Humanitarian Considerations in Myanmar: A Discussion with David Mathieson (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part ISHR interview with David Mathieson, an independent analyst researching and working on human rights and humanitarian issues in Myanmar. Read Part 1 here.

[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.]

Ben Fleming: Dave, you brought up sanctions and an appetite to see well-crafted ones brought in. If we can jump a little bit from the micro to the macro, a lot of people are arguing, including Thant Myint-U, that if Beijing isn’t involved in some way, sanctions are going to be meaningless. They’ve also argued that the only entity that is set up to weather the crisis that’s coming is the Tatmadaw itself. So, what do you think that engagement should look like, and what are the pressure points that we might be able to press? Do you agree with that judgment, or do you have another point of view?

David Mathieson: Will the recent sanctions have the desired effect of convincing the SAC and Min Aung Hlaing to relinquish power? No. Have they been directed to the right entities and the right people? Yes. They’re symbolic. They probably won’t have the desired effect if the desired effect was handing over power back to the NLD and the elected parliament.

One thing the West has been completely misguided on, is this idea that you can impose some sanctions and then get the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be the vanguard of international diplomatic efforts. That’s about the most morally, intellectually, common-sense bankrupt, idiotic idea I’ve come across. Anyone that believes that ASEAN is capable of anything more than a round of golf is deluding themselves. Forget ASEAN, continue to impose those sanctions and that’s where, I think, Australia, should be quite ashamed! Their idea that it can engage with ASEAN and use its own contact with the military to create some kind of breakthrough without imposing sanctions is utterly absurd.

Now, the next step will be: can United Nations mediation efforts work? No. I don’t think, for all the well-meaning efforts of the UN Special Envoy, that she’s having really any impact that I see. As for engaging with Beijing, it’s important. Will you get what you really want out of it? Probably not. But it’s probably a much better expenditure of diplomatic capital than dealing with ASEAN. Forget about dealing with India, Japan, and South Korea. Forget about talking to Russia; they basically see Myanmar as a destination for weapons systems and that’s about it.

China really is the biggest question. Are Western powers—are the UK, the US, Canada, the EU, and Australia—going to expend much diplomatic capital to get China to change course? Probably not. But then again, it’s kind of like the arms embargo. It won’t work for so many different reasons, but it’s worth doing as a process of reminding people of who’s really behind all of this, and anything that unsettles the SAC and Min Aung Hlaing is worth pursuing in my view.  If he sits in Naypyidaw and sees that the West is engaging Beijing, even if it doesn’t work, hopefully it gives him a sleepless night.

Kristina Eberbach: There are a couple questions about not just the response to the violations that have occurred, but how we stop this in the first place. And there’s a question about Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and going through the UN. While appreciating that this is a very large and difficult question, what are your thoughts on not just the response, but on the prevention of atrocities?

David Mathieson: I found that there was a hint of desperation on the part of those protesters who came out peacefully in February and March, calling for international assistance and R2P. I think that was built up in the aftermath of the horrors of Rakhine in 2017. A lot of the government in Naypyidaw thought that R2P was a precursor to a Western military intervention, and so it became this discussion in Myanmar. As for me, and I’m not wanting to discredit the principles behind it, but as an effective instrument for statecraft it’s not even a tool. Mainly, it’s a talking item.

I think that there were a lot of misguided expectations put in there, but I would wrap that up in a lot of disappointment in the United Nations and the West. Very angry reactions towards the United Nations started coming out in April, and I think people are quite right to dismiss the UN system and those kinds of international engagement. I think that there was a slow, dawning realization that the West had basically been setting up a betrayal of the entire movement, and so all considerations to what the West can actually do should be severely curtailed. The West is not really coming to help, aside from some sanctions and some diplomatic pressure. That’s why one concrete thing that the UN, the West, can do is supporting ongoing humanitarian assistance.

I think the UN Secretary General is just looking for reelection; the good offices mandate is now out of date; the UN Security Council will never really do anything that’s meaningful; and all respect to the UN Special Rapporteur—I think he’s doing a very good job—but there are limitations to the Human Rights Council. The false hope needs to stop and instead there needs to be messages of we can actually do to help.

I saw a message from [a participant] asking: “what is the best way to break down the idea of bureaucracy that seriously hinders good interventions? Rules around finance accounting and audits hinder funding for months.” You are right on the mark there.

I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the UN and donors, but a lot of INGOs and their bureaucracies are the enemy to good interventions as well. Many INGOs were like deer stuck in the headlights after the coup. They really weren’t expecting this to happen, and they were like, how do I renew my MOU with Naypyidaw, or where’s my line ministry? Even with hundreds of people murdered, 4,000 people in prison, and uprisings around the country, I think some INGO agencies are still like, “well, we can work in these areas, if only we have the right partner.”

These are not the people that I’m talking about. I’m talking about the INGOs that actually do

 do work in emergency settings and can actually balance life-saving assistance with promoting human rights and doing the right thing. I know that sounds outrageously utopian, but I think that there’s some agencies who are willing to do that, who are willing to stay and ride this out. But as you were saying, they need to change their modes of operation, and their finances.

