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Myanmar opposition asks aid groups to seek permission to enter its territory

‘It’s just kind of meeting fire with fire, and that doesn’t really make any sense in this situation.’

At the center of the frame we see a red flag waving. On the flag are the letters "NUG", above the letters is a hand where the thumb and pink finger unite, while leaving the ring, middle and index finger outstretched  The symbol that has been adopted by the Myanmar pro-democracy movement. Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Myanmar’s opposition government-in-exile has urged local and international NGOs to “seek prior authorisation” before travelling through and operating in areas under its control, drawing criticism that the move could further hamper aid access.


The National Unity Government (NUG) and resistance organisations control 52% of the country, while the military junta, which overthrew the elected government – arresting the democratically leader Aung San Suu Kyi – in February 2021, only has “stable control” over 17%, according to the independent Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.


“In order to ensure effective provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need and to ensure security for aid workers, we strongly urge all local and international non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations to seek prior authorisation from the respective ministries of the National Unity Government before taking surveys, implementing projects, and travelling through or within the areas administered by the National Unity Government,” the NUG statement said.


Humanitarian access in Myanmar was already restricted by the Organisation Registration Law, enacted by the junta last October. The law requires local and international NGOs to disclose their funding sources and locations of operation, and prohibits the delivery of aid to areas outside the junta’s control.


Patrick Phongsathorn, senior advocacy specialist at Fortify Rights, said he heard representatives of several international NGOs discussing the NUG’s new requirement in late February.


“The general feeling was that it was unhelpful, especially in light of the junta’s NGO registration act,” he told The New Humanitarian. “It’s just kind of meeting fire with fire, and that doesn’t really make any sense in this situation, and it might hamper their activities, which are obviously vital right now.”


Phongsathorn said any move from the NUG should be “fully coordinated with the NGOs working on the ground” to ensure that rather than controlling their activities or requiring them to get authorisation, it “facilitates the supply of humanitarian aid” to areas needed.


“I get that the NUG is trying to put their stamp on this sector, as they tried to strengthen their credentials as the legitimate government of Myanmar, but I don’t think that attempting to basically mimic what the junta is doing is the right way,” he added.


While several groups declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, a representative of one international NGO expressed concern that the move might be yet another impediment to aid access.


“Humanitarian actors are faced with numerous access restrictions at all fronts, [so] copying modules of restrictions [by] seeking authorisations will further limit the humanitarian space, while all parties should facilitate safe access for principled humanitarian actions,” they told The New Humanitarian via email, speaking on condition of anonymity.


“The politicisation and instrumentalisation of aid, and the continuation of the narratives [in] which humanitarian actors are used as a legitimising body, which they are not, would only deepen the suffering of the Myanmar people,” they added.


Representatives of the NUG did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the potential impact of the authorisation requirement on humanitarian access.


Junta forces have razed villages, bombed schools, and clashed with resistance groups in many parts of the country, displacing more than a million people and leaving 17.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance – as many as in Ukraine.


In December 2021, junta forces killed at least 40 civilians, including two local staff from Save the Children, and burned their bodies in the town of Mo So.

Around a million Rohingya refugees also live in camps in southern Bangladesh, most of them displaced in military crackdowns throughout Myanmar’s western Rakhine state in 2017 that the UN and rights groups say amounted to genocide.


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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