New law in Myanmar puts Europe’s humanitarian aid at risk

November 25th, 2022  •  Author:   Deutsche Welle (DW)  •  5 minute read
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Myanmar’s ruling military junta has issued new rules making it harder for foreign aid groups to operate in the country. NGO’s will need to adapt their strategies to reach those in need.

A new law in Myanmar that bans “indirect or direct” contact between aid providers and groups blacklisted by the military junta is set to severely impact deliveries of humanitarian assistance from the European Union to the war-torn country’s vulnerable communities

The EU has provided more than €50 million ($52 million) in aid to Myanmar since the military overthrew a democratically elected government in February 2021, unleashing an ongoing civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

What is the new law?

This newly proclaimed “Organization Registration Law” will impact how aid can be delivered across Myanmar and limits how local associations can work with international partners, according to officials at international aid agencies, who spoke to DW anonymously for security reasons.

Many local NGOs will not register, since they will not want to be seen as conferring legitimacy upon the junta, one aid worker said.

Failure to register is punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a fine of nearly €2,500.

The junta already has a vast list of civil society groups it claims to be “terrorist” and could expand it further to stifle international aid flows into territory controlled by anti-junta forces, which is estimated by various sources to be more than half of the country.

Aid groups need to be ‘creative’

Aid agencies will either have to keep on working with unregistered local groups and risk possible punishment by the authorities, or cease working with them, severely affecting the flow of humanitarian assistance, analysts say.

“In the short to medium-term, these restrictions on civil society groups will place a greater premium on the US and EU finding alternative routes for humanitarian assistance, probably from border-based programs that attempt to reach the interior of the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Because international donor agencies rely on these local NGOs for much of their programming and projects, “they will find it harder to independently deliver humanitarian aid in a way that keeps it out of the hands of the junta, and may also reduce or withdraw their assistance,” he told DW.

According to Kristina Kironska, a Bratislava-based academic who specializes in Myanmar, NGOs “will have to be much more creative to be able to send funds to Myanmar.”

The EU’s humanitarian funding “is channeled directly through humanitarian organizations,” according to a European Commission fact sheet. These are the same organizations that will be impacted by the law. The EU delivered €25 million in humanitarian funding for Myanmar last year and another €22.4 million was pledged in March this year, according to Commission statements.

It’s currently unclear what this new law will mean for aid delivery. “We are keeping a close eye on the situation to see how it evolves, and to make sure our partners delivering aid are not put in danger,” a Commission spokesperson told DW.

“What has not changed is the way we see the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, which has worsened dramatically since the military coup last year, with the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance increasing 14 times since 2021,” the spokesperson added.

Myanmar’s dire humanitarian situation

More than 5,600 civilians have been killed since the military seized power last year, according to a report published in May by the Institute for Strategy and Policy in Myanmar, a think tank.

The UN reckons the conflict has displaced more than 200,000 people within the country, in addition to around 370,000 who were displaced before February 2021.

That’s on top of nearly 1.1 million people of the Muslim Rohingya minority who fled the country, most to neighboring Bangladesh, after a military-orchestrated genocide began in 2017.

“Under the guise of preventing ‘supporting terrorism organizations,’ registering with the junta means humanitarian agencies are forced to stop partnering with local responders who have been on the ground delivering relief since day one,” said Khin Ohmar, chairperson of Progressive Voice, a leading civil society organization in Myanmar.

“In this sense, the bill lays bare the junta’s total disregard for the safety and well-being of civilians suffering from its constant atrocities,” she told DW.

Brussels imposed a fifth round of sanctions on the junta and its aligned businesses on November 8, the second anniversary of a free and fair election that gave the now-ousted National League of Democracy (NLD) a clear second mandate in government.

The new sanctions “come in addition to the withholding of EU financial assistance directly going to the government and the freezing of all EU assistance that may be seen as legitimizing the junta,” according to a Commission statement.

Much comes down to the semantics of whether an international NGO or local group that registers under the new junta-imposed law is perceived as legitimizing the junta.

According to Heidi Hautala, a European Parliament vice-president who steers debates in Myanmar, under these circumstances “it should be clear that registering does not imply any recognition of the junta.”

“The EU must stand by civil society organizations that refuse to register and find flexible mechanisms to support them,” she told DW.

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