Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk

Nick Cumming-Bruce
15 December 2006

At Three Pagodas Pass, a bustling border gateway between Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, Hla, a slender woman of 20 years, is living the slogan on her tee-shirt. "Get rich or die trying", it reads.

To improve her quality of life, she left her family and job in a Rangoon (Yangon) bakery last month and travelled to Three Pagodas Pass. Selling herself for sex seemed a better prospect. She wants to save up the equivalent of around $250, she says, and go home in a year or two with what she would consider a ticket to a better life. She knows of other women who prospered this way. But earning a few dollars a trick, there's only a slim chance she'll achieve even her modest material ambitions There is probably a bigger risk that she'll contract HIV and die trying.

Hla's choices are remarkable partly for being so unexceptional. More than a million people have left Burma, fugitives of political repression, brutal army campaigns against sputtering armed resistance by ethnic minorities in eastern states but mostly from the destitution inflicted on Burma by half a century of dictatorial misrule. A flourishing industry trafficking women like Hla to the brothels of Thailand provides one pointer to the poverty at home.

Nick Cumming-Bruce is a British journalist currently based in Bangkok where he has worked as a correspondent for the Guardian, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune.

Also by Nick Cumming-Bruce on openDemocracy:

"Thailand: a coup for democracy?" (20 September 2006)

"Thailand's high-stakes gamble" (9 October 2006)

A bleak environment

None of which is news. Accounts of brutal repression and social hardship have provided the staple of reporting from Burma for much of the past two decades. Every year, new refugees cross the border into Thailand with fresh testimony of killings, torture, rape and destruction of villages and crops by troops advancing through border states - campaigns that relief agencies in Thailand report were marked by "systematic and widespread human-rights abuses and humanitarian atrocities" that have displaced more than half a million people still inside Burma. And yet, two years after the purge of former prime minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004 gave them the ascendancy within the junta, hardliners among the ruling generals are pursuing policies that threaten to drive the population into deeper poverty and hardship.

Those who get out of Burma leave a country where close to one-third of children under five suffer malnutrition. The United Nations estimates that more than 30% of the total population lives in poverty, and in some areas the figure is much higher. In a country that once boasted among the best educated populations in southeast Asia, half Burma's school-age children now never enrol and less than one-third complete five years of primary education. "All over the country, signs of economic breakdown and social disorder are becoming ever more evident", says a briefing paper published by the International Crisis Group on 8 December 2006.

Burma's political environment remains equally bleak. Calls for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi fell on deaf ears and more than 1,100 political prisoners were arrested or continued to be detained by generals determined to keep an iron grip on national life as Burma inches towards a constitution that should supposedly usher in political reforms. The junta's nominal willingness to address abuses such as forced labour have seen little practical implementation. "Wanton criminality" on the part of police, soldiers and local government officials poses a growing threat to ordinary people in Burma, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) asserts.

A crisis over aid

In this environment, ruling generals pour dollars into buying weapons that underpin their brutal rule but international agencies estimate they spend barely $10 million a year on health. Indeed, most of the spending on health comes from foreign aid, which doubled in the four years to 2005. Yet driven apparently by their chauvinism and suspicion of foreigners, the junta is piling pressure and restrictions on international humanitarian agencies that complicate, and in some areas undermine, the delivery of relief.

An announcement on 27 November by the normally tight-lipped International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that it may close its mission in Burma because of restrictions the junta imposed on its operations is a recent sign of the harsher line. "The confrontation highlights the extent to which the regime does not understand how humanitarian organisations operate and what they are trying to accomplish", said Charles Petrie, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Rangoon.

For seven years the ICRC has visited detainees in prison; in 2005 alone it met more than 3,000 prisoners in fifty-five locations and provided kits, including basics such as soap, for 50,000 prisoners. Through five field offices, it has been able to assess conditions in areas of conflict, providing food and medicine to communities in need and provide prostheses to landmine victims. Under its own strict rules of engagement, the ICRC keeps its findings confidential.

In December 2005, however, the junta said ICRC staff visiting prisoners had to be accompanied by a member of the pro-junta movement, the Union Solidarity and Development Association. That breached the principle of confidentiality that the ICRC holds as a non-negotiable condition for prison visits worldwide and prompted it to suspend those visits. On 23 October 2006, the junta told the ICRC to close its field offices.

A senior junta official commented that closure of field offices was just a temporary measure, yet ICRC reported that its efforts to discuss the issues with the government ran into official stonewalling. A meeting with Burma's ambassador to the UN in November similarly made no headway. "There has been a breakdown of discussions", ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad said. "If the situation does not unblock in the coming weeks we would have to close our offices."

An announcement on 14 December that the ICRC's offices were to be permitted to reopen suggests that the ICRC's behind-the-scenes diplomacy may be producing results. On 8 December in Naypyidaw, a delegation from the ICRC had met Burma's interior minister Maung Oo, who (according to the ICRC's Thierry Ribaux) "confirmed that our field offices in border areas could reopen, and we take good note of that."

If it were obliged to leave, the ICRC would not be the first international agency to be put in such a position by the Burmese authorities. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria ended its aid programme in Burma in August 2005, cutting off some $85 million of pledged but unspent aid, citing the difficulty of operating under new rules and procedures imposed on partner agencies. Médecins Sans Frontières (France) withdrew in March 2006, declaring it "impossible" to deliver the assistance it previously provided to the population in eastern Karen and Mon states hard hit by fighting. Those that remain face increasingly intrusive monitoring by security agencies, restrictions on staff access to areas where they work and added layers of bureaucracy.

Also on Burma in openDemocracy:

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role" (8 August 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "A reality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

A need to be there

International organisations are not the only ones targeted by the regime. Local community-based and self-help groups are coming under growing pressure to work alongside government-directed mass organisations in a drive to make pro-regime bodies appear the driving force for social and economic development. "The regime will close what it can't control", says Debbie Stothard of the Thailand-based human-rights monitoring group Alternative Asean Network on Burma (Altsean); "it does not like anyone else to get credit for work in the community."

Against this background, international aid agencies are already under scrutiny for their ability to deliver assistance to those who need it. "What we see on the ground is a mosaic of challenges and opportunities", says the UN's Petrie. The enforcement of regulations often varies according to location and the individual military commanders and officials in the area, he notes. "It is still possible to operate but it is more difficult and more complex."

It's also clear that any ICRC pull-out could prove a serious setback to the broader outlook for humanitarian aid. The issue comes up just as a new Three Disease (3D) Fund, financed by western governments, is gearing up to begin operations in 2007 to fill the gap left by the Global Fund.

International aid agency workers fear that, notwithstanding the junta's apparent change of mind, a refusal to allow an organisation of the ICRC's professionalism and political neutrality to continue to operate would risk undermining donor confidence in and support for the new fund. If that programme can't move forward, warns Petrie, "it will make life exceedingly difficult."

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