Critique of the ICG report.


By Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe




N.B.  The Executive Summary (pp.1-3) contains all the points and arguments raised in the paper. As such, comments and critical notes of the Executive summary provided herewith, can be regarded as a critique of the whole paper, or as addressing the salient points of the paper as a whole.


[The Executive Summary of the ICG paper,  Myanmar: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid, 2 April 2002, is online at The full report is at - OBL]



ON THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY [referred in the report as "overview"]



First of all, it is not clear in the paper what it means by "international assistance".  In the Burma context, is it in reference only to humanitarian assistance or to development assistance as well?


The two are different international aid categories. The paper contributes to the confusion by making no distinction between them, and by going from one to the other in an arbitrary, confusing, and ambiguous manner.


Development assistance in the Burma context is problematic, very much so. Humanitarian assistance on the other hand will however not be as problematic.

The lack of clarity, gives a strong impression that the paper (and the author or authors) is arguing for development assistance, while using the humanitarian assistance point of reference and context.  This is what is most troubling about the paper as a whole.



p.1, col.1 and 2, in the Executive Summary** The paper says that international development agencies (IDAs) are making significant difference to the most vulnerable groups (etc) in Burma.


The above is a sweeping statement, and which may apply perhaps to the Kachin State, to a certain extent. The people in this state and in Burma Proper are, comparatively speaking, not the most vulnerable. The most vulnerable are population living (or hiding) in areas decreed by the military government (military GOM) as BLACK and GREY areas. There is very little presence of the IDAs there because they are  according to the military GOM -- "sensitive" areas, or lacking in security.

The Black and Grey areas are literally free fire zones, and the population are not only IDPs, but treated by military patrols as outlaws, and are therefore at great risk of being killed, raped, etc., at will. They are reduced to living in hiding, and are hunted by the regime's troops, and whatever meager crops they plant for bare survival are destroyed by search-and-destroy patrols or columns. They live lives that are not better than hunted animals.



Site, as above** The paper says that the assistance provided by the IDAs do not have "any significant political cost" vis--vis strengthening the regime or undermining the movement for change.


The above raises this question: What is meant by "political costs"? This is a puzzling statement, even meaningless at a deeper level, and lacks proper or defined context.


One could interpret the statement as saying that the IDAs do not make any difference either way, and more importantly, that they (the IDAs) and the assistance they provide are politically neutral. How true or valid is this statement? Can assistance in a context where the government (or the state) is military-run, military-led, illegitimate, and repressive, and wedded to the status quo  opposed to political change -- be politically neutral, or not costly to the movement for change? Or is the paper saying that all things being equal, the people are the only ones gaining the most from the IDAs' presence and actions? This is not the case (See note 2.A, above).



p.1, col.2   Agree with the paper that there is a need for "fundamental changes" in the system. However, the paper does not talk about this need, although it does constructively, and often obliquely, refers to the flaws of the current system here and there



The paper says that the military GOM rejects international advice and maintains "development policies and priorities, which are partly responsible for the current problems." However, this statement,


(a) understates the destruction to the country and the population wrought by the military GOM's arbitrary rule and repression (by representing it as "development policies and priorities"). It gives the impression that the military GOM was well-intentioned, but things went wrong, anyhow, and


(b) underestimates what it terms "problems". They are not problems. They are major crises, and are owed largely to the military GOM's protracted misrule, etc.



The paper states that the military GOM rejects international advice and refuses to change its ways  i.e., to change its "development policies and priorities" (sic). If this is the case, one may usefully ask if there is any point in giving the regime international assistance, even though the bulk of the aid may be intended by donors  for the people, not the government? This is a slippery down-slope road to travel.



The paper recommends the inflow of international assistance and urge improved monitoring and distribution. To comment, "monitoring" is good sounding, but it is most problematic, all the more so if the IDAs do not have the political will and are moreover fearful of offending the military GOM, or are overly sensitive and responsive to its sensitivities.



p.1, col.2  The paper states that foreign governments and donors should both promote political change and social development. This is a curious statement in the Burma context especially.


