ISSN 2330-717X

Burma: The Regime War Against Humanitarianism – OpEd

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The international community was shocked and aghast when the Burmese military regime turned down the humanitarian aid offered by the international community after the Nargis Cyclone hit the country in May 2008 and killed some 200,000 people and made millions homeless.

The United Nations practically had to beg to deliver assistance to hundreds of thousands flood-stricken people and according to the UN figures 80,000 people needlessly died from their regime’s arrogance This episode alone proves that the Burmese Generals and the army (Tatamadaw) have no good will (cetena) to its own people. So it came to no surprise when the Burmese regime block the humanitarian aid to the Kachin refugees running away from an all out war waged by the Tatamadaw against its own people just like what President Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria..What cruelty and inhuman gesture can be more vivid than this and yet it is hoping for the West to lift sanctions and enter into the community of civilized nations?

The current regime lacks the experience of independent struggles or Cold War politics. They are not able to stand on a nationalistic platform or non-alliance ideology and knaves in playing political theory games. The only lessons they have learnt is some effective ways to hold on to their power.  The training and lectures given to them is somewhat

-We work harder than others for the sake of the country.
-We sacrifice our lives to work for the sake of the country.
-Our comrades are injured or killed by our enemies.
-The enemies who injure or killed us are supported by a part of the population.
-We must follow orders, live under the discipline of the army at all the time.
-We are soldiers serving the country 24-hours a day.

Hence from the soldier’s view, ordinary people and civil servants live more easy-going lives. They are undisciplined and have many leisure hours. They do business just to enrich themselves. The end result is that soldiers believe they have the sole right to hold state power due to their hard work and sacrifices. These basic opinions not only hinder the relationship between the people and the Tatmadaw, but also between the opposition groups and the Tatmadaw.

When the army cracks down on peaceful demonstrators and monks, they viewed them as lazy opportunists who are asking for rights without working hard and sacrificing like them. The Tatmadaw, in a way, blames the people for failing to develop the country. Although the army as a whole works hard, the people and civil servants don’t work hard. Foreigners work and think smarter than lazy Burmese people, and these are the reasons developed countries are ahead of Burma seems to be the Tatmadaw’s logic and rationale. However, when ordinary people go abroad to seek job opportunity, they see them as betraying the country and opting for a foreign one The soldiers work industriously because they receive advantages from their work. They are disciplined because they are simply reaping the advantages from performing well. The regime especially the members of the ruling party who are old soldiers did not have the slightest idea that Burma could not move forward because of the army’s heavy handed control. So declaring war on humanitarian works and obstructing both the local and international NGOs is their humanitarian works is normal for them. Obviously they admire the dictum of Mao Ze Dong: “Crack down on the extreme minority, leave the educated to live in illusion, and label the majority of ordinary people as supporters.”

The mentality of this Burmese quasi civilian government is such that it could not comprehend that humanitarian aid is an act of philanthropy and nothing more as helping the cyclone or a war victim. The ex brass are so evil and so engrossed in the fear of losing power that they are blocked from every reasoning power. Only brute force and punitive actions can make them understand. It becomes and international duty to make these brute to understand or otherwise it will continue to commit crime against humanity. With such kind of mentality it will be very difficult to make them comprehend that that every mortal being has the right to receive humanitarian assistance and to offer it is a fundamental humanitarian principle.

Tatmadaw propaganda encourages a blind racist nationalism, full of references to protecting the race meaning the Myanmar. This implies that if the Myanmar do not oppress other nationalities then they find themselves be oppressed. For them national reconciliation means assimilation and preventing disintegration of the Union of Burma all the ethnic races must be assimilated into the Myanmar race including their language, culture and values. Hence if the Tatmadaw falls then everything will fall. The military construe that the international community, is constantly telling them to give up their hold on power and open up the way to become the real democracy and the Genuine Union of Burma. What right have they to tell us what to do?

