Humanitarian Considerations in Myanmar: A Discussion with David Mathieson (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a two-part ISHR interview with David Mathieson, an independent analyst researching and working on human rights and humanitarian issues in Myanmar.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a collaboration between Tea Circle and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, to share transcripts and reports from a series of seminars on Myanmar that ISHR is hosting.

Kristina Eberbach: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us today and welcome to another installment of the Human Rights in Myanmar webinar series. Today’s topic is humanitarian considerations in Myanmar. This series is being organized by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. My name is Kristina Eberbach and I’m the deputy director there.

Today, we are very excited to welcome David Mathieson, an independent analyst with over twenty years of experience in Myanmar, including with many well established international human rights organizations. He has also contributed to our University Human Rights Education in Myanmar project as a guest educator and mentor to our faculty.

Ben Fleming, who is the co-lead with me on our Myanmar project, will be co-moderating this event today.

David Mathieson: Thank you very much Kristina and Ben and to everyone that’s joining. Good evening from Bangkok in Thailand. I’m going to kick off with some remarks on a very important topic: post-coup Myanmar, and the humanitarian dilemmas that I think the country is facing.

If you look at the recent UNOCHA humanitarian snapshot in Myanmar, things are now quite dire, and they were already pretty serious before the coup in February. According to UNOCHA, there are presently 1 million people with humanitarian needs around the country. These people are throughout the country; it’s not just in Rakhine, Kachin, and the Southeast. Humanitarian crises are worsening almost every day in many parts that people did not associate with humanitarian crises. The UN is projecting that the requirements for meeting these humanitarian needs is $276 million, of which only $39 million have actually been met. That’s about 14%.

I have worked on this issue for many, many years before 2010, when things started to open up. Even then, the humanitarian needs were heavily politicized. I’ve always believed that there was a disjuncture between international activism and political pressure on Myanmar and the real humanitarian situation on the ground. A lot of political debates got caught up in humanitarian debates in previous periods, and I think we’re entering a new and more dynamic environment in which humanitarian issues will become increasingly politicized moving forward.

Of all the statements and the commentary and the punditry of the past four months, one thing that I really can’t stand is people saying that now is the time to act on Myanmar, and then never going beyond that. It’s a real bugbear of mine: people who say now’s the time to act, but they never actually prescribe what you should be doing. I think humanitarian exigencies moving forward are kind of hostage to that ‘do something’, but do it the way that we want with pressure on the State Administration Council and then the Tatmadaw.

We’ve been lost in the last four months on various distractions, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Looking back, that was a mirage. Well-meaning definitely, but talk of R2P also carried too much of an expectation that the international community would act. Talk of other things—like no-fly zones, safe havens, and arms embargoes—carry similar expectations. That said, I think that the West has been imposing some pretty well thought-out sanctions against various entities and individuals. I’d much rather see more sanctions attuned to that, than bland statements that a lot of the international community keep coming out with, because these statements are really not working. However, I think international activism isn’t necessarily attuned to the emerging crisis on the ground.

To start, I think it is important to look the pre-coup humanitarian situation. It was pretty dark and I think anyone who follows Myanmar pretty closely would agree with that. There was an intense humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, not just because there were 130,000 people internally displaced there for nearly the last decade, but also because of the crimes against humanity that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2017. There were also 100,000 people displaced in Kachin and northern Shan State. The 10th anniversary of the resumption of that war just passed this week, and the 100,000 displaced people there are now facing added burdens of this post-coup humanitarian crisis.

A lot of the challenges that are facing humanitarian actors in the country have been well-documented. These include limitations on access, the difficulties of travel authorization, and a lack of progress and operationalizing what they call durable solutions, which refers to camp closures and people returning to their own communities or new settlements from protracted displacement. There has also been very poor engagement on the part of a lot of international actors, INGOs, and the UN with both of civilian government and the military government for the past ten years. In addition, there were lots of limitations on working with ethnic armed organizations around the country, which we’ll get to in a minute. The past ten years might have seemed very hopeful to a lot of people around the world, but there were still multiple wars going on in the country, and these humanitarian emergencies were quite entrenched.

Until the pandemic really hit in March 2020 in Myanmar, the humanitarian and development sides to international engagement were beset by a lack of coordination. There was also a lot of competitiveness between INGOs for international funding. And you know, there were some pretty serious moral conundrums over engaging in protracted humanitarian, human rights crises, especially in Rakhine. If anyone wants to look back on some really good analysis of this, I would really recommend looking at Liam Mahony’s reports from Fieldview Solutions.

