Recently, as staff from international organizations departed for safety, the emergency humanitarian needs of local people in Myanmar have been escalating exponentially due to the junta’s terror attacks. This stark contrast reveals what Myanmar people have understood for decades amid the military’s horrific violence: local civil society actors are the first and most trusted responders to their communities’ humanitarian needs. Exacerbated by the junta’s collective punishment of civilians, the worsening humanitarian crisis demands the international aid community to urgently reconstruct its approach in Myanmar by directly supporting locally-led, frontline humanitarian aid providers across Myanmar through cross-border channels.
On 15 November, the Karenni Revolutionary Forces, the Karenni State Interim Executive Council, and the National Unity Government (NUG) – assisted by local civil society organizations (CSOs) – coordinated the evacuation of 228 individuals from Loikaw, Karenni State. The evacuees are employees of United Nations (UN) agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and their family members. Thirty-three vehicles carried them from Loikaw, Karenni State, to Taunggyi, Shan State. In announcing the evacuation, the NUG stated, “While UN and INGO staff and family members were able to leave safely, many people are remained [sic] trapped inside Loikaw and are still in the danger zone.”
Since the attempted coup, UN agencies and many INGOs have employed a flawed approach to operating in Myanmar despite civil society’s vehement objections – signing memoranda of understanding with, and submitting credentials to, the junta, meeting with junta members, and posing for junta-directed photos that are used for propaganda – in hopes of nominal access. Regarding these engagements, the UN has claimed, “It is critical for us to have the humanitarian space we need for safe, sustained aid deliveries around the country.” This is an unfounded excuse, emboldening the junta to continue weaponizing aid and attacking civilians. Now, with resistance forces gaining further territorial control, the access and credentials of the UN and INGOs – dependent on the failing junta – will eventually lose all meaning.
Nevertheless, at a critical moment of escalating need for aid, the UN and INGO staff left Loikaw as quickly as possible. Remaining behind in steadfast solidarity with their own communities, local civil society actors continue working tirelessly to meet emergency needs that the UN and INGOs simply cannot. For example, in collaboration with other local organizations, the Karenni Humanitarian Aid Initiative has been rescuing trapped civilians however possible. As shown in Karenni State, clearly stated by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, and echoed by other local organizations, “in reality, community-based organizations operating on the ground have the access, resources and insight that NGOs and UN-affiliated groups do not.”
In fact, across Myanmar, local civil society groups have taken humanitarian assistance into their own hands for decades, developing trusted networks and systems to ensure efficient, effective, and dignified aid delivery. While the junta blocks roads, waterways, and mobile networks to prevent the delivery of humanitarian assistance, local community-based organizations (CBOs) and CSOs use their extensive knowledge and longstanding local relationships to distribute aid quickly. Without making any deals with the junta, CBOs and CSOs maintain effective, unmatched access. In Sagaing Region – where the junta has torched thousands of homes and caused mass displacement – grassroots civil society actors currently provide humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons in five districts, reaching more than 70 villages.
Echoing this reality, in Beyond the ‘Egosystem’: A case for locally led Humanitarian Resistance, Adelina Kamal, former Executive Director of ASEAN’s humanitarian wing, observes that in Myanmar, most UN agencies and INGOs “have not been able to quickly adapt their humanitarian approaches to respond to the unique phenomena of this crisis.” In re-imagining their approach, Kamal calls for international actors to support local communities’ resiliency by siding with the anti-military resistance humanitarianism practiced by frontline responders across the country – rather than continuing the top-down aid paradigm that has failed Myanmar people.
Thus, if the international community genuinely wants to help Myanmar people achieve a durable solution, the next steps are clear. First, all engagements with the junta must end. The international community must recognize, once and for all, that humanitarian aid through the junta cannot and will not reach the communities in direst need, but has been and continues to be possible through locally-led cross-border channels. Attempting to guarantee access has never been nor will ever be a valid justification for engaging with the junta – the root cause of Myanmar’s human rights and humanitarian crisis.
Second, to earnestly support the extraordinary efforts of Myanmar’s frontline resistance humanitarians, the international community must provide robust support directly to civil society groups through locally-led cross-border channels. As Myanmar’s humanitarian emergency worsens, civil society actors have noticed a dearth of international aid, with communities barely surviving on local people-to-people funding. It is high time for international aid money to actually reach the people, instead of lining the illegal junta’s pockets while lending it legitimacy. This can happen if the international community puts its trust and investment in local organizations who have proven well-equipped to meet emergency needs and save lives – in sharp juxtaposition with the UN and many INGOs’ negligible efforts to protect Myanmar people.
Local CSOs, CBOs, and other frontline responders helping their own communities is – and has been for decades – the most efficient and sustainable approach to effectively address Myanmar’s humanitarian catastrophe. This local resiliency is also the foundation for a future, federal democratic Myanmar. Now more than ever before, the international community must urgently reconstruct its approach to align with this reality and support the Myanmar people’s unwavering humanitarian resistance.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By 14 International Non-Governmental Organizations
By Association of Southeast Asian Nations
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, ND-Burma and Spring Archive
By REDRESS, Justice For Myanmar and Australian Centre for International Justice
By UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
By Women’s Peace Network
By Adelina Kamal, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, ND-Burma, Spring University and Spring Archive
By Karenni Civil Society Network
By UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”