By Francis Wade
Late last year I wrote a comment piece on the lack of aid getting to victims of the Kachin conflict that triggered some healthy debate about the UN’s role in Burma.
At the time the organisation was attempting to gain access to rebel territory in the northern state where tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had taken shelter. The crisis facing those displaced was considerable – the government had denied them international assistance, and they were forced to rely largely on locally-sourced food, medicine and blankets that were in short supply.
The reason for the UN’s inability to access the IDPs was never clarified by the government, but it likely stemmed from a fear in Naypyidaw that allowing the body to channel aid to rebel territory would be tantamount to supporting the Kachin rebels, which have been fighting government forces since June 2011. The refusal by the government was cynical and self-serving, but I and others felt that the UN also had a lot to answer for.
In reports issued by its aid wing, OCHA, and in interviews I conducted with staff in the country, there was a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the full extent of the crisis. This was likely due to concern that the UN going public with the fact that the majority of refugees had chosen to shelter in Kachin Independence Army territory and not government areas would annoy the government, as would clarity on the real situation in Burma’s north, and Naypyidaw might then restrict the UN’s work in the country.
The concerns are understandable, but they are no justification for the silence. The UN’s ambiguity dampened the urgency of the situation, and meant that local groups who could provide assistance were not being properly acknowledged and, crucially, their efforts were not supported.
Fast forward to now, and UN teams are en route to Kachin state to deliver their second convoy of aid, having been granted brief, limited access to the town of Laiza in December last year. Once again, however, celebrations should be tempered: as yet there is no sign that the aid effort will be a sustained one, and the government may well fall back on its age-old excuse of “security concerns” to block further convoys (as it’s done to block voting for looming by-elections in Kachin state).
The UN has grown slightly more verbose over the matter, requesting that aid deliveries be continued well into the future (OCHA says food insecurity could last until the end of 2013), but its public assessments fail to illuminate the real situation in the north (Human Rights Watch’s recent report paints a clearer picture of just how dire things are up there).
As the UN’s caginess continues, so the refugee crisis deteriorates. The tools of diplomacy can work with the Burmese government (as they eventually did with Cyclone Nargis in 2008) but the UN must be more frank about the limits of its work in a country like Burma. When that happens, external groups will begin to place more emphasis on supporting the local groups (often wrongly derided as politicised or ill-equipped) who can gain access to victims and provide the assistance they desperately need.