In the past four months, I’ve been thinking back to the situation over the past ten years and trying to find signposts for how we should be acting moving forward. It has become obvious that Myanmar is faced with multiple humanitarian emergencies and armed conflict on so many different fronts, and that it appears bewildering to even try and understand them. But, speaking to colleagues in humanitarian agencies, there is also a lot of looking back at pre-2010 modalities of operating in different areas. Things were not very easy prior to 2010, as there were very few humanitarian agencies that were in the country. A lot of them came in after 2008 after cyclone Nargis and were well positioned to take advantage of the opening after 2010. I think it’s important to look at lots of pre-2010 modalities of supporting people in conflict areas, and that includes looking at cross border modalities, particularly aid coming in from Thailand.

There is some incredibly good work by a colleague of mine, Anne Décobert, an academic at the University of Melbourne who wrote a great book called the Politics of Aid to Burma. I’ve been rereading that and speaking to Anne about some of the operational challenges and ethical dilemmas of operating in a repressive state in which a military government actually attacks humanitarian workers, health workers, and civilians in conflict areas. We’ve seen that in the past couple of months most intensely in the Southeast, but also in Kachin State, Chin State, and Sagaing. This is the real challenge moving forward: how do you deal with an ongoing conflict and actually get aid to people under a repressive military dictatorship?

At the same time,all actors inside the country—not just INGOs but also domestic humanitarian agencies and civil society, or what they call “local responders”—are going to have to contend with crises that they couldn’t have conceived of even just several months ago, in places like Mindat in Chin state. There have been more than 10,000 people displaced from fighting in that area, and tens of thousands of people displaced by conflict in Hlaing Tharyar, in the peri-urban areas of Yangon. Urban displacement urban humanitarian needs are something that colleagues of mine are now looking at.

And then there has been renewed conflict fronts in places like Kayah. Just consider for a minute that in the past few weeks, more than 100,000 people have been displaced by armed conflict in Kayah State, one of the smallest states in the entire country. Their ability to get food aid, medical assistance, cash assistance, and non-food items are stretching domestic humanitarian capacity to breaking point. We are also seeing this military government targeting humanitarian work more than they were doing before the coup. Humanitarian negotiation moving forward is going to be incredibly difficult; dealing with an incredibly troglodyte, caveman dictatorship like the SAC, inasmuch as they don’t care about humanitarianism, as much as they care about human rights.

One of the things that I found quite perplexing before the coup, is something that the international development, humanitarian complex likes to call the ‘nexus’. Many people in the UN and other agencies believed that Myanmar was this crucial case where fusing humanitarianism and development could work. But conversations and observations that I had before the coup and before the pandemic showed that this nexus simply wasn’t working. The nexus is founded on an expectation that humanitarianism was old school. But I saw that in Rakhine and parts of the North, and parts of the Southeast, despite lingering humanitarian concerns, development actors were coming in with hundreds of millions of dollars. These actors worked with the USDP, the NLD, and even the military. Many people thought the military was a rational partner in this process, which was delusional in retrospect. Now the nexus seems completely broken. A lot of the donors have left the country. A lot of the loans that were going to come for big projects— bridges, roads, infrastructure, all of this stuff— is on hold for the foreseeable future. Humanitarianism really is the only core group left standing.

I do want to talk a little bit about the peace part of that nexus because I think it is quite germane to any conversation about Myanmar moving forward. The peace process in Myanmar was dead before the coup. Any attempt to reprise it is, I think, folly.  The UN did not have any formal part in the peace process; it was just an observer. A lot of the Western donors to the peace process saw it as this siloed entity through which they could absolve themselves from manifold failings in Rakhine state. These donors thought that if only they pump more money into peace process, then there would be something that would allow large-scale development to come in and assist the country.

These arguments are now completely dead in the water and humanitarianism really is the only thing left today. This means by engaging through humanitarianism, the international community can actually help practically, not just imposing sanctions and releasing statements. They can address urgent needs in the country. The present situation really compels Western donors, particularly, to prioritize humanitarian assistance moving forward.

Now to end on some possible pathways forward. If I sound provocative, it’s intentional, because I think these issues should be debated in all halls of power. I think anyone designing international pressure and sanctions on Myanmar should be looking at humanitarianism, albeit not as something to politicize or instrumentalize in any way. The international community has to stay committed to life-saving humanitarian operations. I do not think that humanitarian assistance should be captured by any kind of isolationist tendencies. In addition, we need to understand that that there are many different ways to approach the rising crises all around the country. An intervention in one part of the country is not going to look the same way in another.

