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Published: March 17, 2021

Myanmar – shifts in the humanitarian landscape

By: Tara Arthur

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Each crisis in a humanitarian context tests NGOs’ security preparation and planning. The developments in Myanmar are no different. GISF's North America Projects and Membership Officer Tara Arthur asks what humanitarian security professionals can already learn from NGOs’ response to the current situation in Myanmar?

A snapshot of the current context

On February 1st, the Myanmar military (called the Tatmadaw) denounced the November 2020 elections as illegitimate, even though most outlets declared the National League for Democracy party (NLD) as the overwhelming winner. Military leaders deposed and detained the civilian NLD leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and imposed a one-year state of emergency. This turnaround follows a 10-year period during which Myanmar moved closer to democracy despite the military maintaining a guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats.

Compounding crises and multiple risks

 While navigating the current political events, humanitarian agencies address the Rohingya refugee crisis and the risk of Covid-19 further spreading in the country. In recent days, news outlets have reported spikes in violence, and dozens of protesters have been killed. The risks of being caught in the crossfire, inadvertently exposing communities to harm, or being detained, have prevented many operations from carrying on as usual. In addition to the harm and instability brought about by the government’s crackdown on protestors, the rise in demonstrations could increase Covid-19 transmissions, enhancing the pressure to provide medical care while relief delivery becomes more complex. The upcoming monsoon season and its associated floods in the region may further impede NGOs’ ability to respond to humanitarian needs.

The coming months will be challenging for NGOs operating in Myanmar. Continued violence in light of the military’s reassertion of control directly threatens NGO staff’s safety and security in the country. The new sanctions imposed by the United States, the United Kingdom and other governments could further exacerbate tensions, affecting international NGOs in-country and generating reputational and financial risks that may impact their work. The expected import constraints may well impact life-saving activities.

As risks to the humanitarian community increase, we know that the most vulnerable populations will feel the brunt of the impact.

Impacts on security risk management (SRM)

 The challenges that Myanmar faces test NGOs’ security risk assessments and contingency planning. Internet and telecommunications are unreliable and routinely shut down, preventing stable communications with staff and the sharing of security guidance. Reports of compromised communications and eavesdropping generate concerns about the confidentiality of the information shared, weakening the protection of both staff and the communities they work with. As more protesters are reportedly being detained and killed, NGOs will likely have to manage conflicting relationships between their staff and the government.

Additionally, access to cash has been restricted as banks have imposed limits on withdrawals. This makes it difficult for NGOs to pay staff members, which can result in economic anxiety. Understandably, this may impact the mental and physical well-being of staff members and their families. Country office staff who wish to return to their homes outside of Yangon face difficulties as movement becomes restricted and main routes are controlled by checkpoints. International staff members who remain in Myanmar may also find it increasingly difficult to leave the country as air travel has been severely disrupted. As the opportunities for staff to recharge with their family in a safe space diminish, the psycho-social burden on them can escalate.

But could NGOs have seen this coming? Were contingency plans and levels of preparedness strong enough to manage the situation? Each organisation should find answers to these questions and review how they have handled this crisis eventually. For now, the more pressing question is: what can NGOs learn from the current situation, and how can they prepare for the coming challenges?

  • Managing cash flow – the decision to pay staff’s salary at the beginning of the crisis has helped some organisations to better weather the financial restrictions imposed. As restrictions carry on, ensuring access to cash will be essential.
  • Providing psycho-social support – the current violence and tensions reported increase the risk of staff facing mental and physical trauma. To address these risks, humanitarian organisations may need to review and adjust their capacity to offer psycho-social support to their colleagues on the ground.
  • Maintaining safe communications – the issue of growing communications surveillance and networks shutdowns is unlikely to disappear. Investing in techniques and tools to secure confidential communications is critical to protect staff and operations. So is reviewing communications SOPs so that staff knows how and when to communicate important information while mitigating associated risks.
  • Reviewing acceptance – the current situation will challenge the acceptance of international NGOs in Myanmar. As pressures to make public statements on the crisis mount and clashes between the different sides grow, organisations need to review their acceptance strategies. Making transparent decisions and effectively communicating with national staff will help preserve good relationships with staff and other stakeholders.

Significant incidents continue to be reported throughout Myanmar. It is crucial that we closely monitor these developments, prepare for all possible scenarios and learn from our past decisions. To support NGOs in this process, GISF will continue to host events for security staff to collaborate on sharing information and best practices to protect aid workers helping populations in need.





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