Whenever Western donors talk about accountability, they’re talking about a relatively small amount of money that they want to see every “I” dotted and “T” crossed, when there’s no accountability for what donors themselves are doing. Their accountability is to actually start helping people and to do that, they should be a lot more flexibility in in their modalities. If you’re not, then pack up and go home, because you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ben Fleming: Dave, I’m going to ask you to be like a brand manager of some sort here. How would you go about making the argument that Burma/Myanmar is strategically important? Is there an avenue to gain international investment and attention, like the rise of methamphetamines or the degradation of the forest? How would you sell this to the UN or other interested governments?

David Mathieson: That’s a really good question, but it’s also a double-edged sword, because a lot of these problems of rampant methamphetamine production existed before the coup. However, there’s been some good analysis saying: well, those conditions were there, but the coup makes it more chaotic, which provides a vacuum for illicit economies to thrive. Already, we’re starting to see some methamphetamine production from northern Shan shift to southern and eastern Shan, and then into Laos, Cambodia, and the region.

Transnational criminal networks see Myanmar’s functional chaos, and think: this is what we like! They’ve always seen the Tatmadaw, the SAC, as a dependable partner. That’s one side of the double-edged sword. The other side of the sword is, if you propound that argument, foreign policymakers and thinkers are going to worry that Australia, Japan and Taiwan and all of Southeast Asia, will be awash in crystal meth and all these products; therefore, we have to work with an authority that can interdict. Well, in Myanmar, that’s the Myanmar police force.

The Myanmar police force is the partner that a lot of Western governments have worked with for years. If you look at the launch of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) synthetic drugs report yesterday, they talked a lot about this. But what the report did not say is that their natural partner is the Myanmar police force; that’s been their partner for years. This is the same police force that has been gunning down people around the country for the past four months.

And so in response to the argument that you’ve got this failed state and that all of these ills are going to spill over the border into the region: one, it’s already happening; two, the facilitator for these illicit economies is going to be the Tatmadaw. And yet the West is looking at this and going well, we need to work with the Tatmadaw to stem this because we don’t want to admit that they’re the ones who cause it.

In a longer historical view of this, that’s been the case. You could say the same about the heroin boom in the 70s and the 80s, when lots of Burmese heroin went to North America. You can also say it about the ‘yaba’ boom in in the 90s, which flooded Thailand with cheap meth. You can say that about the crystal meth boom over the past several years. The Myanmar military has been the overseer of this entire complex, and so this argument that the coup has created this chaotic laboratory for illicit items will lead to cooperating with the janitor. Instead, what you should be doing, if we really want to stop this, is getting rid of the SAC and getting the military under civilian control.

I want to be very blunt here. A lot of Western capitals just want this to go away and resume some kind of vexed, problematic, distasteful relationship with whoever is in power in Naypyidaw. They don’t realize that it’s against their interests and that it is definitely against the interests of the people in Myanmar. That to me is the biggest crime.

Ben Fleming: All right, well. Here’s the next question, verbatim. “As we all know, the recent so-called political issues in Myanmar have led to multiple forms of conflicts throughout the country. That has, unfortunately, resulted in a serious humanitarian situation. Do you think one way to resolve that issue would be a humanitarian ceasefire, and that this is something that the international actors should aim for? How do you think the multiple parties to the conflict, at this point, would be amenable to a thing like that?”

David Mathieson: The problem with that is that’s a very good idea, but the Tatmadaw has a ceasefire, and they’ve been having ceasefires for the past nearly three years. They announce a unilateral ceasefire and just keep fighting. That’s been the Tatmadaw’s modus operandi and it hasn’t benefited a lot of people around the country.

As for a humanitarian ceasefire nationwide, I don’t think that’s going to work. There are way too many actors involved. Localized humanitarian ceasefires are very good in principle, and I definitely agree with it. But the problem now is that there are so many multiple actors in so many different places, trying to get them all to agree, figuring out who they are for a start is going to be quite problematic. And another problem with humanitarian ceasefires is that, at certain points, they benefit one side or the other. I can’t see a nationwide humanitarian ceasefire having any effect because you’re dealing with an incredibly insincere partner in that ceasefire, which is the Tatmadaw.

Kristina Eberbach: We have one last question from the audience and then Ben has another one before we wrap up. This question is, “how does the CDM feed into humanitarian assistance that is needed? In urban areas of the Bamar heartland, would the CDM reinforce the Tatmadaw’s inclination to block assistance? It seems that we’ve seen an uptick in these blockages in recent weeks, as a version of the Tatmadaw’s Four Cuts.”

David Mathieson: That’s the dilemma you’ve got in urban areas. There are disruptions to food supply and a lot of working poor who are out of jobs, either because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or because of the coup and the disruptions it caused. They are going to need life-saving assistance, which the World Food Programme is already working on.