Let me illustrate how diverse the humanitarian situation can be. In Rakhine, after two and a half years of pretty hardcore conflict in which more than 200,000 people—most of them not Rohingya but ethnic Rakhine and other ethnicities—were displaced by that conflict, things have been strangely calm over the past several months, as the Arakan Army negotiates with the Tatmadaw for its own administration. But still there’s great humanitarian needs and regard. This includes the 130,000 internally displaced Rohingya who are in detention camps, who have been there for nearly 10 years. There’s also Kachin protracted displacement, as well as new Kachin communities who have been displaced over the past four months. And then there is northern Shan State, where there is a dynamic multi-sided conflict between multiple armed actors and lots of people being displaced multiple times during the year. Don’t let the figures fool you. If you see 8,000 people displaced in northern Shan State and think that that’s a pittance compared to anywhere else, take a closer look. These are people that have been displaced multiple times. We are talking about 40,000 people in one year and it has been mainly local humanitarian groups responding to that.

Moving forward, Western donors need to be adaptive and flexible towards these emerging challenges. They need to stay attuned to places that they didn’t expect to see humanitarian challenges flare up in, whether it’s in Chin State or Kayah. There could be more; there is no certainty in post-coup Myanmar. And again, humanitarian support should not be held hostage to the well-meaning clamor for sanctions and pressure. However, we cannot see the humanitarian crisis in isolation from a human rights catastrophe. Donors often want to separate these things, but you cannot uncouple a repressive military and then multiple armed groups from the human rights dimension.

One of the priorities moving forward has to be in supporting Myanmar civil society and local humanitarian actors throughout the country. Before the coup and before the pandemic, lots of humanitarian actors and donors were talking about localization and remote management. These great buzzwords have gone from being theoretical aspirations to a matter of great urgency. If there’s anything that gives me hope, it is that a lot of humanitarian actors that are around the country—who are from Myanmar—are way ahead in this. People from Kachin, Karen and parts of Shan have been meeting humanitarian challenges themselves. I think they’re the ones that need to be supported. Humanitarian support should not just be loads of money going to the United Nations; it should be about mandating that money actually goes to humanitarian actors on the ground who are the best ones to actually navigate all these challenges.

I think most people can agree that the SAC and the Tatmadaw are the main obstacle. However, a lack of flexibility, a lack of originality, a lack of daring, and risk avoidance on the part of Western donors is a major problem as well.

Finally, seeing the United Nations as the one to save Myanmar in terms of humanitarian action is misguided, unfortunately. I think the United Nations has failed Myanmar on a whole number of levels. Anyone who sees the UN as the vehicle to actually respond to a lot of these humanitarian challenges will likely be misguided. The UN often has a knee jerk reaction to move towards the government that they can deal with, and in the process ends up abandoning a lot of progressive civil society and local humanitarian actors. No one has the right answers. But the nearest thing to a right answer is actually working with local communities and finding ways to support them.

Kristina Eberbach: Thank you and I’d like to remind everyone that you can submit a question anonymously. I’ll share a question to get us started. David, you mentioned that the humanitarian lens is the primary framework as opposed to development, but you also talked about this important relationship between human rights and humanitarian assistance.

And I know, depending on who you talk to, human rights and humanitarianism are viewed as complementary or conflicting. I’m curious in this context: what do you see as the primary areas for collaboration, as well as the primary points of potential tension?

David Mathieson: There are going to be lots of points of contention.

Humanitarian actors from my experience are far more attuned to the human rights dimensions of this than development actors. Development actors in Myanmar always hide behind these insanely anodyne buzzwords and terms like ‘conflict sensitivity’ and ‘do no harm’. They say: well, we’ve done our due diligence; we’ve done this report and we’re not going to mess up. Well, they mess up all the time.

Myanmar was meant to be this flagship engagement case for rights for the United Nations; in the end, it was anything but. The United Nations was not a leader in promoting human rights in Myanmar over the past 10 years. There were also a lot of Western donors who paid lip service to human rights, but were really thinking: if we pour in hundreds of millions of dollars, if people get jobs, if we improve standards of living, and if we have a peace process then the human rights issues will dissipate and humanitarian issues will be reduced. That just was not the case. It was evident to a lot of my colleagues working not just in conflict areas, but across the country, that this formulation was absurd. I think that’s where international engagement really lost its way. In the past ten years issues of human rights, accountability, genuine rule of law was lost, and many donors were like: let’s “development” ourselves out of this problem.

