beyond the narrowly humanitarian, to include support for livelihoods, health and education. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and IMF should be allowed to work in Burma - not to engage in large-scale lending, but to provide technical assistance and support economic reform. And we need to see an end to measures that prevent ordinary Burmese making a living, such as economic sanctions in the garment, agricultural and tourism sectors. In short, funding decisions for development projects should be made like they would in any other least developed country.

Of course, donors will face challenges. Burma is a difficult place to operate, with a restrictive and intrusive government and a level of corruption rated second in the world by Transparency International. But aid organisations with a presence on the ground have proved that, despite the difficulties, it is possible to deliver assistance in an effective and accountable way.

Aid restrictions have not succeeded in pushing the generals from power. Given the desperate needs of the country, a fundamental rethink is well overdue. Aid engagement offers a practical - as opposed to purely symbolic - western policy on Burma.

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