Drug money also makes a substantial contribution to army coffers. Official policy is to suppress opium growing. In reality, production has nearly tripled since as once can see in the UN report. Narco related companies in Rangoon pay off the army and money from this illicit trade permeates the military hierarchy. Cut off from their roots in the people and corrupted by a far more luxurious lifestyle than is available to ordinary Burmese, they became desperate. Amid the poverty, army officers maintain a privileged lifestyle, enjoying golf courses, seaside villas, Mercedes limousines and other luxuries. On retirement from the army, they are awarded lucrative jobs as directors of state-run enterprises.

In recent years humanitarian agencies have been working in conflicts in Burma where the Tatmadaw have no interest in respecting international law, and where international political action to enforce this respect has been weak or ineffective. Humanitarian action was seen by the Burmese government at best as interference, or as an unfriendly act. Humanitarian personnel and assets were neither respected nor protected at all times. Payment was demanded at checkpoints, relief items stolen and aid workers threatened because of their control of resources and assets. Humanitarian assistance in Burma especially in Kachin state where the government is waging an all out war to annihilate the Kachin Race is both needed. People are suffering because of armed conflict and not because of natural disaster or disease. By definition, therefore, part of the territory in which the NGO attempts to deliver assistance is outside of any government’s control. The Geneva Conventions make clear that states and non-state actors involved in armed conflict have a responsibility to make sure that all “persons taking no active part in the hostilities” (and this includes humanitarian aid workers) are treated humanely. The UN Security Council has even passed a resolution urging “…States to ensure that crimes against such personnel [participating in humanitarian operations] do not remain unpunished. But the wild Tatmadaw would not respect the international law. The escalation in fighting in Kachin State, increased human-rights abuses against civilians, massive internal displacement and high levels of vulnerability all frustrated these attempts at participation. Increasing insecurity made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to apply participatory approaches to relief programming. It was difficult for humanitarian agencies to obtain adequate planning information, such as needs assessments and problem analyses.

Allowing government actors to decide where humanitarians can or cannot go and allowing governments to impose military escorts as a condition for protection might well protect humanitarian workers, kills the very principles of humanitarian assistance and that is what the current Burmese regime is doing. The Tatmadaw and the generals are too naive to understand that respect and non-aggression toward humanitarian assistance is needed in the conflict areas. Humanitarian aid workers are not volunteering for martyrdom. Refusing the humanitarian aid or persecuting the aid workers and looting the aid for the solders as they often do made the Burmese Tatmadaw not a warring party but criminals. When the civilized community requested the Tatmadaw protect the humanitarian assistance they are simply requesting them to live up to their commitment to create a space in which humanitarian assistance can operate. Is that such an impossible demand?

The UN Security Council doesn’t ask for that much effort on the part of states. What it does urge is that states do not allow crimes against humanitarian workers to go unpunished. Humanitarian aid organizations are not asking for so much. They are just requesting safety guarantees from Tatmadaw not to commit crimes against humanitarian assistance and workers, and if some captains do commit such crimes as they often do don’t let them go unpunished. It’s an essential condition to ensuring that the people needing humanitarian assistance receive it. Lynn Yoshikawa from Refugees International, an independent humanitarian advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, recently completed an assessment after visiting Myitkyina, Pa An and Moulmein said ,

“Refugees International is really worried over the security of the workers and internally displaced persons (IDPs), thousands of those are living in insufficient camps in areas where the sanctuaries are sandwiched between the Kachin freedom fighters and the Tatmadaw.”

It seems that when confronting horrible conditions and repressive Burmese governments, humanitarian organizations in Burma are faced with the decision of observing silence in order to have continued access to populations versus publically denouncing what is going on and risking expulsion. The Burmese regime is preventing aid organizations from having access to the Internally Displaced Persons camps. There is little respect for humanitarian organizations in the eyes of the Burmese and even the International Committee of the Red Cross is heavily restricted. Ultimately the best balance is for humanitarian organizations to carefully vocalize their opposition – mainly through encouraging the international community to continue pressuring the government – without a dramatic head-on confrontation that jeopardizes the humanitarian space in the country. Or otherwise the new quasi Civilian government just like the previous Junta will continue to wage war against humanitarianism.

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