The coup seized people’s attention. They had taken their eyes off the military, and thus taken their eyes off the fact that there was an ongoing human rights crisis overlaying a humanitarian crisis throughout the country. Now with the coup, the country has to face this. And so, I wouldn’t put any faith in any donor any international actor that privileges development over the promotion of human rights and accountability in emergency humanitarian situations.

Ben Fleming (he/him): Thanks Dave. I have so many questions but I’m trying to meld them with some of them that are that are pouring in from the audience. Talking about humanitarian aid, it seems to me, is a problem of distribution. The SAC is no longer just 25% of the parliament and their three ministries, as they were before the coup. Now, they have access to the entire cabinet and control of the budget. So, how does money pour into local communities? This goes with one of our anonymous questions, asking: how do you enhance cross-border assistance through Thailand? Is it more through public pressure or is it through quiet diplomacy?

David Mathieson: One of the biggest challenges is that the SAC has destroyed the economy and the banking sector. This has ruined almost all means of actually getting money to the people who need it. Increasingly, they’re also destroying supply chains; the means of production. That’s why I’m emphasizing humanitarian assistance, because I think livelihoods throughout the country are already incredibly disrupted by this coup. I think that a lot of donors need to think far more artfully than they’re usually comfortable with, in order to get lifesaving assistance to people. And, as I was saying, I think that’s going to look very different in different parts of the country.

Cross-border assistance was done, in my view, pretty well from the Thai Burma border for many years. There, you have really good partners that really know what they’re doing, from Karen, Karenni, and Mon civil society. They’ve continued because it’s not as if these conflicts in the Southeast went away when the international donors turned up. The peace industrial complex would like to beguile you with notions that the Southeast was a post-conflict environment—that is absurd rubbish to anyone who actually cared to look at the situation. So, in the Southeast, there are a great many actors who can absorb financial assistance. I also think discretion and making sure that it’s going to the right people can be done, if people do it in in the right way. What we don’t need is donors blundering around trying to stick a label on everything, or advertise what they’re doing. Donors need to prioritize actually getting financial support and food aid and lots of other things to people in need. In these areas, donors also should not just be looking at active conflict zones, but actually looking at urban displacement. A lot of colleagues of mine are looking at the potential for future urban displacement in Kayah, for example.

The capacity within Myanmar is there if the financial assistance is forthcoming, but that’s got to be done in very artful, innovative ways, to get around the logistical challenges of getting money there and finding and sourcing the supplies.

Kristina Eberbach: I’m wondering if you could elaborate on some of those artful ways without perhaps undermining those using them.

David Mathieson: Not in a detail. Basically, it’s about finding different ways to get money to the right people in a broken banking system and with disruptions to the Internet and everything else.

But I do see that there’s this reluctance on the part of donors, who go: “isn’t that kind of semi-legal?” Or “it’s not just not the way you would normally do it.” That’s the overarching thing that I was trying to say. There’s lots of donors going, “we really want to help, and how do we help?” But then they say, “oh, that doesn’t look good on a log frame” or “that’s not going to look good back in capital.” There’s a disassociation between what their political masters are saying—that you should help people—and what they’re willing to do even though there is actually the capacity on the ground to absorb it.

Donors should also realize that what they’re doing is actually laying the foundation for future support. This is not like a one-off; it’s the ability to actually start helping people long-term that builds into the future. This will be a protracted conflict, so they should be trying to figure out mechanisms in which you can sustain that assistance.

Sorry, I know that’s quite vague but it’s the conversation that a lot of people are having.

Ben Fleming (he/him): So humanitarianism can cover all manner of sins; we could be talking about aid and we can be talking about fighting. If I’m hearing you right, you’re advocating for guerrilla humanitarian distribution of aid; for breaking the old structures and doing it as needed.

That turns me to a question from a young teenager here, asking what role they have as a teenager in improving humanitarianism. I might be reading too much into it, but it seems to me that it might be a way of asking about the use of violence. We’ve seen reports of attacks against the Tatmadaw, against the police, and the killing of informants. Is there room for that strategy? Is that the only way that we can maybe buy time?