I would make a call that life-saving assistance is actually feeding very, very vulnerable people and assisting them, and that there shouldn’t be any blockade of things like that. There are lots of different ways that you can interdict the operations of the government and security forces, but I do think that urgent life-saving humanitarian assistance should not be a target by all sides. Anyhow, that’s very easy for me to say. It’s far more difficult to actually see it work on the ground. That’s going to be the challenge moving forward and, as I was saying earlier, it’s going to change from place to place. There’s going to be lots of intensive negotiations.

But yes, it’s going to be really interesting to see if the CDM is going to continue the struggle and all indications are that they will.

Ben Fleming: I hope they will, for as long as they can. Final question. There’s a lot of talk about the People’s Defence Force and uniting the EAOs into some sort of Federal Army. Given the mistrust, given the different strategies and needs of the EAOs, what is your hope? Which ones are likely to support a more federalist system, and which do you think are be more likely to just try to carve out their own territory and strengthen their position? Is there any hope among these groups of a coalition that can stall some of the actions of the SAC?

David Mathieson: I would certainly like to hope, but I think that there are all these expectations that the National Unity Government is going to be the one ring to rule them all. I just don’t think that’s realistic. I think that they’re weak, and I think there’s a question of legitimacy. I don’t want to dismiss them, because they are really trying quite hard, but it’s pretty challenging to actually form a parallel government-in-exile. I think armed organizations and ethnic communities, believe that the National League for Democracy, that had ignored them for the last 10 years, is now coming hat in hand to ask for assistance.

I think that a lot of these groups should resist the compulsion to control everything, and eschew the term “unity”. Unity is so problematic in Myanmar. Here, I want to invoke one of the great thinkers of modern Myanmar, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, who passed away nearly 20 years ago. He talked about different approaches to a common vision; that we don’t all have to kind of work together in a highly structured machine; we can all work to the same purpose of a federal democratic union but do it in different ways, as long as we’re talking to each other.

I have to resist the idea of a neat resistance complex, within which people can figure out who they can talk to. By definition, it’s going to be incredibly complicated, messy, and dysfunctional because that’s just the reality of the situation. I think that all of these disparate forces, whether it’s PDFs in Sagaing, EAOs in Shan state and the Southeast, or people in the cities who are resisting the coup, could be like, “look we’re doing our thing. And we all agree on getting rid of the Tatmadaw and overturning the coup is good enough for us, we don’t have to join forces.” And people on the outside should be aware that it’s going to be incredibly messy and unfortunately incredibly violent, but that’s just the reality that the SAC has made.

And so I do think that there are potentially some good conversations to come out of all this about what a federal democratic Union is going to look like. There’s going to be a kaleidoscope of views. And even with the embattled reality of a lot of these groups, at least they’re having that conversation which the NLD wasn’t having. Maybe that’s a very positive thing to move past the way that Myanmar was set up for twenty years, when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest; to embrace the fact that there’s not one narrative, under one charismatic leader. People have been politically socialized—and unfortunately in some cases radicalized—by some of this, but look at it potentially as an awakening, and as something to build on. That’s a very positive side, I think. Thant Myint-U just had a piece in Foreign Affairs, in which he said a very similar thing: this is a time to think of a new Myanmar.

There are a lot of people—friends of mine—who are incredibly cynical and traumatized by what’s been going on the past four months, but they’re still thinking through a lot of these things. Our role as foreigners is to find every way to support them without getting in the way of what they’re doing. Our role should be to provide any kind of material support—financial or logistical—to support this revolution, and not get involved in these debates. We should just try and understand it from their perspective.

Ben Fleming: I think that’s a perfect way to wrap up actually.

Kristina Eberbach: Before we do, are there any concluding thoughts that you want to end with?

David Mathieson: I do want to end on a positive note. There have been undoubted horrors and things will continue to get bad, but I think anyone who’s worked on Myanmar as a foreigner, for the past twenty years or more, has seen some really good things happen and lots of bad things as well. We could see this very dark period as incredibly depressing, but also, I think the future of the country is the people from Myanmar. It’s not from the outside, or about sanctions, pressure, and donors. It’ll be about the people of Myanmar and that to me is quite inspiring.

For anyone who wants to support the resistance, the revolution, we have to find small, modest ways to help people achieve that. That’s by being friends and providing financial assistance in any way that we can, but never giving up, because I don’t think all those people in Myanmar are giving up either.

That would be my final concluding thought for all of these hand-wringing foreigners who see Myanmar as a failed state to walk away from, or as a great disappointment. Don’t think that! You’ve got to be there at this hour of need and be in it for the long run. And there are a lot of committed people, so don’t betray them by walking away.

Kristina Eberbach: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and thank you everyone for joining us.

If you’d like to learn more about upcoming webinars please visit our website, which is in the chat and we also really welcome recommendations of topics that you’d like to see us address through this series. You can email us at is hr@columbia.edu. We are also collaborating with the Tea Circle and we’ll have a YouTube link. Thank you again very much and we look forward to seeing the next time.

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

For more on the Institute of the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) at Columbia University, visit their Twitter and Facebook pages.