Burma’s wretched jails hold more than 1,100 political prisoners and, for six years, the International Committee of the Red Cross provided these opponents of the ruling junta with a measure of comfort – bringing doctors, soap, books and blankets and even repairing the water and sewerage systems. Confidential talks with inmates also helped the ICRC push authorities to improve conditions.
But this year the ICRC suspended its programme after the military rulers headed by General Than Shwe demanded that the foreign representatives should be accompanied on prison visits by members of government-affiliated groups – an unacceptable breach of confidentiality and Red Cross international practice.
The obstacles encountered by the Red Cross reflect the problems confronting other international aid groups as they seek to step up their work in Burma. It is a dilemma faced in many repressive countries: whether to follow a regime’s instructions and be accused of “subsidising” corrupt despots, or to resist and risk both the wrath of the regime and the future of the project. The answer is not obvious anywhere, least of all in Burma.
After years of trying to use the promise of aid as an incentive to push for democratic change, western governments are de-linking” politics from aid and are increasingly willing to finance medical, educational and welfare schemes for Burma. The country receives just about $3.50 in annual aid per capita, far less than any other poor country in the region or many “fragile states” globally.
Yet the military regime’s stance towards aid workers has hardened considerably since the late-2004 purge of General Khin Nyunt, the pragmatic prime minister who provided aid workers some space, albeit limited, to do their work.
“The humanitarian community is at a crossroads,” says Charles Petrie, the United Nations Development Programme’s resident co-ordinator in Burma. “The overall political environment is a lot more intense. If we are not able to get all political groups to understand that the response to acute suffering goes beyond politics, it is going to be exceedingly difficult to provide assistance.”
While many Burmese technocrats long for greater international co-operation, those now at the regime’s highest echelons view foreign assistance with intense suspicion. “They view westerners as liberals who are empowering the masses and [fear] that this will be a backdoor route to political change,” says one UN official.
But even many Burmese dissidents, eager for the junta’s demise, have their own distrust of aid workers – albeit for different reasons. In her brief spells of freedom from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi – Burma’s Nobel peace prize-winning democracy advocate – has expressed deep ambivalence towards aid and scepticism about its ability to improve people’s lives without fundamental change and better governance. Some exiles oppose aid as a “subsidy” for the regime’s weapons spending.
In this way, humanitarian aid to Burma has long been entangled in the prolonged stand-off between the junta and Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a landslide 1990 election victory but was barred from taking power. As long as Burma was not a mass catastrophe with millions starving under camera lights, the debate had little sense of urgency. But over the past four years, Burma’s HIV/Aids epidemic persuaded many western governments they could no longer wait for political change before responding to the pervasive problems of disease, chronic malnutrition and poverty.
However, the junta’s recent efforts to exert tighter controls over aid projects – which they suspect may be a covert means of undermining their authority – is threatening both existing and new initiatives such as the $100m fund to combat HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.
Viewed by the junta as “neo-colonials” impinging on Burma’s sovereignty, foreign aid workers have always been subjected to a time-consuming process securing permission for every trip they make, even to their own project sites. Access to eastern Burma, where the army has battled ethnic rebels for decades, is particularly difficult.
Mr Petrie says that a successful US push to put Burma on the agenda of the UN Security Council, citing the worsening humanitarian situation, has exacerbated tensions. “It has increased the sense among the senior leadership that we are nothing more than the extension of the west and the sanctions policy,” he says.
Now, as they move towards a public referendum on a new constitution that they hope will legitimise the military’s “leading role” over society, the generals have been pushing international agencies to work through junta-affiliated organisations, such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association. Ostensibly an independent social welfare organisation, the USDA is headed by a general and is expected to emerge as a pro-military political party in future elections.
Such obstacles have put aid efforts in jeopardy. Médicins Sans Frontières of France this year pulled out of a malaria project in eastern Burma, citing access difficulties to the conflict zone for its foreign staff. During October floods in the north, a Red Cross offer of help was met with demands to channel the relief through junta-affiliated groups, in effect thwarting the assistance.
Recently, the junta cancelled a $9m internationally-backed campaign to vaccinate around 13m children under the age of 10 against measles – which Unicef says kills some 1,200 Burmese children annually. In scaling back the immunisation programme to only those under two years old, the regime cited concerns that some children could suffer adverse reactions to the vaccines and that such cases would be used as anti-regime propaganda.
Amid these developments, the UN is now desperate to persuade sceptical Burmese leaders and wary pro-democracy activists that foreign aid is both genuinely needed and available – but will be delivered only through non-partisan entities. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN under-secretary general, delivered that message on a visit to Burma this month.
“It is a question of telling them to back off and getting the senior leadership and other political groups both inside and outside the country to understand that they have to work with us,” Mr Petrie says.
Whether or not Mr Gambari has succeeded in convincing the generals will be crucial for the future prospects of the new “Three Diseases Fund” established by the UK, European Commission, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, and a $43m educational initiative being planned by Unicef with the EU, UK, Norway and Denmark.
Even then, however, the battle to get aid through to Burma will go on. Says Mr Petrie: “There is an imperative to address certain aspects of human suffering and that imperative is different from the effort to promote political change.”