I think economic catastrophe is a given at this point and we’re just trying to narrow the window of how long that’s going to last. How do we narrow that window? It’s a hard thing to even talk about from a human rights standpoint, but if we have no staging areas, we have no hope of intervention. Must it remain peaceful? Should it remain peaceful?

David Mathieson: I don’t think that that’s my place to say. I respect that if self-defense is the path that you choose, then so be it. My approach for many years, being a human rights worker is that, you’re being criticized for not taking a side. It’s something I’ve been charged with before but I’ve always taken a side and that’s the side of the victim. And there is a way that you can say look, if you want to resist, that’s completely up to you, I make no judgment on that. This is where international humanitarian law and human rights law comes in. You, me, and Kristina—and internationals—have the right to judge the conduct of armed conflict, but not the decision to engage in it.

My view is, if you support a free, democratic, accountable Myanmar, then there are many different people in that country who are trying to resist this seizure of power by the SAC. Some are peaceful, some are very innovative, some of it is done through humanitarianism, and some of it is done through local support for education and health. It isn’t just about violent insurrection. To me, the immediate need is to sustain life and help people in need. What they do with that life afterwards is their decision, in my view. In other words, you’ve got to keep people healthy, so that they can make the choice about how they resist an illegal regime.

I think this dilemma reveals one of these cycles of international donor hand-wringing. They love the early stages of a crisis, where it’s like, “peaceful demonstrations, isn’t that fantastic?” But the moment it turns even a little bit violent, it’s “no, we can’t stand that; we can’t support anything like that.” Donors are finding ways to move towards the SAC, in my view, by coming up with incredibly idiotic terms like “exit ramps”, and ways to get out of this. It’s insane. They basically see people resisting in a very violent manner and assume that everyone else that’s resisting the coup is like that. That’s absurd, reductionist thinking that should be rejected. Your role as a humanitarian donor is to actually support life-saving assistance, of which there are huge needs in the country, many of which are not involved in armed resistance.

We’re going to have to grapple with all of these moral conundrums moving forward. I don’t think that the idea that some of this assistance might be siphoned off by armed actors should inhibit any international donors. Be artful in the way that you’re trying to get assistance to people. As long as you don’t have the CIA or MI6 actually channeling weapons to parts of the resistance, then you know, get over yourselves.

And you know, this whole Syria analogy is utterly idiotic. Myanmar is not Syria, Myanmar is Myanmar. No one’s thinking of arming one side. I say this out of all sympathy to people in Syria; international powers really messed up that conflict and I don’t think there’s any real fear so far that that’s going to happen to Myanmar. So get over yourselves and get rid of the Syria analogy, and actually find ways to help millions of people who need life-saving assistance and emphasize that. That’s where you can actually do something good instead of these banal statements that capitals constantly put out.

Kristina Eberbach: Thank you, we have another question from the audience. You suggested that the localization agenda seems to be the best option at this point. But do you think that it would put local organizations in a very risky position, given the current level of suppression? We’ve already heard news about arbitrary rest of local humanitarian actors. What do you think the donors can do to strike a balance between moving things forward through localization and making sure of the safety and security of the local organizations?

David Mathieson: That’s a very good question. Local actors are definitely at risk, but a lot of them have also been confronting these risks for many years, especially in Kachin, the Southeast and northern Shan. Local humanitarian actors and lots of local employees of INGOs know far better than foreigners how to navigate this and they find ways. The post-coup environment is far more violent and unpredictable than four months ago, but still you’re talking about a lot of people who really had the ability to assess the security dilemma and find ways to circumvent it. Without in any way trying to underestimate the risks, I think there are lots of people who understand how to do this.

That’s where, again, I find the UN and some of the Western donors quite frustrating. They talk about empowerment, which is such a horrible, demeaning term, since a lot of these people are already empowered. They’re helping their own communities and they know what they’re doing.

If they say that they can do it, then give them the money to do it. They know the risks better than a donor sitting in an embassy. Don’t ever try to think that you can push them into risk-taking behavior because a lot of these people know exactly what they’re doing and they’re going to rebuff you.

You know, “localization” has been a buzzword for a lot of humanitarian actors, who take it from the Grand Bargain and the World Humanitarian Summit. But a lot of people in Myanmar were far advanced of what foreigners were conceiving as localization. So, in other words, follow their lead, because they are the ones that are going to do this and help their own people and their own constituencies.

Read Part 2 of the interview here. (Part 2 will be published on July 8, and the link will be active then)

(Featured image courtesy of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights)

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