By Francis Wade
Western sanctions on Burma stop crucial international aid from being channelled into the country and should be eased in the wake of positive developments over the past nine months, a refugee advocacy group has said.
Burma receives less foreign aid money than any country in Southeast Asia, despite being the poorest. Refugees International said this week that the international community must expand operations in Burma to respond to the persistent needs of the population, among whom are more than 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).
While not advocating for a complete rollback of sanctions, the group argues that “removing specific barriers to technical assistance to key ministries and civil servants would allow Burma’s government to better respond to humanitarian needs and jumpstart the country’s stagnant development progress”.
Among the signs of progress seen by the group is the first acknowledgement by the military-backed government that IDPs exist, as witnessed in its decision last month to grant the UN access to some of the 50,000 people displaced by fighting in Kachin state.
“While these steps may seem inadequate considering the vast need, history has shown that persistence in pushing the boundaries inBurmacan effectively expand humanitarian space,” a statement read.
Critics of current sanctions claim they effectively amount to a humanitarian boycott, given their apparent impact on aid flows. Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) figures for Burma in 2009/10 stood at just $US7.2 per capita, while neighbouring Laos received $US64.4.
But not all are convinced that sanctions are to blame. David Mathieson, Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance: “No one in their right minds would impose sanctions on aid”.
He thinks instead it is a combination of an historic lack of interest in Burma and the isolationist attitude of the west. But this has changed in recent years, and since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, aid to the country has doubled.
Mathieson says the main obstacle to aid being dispersed around the country is the government, which has long been suspicious of any form of foreign intervention there.
Still, however, that improvement to the general flow of assistance has not been witnessed in conflict zones, which largely lie outside of international aid worker corridors and which instead, as seen in Kachin state over the past six months, are forced to rely on local groups and cross-border aid.
Refugees International said however that the new government signalled promise that conflict zones, which are largely confined to Burma’s remote border regions, will see an opening. “The new, decentralized government structure has improved bureaucratic processes and increased channels to expand access to conflict-affected areas.”
In light of this, “International aid agencies should increase partnerships with local organizations to strengthen their capacity to reach the most vulnerable”. Concerns among agencies that local groups have ties to ethnic armies “should not be generalised”.