What is meant by "social development" is not made clear in the paper, however.

Common sense however tells us that social development is geared to promoting or achieving something better, usually  and more so, nowadays -- political change in the democratic direction, or is meant to.

If such is the case, does the paper mean that the goal of international donors in providing development assistance is to promote political change? Or is the paper saying that the inflow of development assistance will result in or bring about social development and thus political change in Burma (albeit in the very long run)? [ NOTE: The thesis that social development (or, as is often argued, economic development) will bring about political change, although generally valid in the abstract, does not always hold true. This is a very slippery and dubious argument.]


The simple fact of the matter is that the military GOM does not want any change, much less political changes, and wants "development" as it defines it  i.e., maintain its hold on power and achieve greater control and repression capacity.

The question that therefore arises is: will the military GOM allow or welcome social development that is geared to political changes in the democratic direction?  In this regard, the paper does acknowledge however that the military GOM does not want any kind of development that will erode the status quo it prefers.



p.2, col.1  The paper recommends that the main protagonists reassess their position and do their part to generate cooperation and synergy that has been lacking. This seems like a "sound good, feel good" statement.


The military GOM  the military regime  do not want to cooperate with anyone inside the country. It only wants to be obeyed and to maintain tight control. It is quite obvious that the military will not cooperate with anyone  including the IDAs and foreign governments  unless forced to by circumstance or is actively pressured.

A question that should be raised but is not, is what will international actors  governments and donor  do to persuade the military GOM to cooperate with the opposition if or when it (the opposition) wishes or agrees to work with the military GOM as a problem-resolving partner? Another question is, to what length will the international actors go in persuading the protagonists to cooperate?



Recommendation 1  Even though excellent, the recommendations alone, and the inflow of foreign assistance -- in the "business as usual" or conventional way -- will not persuade the military GOM to go this route.  It is not interested in formalizing the current talks, sharing power, nor in including major stakeholders in the political process. What is needed is a firm, focused, and solid international front that does not believe in appeasing the military GOM in the faint or wistful hope that it will become and behave more like a government.



Recommendation 4  The points mentioned, i.e., the GOM's need to demonstrate a realistic understanding of the problems; minimize the obstructions currently placed on aid organizations; and increase the scope for international actors to work with local NGOs  these are good points. It is however unrealistic to expect much attention to these points from the GOM in particular, and the military in general, in the current situation, and without firm international persuasion.



Recommendation 6  Most useful. Perhaps NLD leaders inside have not been approached in this regard, requested a detailed policy paper on humanitarian aid.


It is however not clear in this paper on what is meant by "international assistance". See #1, above. [ NOTE: Development assistance was provided the previous GOM (of General Ne Win) in the 1970s. The end result was that it appealed to the international community to grant Burma the status of Least Developed Country in 1987, after claiming for decades that it was developing the country. ]



Recommendation 7  Ambiguous. What is meant precisely by "state capacity", and which or what kind of state?  The context is missing.


In Burma, the state managed by the military  the GOM -- is not neutral, not the government of the people, i.e., it is the creature of the military, highly partisan, excludes broader society, and is not public service oriented. "State capacity" is patently defined by the GOM (and the military brass) as its capacity to maintain power and control, etc.

It is most inappropriate therefore for any responsible scholar or well-intentioned group to recommend that the NLD and everyone to strengthen the capacity of the current state.

If by "state capacity" is meant serving the public or the people, there has first of all to be a fundamental political change.



Recommendation 10  International donors  and international NGOs as well  should certainly work with both the state and broader society forces, but it should be on an equal footing and formally/officially as well.



Recommendation 17  "Be prepared to lower the standard of transparency and accountability" Why?

This recommendation seems directed at encouraging international aid actors to defer tamely to the GOM, and to accept its arbitrary definition of "sensitive areas", "security", and "confidentiality".



Recommendations 14-18 (excepting the above)  These are excellent. But it seems that there is lacking political will on the part of outside actors to take on these recommendations in a serious and focused manner. The excellent recommendations, #14-18, are more or less, and in varying degrees, negated or subverted by recommendation #17 above.