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What a coup may mean for aid in Myanmar conflicts

‘I think we are looking at a really difficult moment.’

A side profile view of an armed soldier holding a gun, as he adjusts his face mask.
A soldier adjusts his face mask as he sits inside a vehicle in front of a Hindu temple in the downtown area in Yangon, Myanmar, 2 February, 2021. (REUTERS)

Myanmar’s military coup has ushered in new volatility for humanitarian operations in a country where nearly one million people depend on aid in conflict zones.

The country’s powerful military seized control on Monday, declaring a year-long state of emergency and detaining the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with scores of civilian government officials and prominent civil society members.

Aid groups are scrambling to understand what the coup will mean for humanitarian operations, including some 330,000 people displaced by conflict who rely on assistance to survive.

Several international NGOs suspended or reduced operations, including the International Rescue Committee, CARE, and the Norwegian Refugee Council. Médecins Sans Frontières said it was “carefully evaluating the implications for our medical activities and our staff movements have now been limited”. Another group, Malteser International, said the state of emergency has made humanitarian access “very difficult” and “heavily affected” its work. The Danish Refugee Council said it was "operational" after earlier putting "all humanitarian activities on hold".*

Analysts say the coup has upended an already tense status quo: Aid groups may face more pressure and even stricter access from a military long distrustful of international humanitarian groups.

The UN Security Council was set to meet on Tuesday in an emergency, closed-door meeting amid calls for targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on Myanmar to pressure the military into returning the country to civilian rule.

Here are some key issues affecting aid in Myanmar as the coup’s aftermath unfolds:

Aid groups: Shuttered access and ethical dilemmas

Aid groups already faced heavy restrictions, but the coup could force new roadblocks to delivering assistance.

More than a third of displacement sites and villages in Rakhine and Chin states, for example, were off limits to most aid groups as of late January, according to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA.

Humanitarian workers typically have to negotiate sporadic access with government officials in individual states. State-level chief ministers were swept up in Monday’s military arrests, making it unclear who will be making decisions.

Gabrielle Aron, an independent analyst on conflict issues who was based in Myanmar for five years, said aid agencies may find themselves targeted by a military that sees them as “an oppositional voice” rather than neutral humanitarians. This is because of the broader international community’s outcry over the military purge of Rakhine State’s Rohingya minority and rights abuses in general.

“The entire diplomatic calculus has changed for the entire country,” said Aron, who now lives in London. “We need to assume that the prior status quo will also change with regard to aid operations.”

The military could demand more control over how aid agencies operate, who receives help, and where the money goes, she said – moves that may violate humanitarian principles of neutrality.

“I would anticipate some of the demands by the military will be to such an extent and in such violation of [humanitarian] principles that it would require serious consideration of more drastic measures, like the decision to exit.”

This could force aid groups into a debate about what’s acceptable, and what they will do if the military pressure crosses that line.

“I would anticipate some of the demands by the military will be to such an extent and in such violation of [humanitarian] principles that it would require serious consideration of more drastic measures, like the decision to exit,” Aron said.

Ethical dilemmas have come under the microscope in Myanmar, including debates over aid agencies’ ongoing involvement in barricaded camps in central Rakhine, where some 125,000 mostly Rohingya have been stuck for years, or in proposed camps for would-be returnees from Bangladesh.

It’s also unclear whether international donors will impose their own restrictions or pull funding, wary of how their money is spent under Myanmar’s military regime. Days before the 1 February coup, a UN-led response plan called for $276 million this year to fund humanitarian aid in Myanmar.

“There has to be careful and ethical procedures put in place at the organisational level [to] carefully assess local context and support the most vulnerable groups,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya activist and director of the Women’s Peace Network.

Local aid: Pressure builds

Civil society groups working in conflict areas and local aid workers may face greater pressure as the military solidifies control – but without the “escape hatch” open to international groups.

Local civil society groups often form the bulk of emergency responses, especially in conflict areas home to ethnic minorities, but their dual roles as humanitarians and activists may place them in greater danger.

“Civil society groups often walk the line between being programme implementers, and being activists and voices for political change,” Aron said. “Especially in Myanmar, it’s a very blurry line. And many civil society organisations do a bit of both.”

Outspoken activists and musicians were also detained in Monday’s coup, along with government officials.

“Political activists are highly under threat,” said Wai Wai Nu. “In ethnic areas, the general people are actually having this fear of increasing militarisation in their area.”

Prospects for peace: Uncertain ceasefires

It’s unclear how the military takeover will affect Myanmar’s long-stalled peace process involving multiple armed groups – some of whom have clashed with the army, or each other, for decades.

On the one hand, an unofficial ceasefire in late 2020 has seen a recent drop in violence in Rakhine State, where the military’s conflict with the Arakan Army, which says it represents the state’s minority Rakhine population, has displaced more than 100,000 people. On the other hand, new clashes with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in southeast Myanmar have displaced some 4,000 civilians since December.

The military has said it wants to restore “eternal peace”, but there are early signs the coup may cause new friction.

The KNLA is a signatory to a nationwide ceasefire agreement – an often-broken truce signed by several armed groups in 2015. And in a statement on Monday, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the political wing of an armed group that also signed the 2015 ceasefire, called the coup a “power seizure” that would make the peace process “cease to work”.

“They lost their lands, their livelihoods… they’ve been living as internally displaced people fleeing the conflict again and again.”

“What they are saying is that means the peace process could also be no more, because the government has been detained,” said Khin Ohmar, who chairs the advisory board of the Progressive Voice advocacy group. “I think it’s an important point.”

At the same time, the coup itself is secondary to the daily hardships displaced people have faced for years.

“They lost their lands, their livelihoods… they’ve been living as internally displaced people fleeing the conflict again and again,” said Khin Ohmar, speaking at a briefing held by the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian politician and APHR chair, worried that any large-scale surge in conflict would displace even more civilians, and potentially send people fleeing to neighbouring countries.

“I think we are looking at a really difficult moment for Myanmar,” he said.

Looking ahead: Responses to the coup

Aid workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian said it was too early to tell what the coup would mean for humanitarian operations. Some said their organisations are concentrating on protecting local staff members – larger aid groups often employ hundreds of staff or paid volunteers.

Many aid groups within the country are staying silent for now. Several international NGOs and UN agencies declined interview requests.

Local and international rights groups are calling for targeted sanctions and arms embargoes – and for stiffer responses from governments.

“The time for softball diplomacy is over,” said Kyaw Win, who heads the UK-based Burma Human Rights Network.

* Updated with new information on 5 February 2021.

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