Humanitarian resistance and military dictatorship

April 14, 2021
Hugo Slim
Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar)

The new military dictatorship in Myanmar is presenting a difficult choice for many international NGOs. Should they stick to principled humanitarian action, with its commitment to political neutrality and so begin to engage with the junta? Or should they actively disengage and support life-saving efforts being organised by the democratic opposition?  

International humanitarian aid has consolidated a global practice of emergency aid in conflict that follows the Red Cross and Red Crescent model. This builds life-saving programmes that prioritise humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, but are less concerned with democratic rights and people’s empowerment. Myanmar’s return to a widely contested military dictatorship asks hard ethical questions of such a model. Is this approach and its ‘armed conflict’ political framing the correct one when most of the population are against the government, and unarmed?

Junta is, of course, a Spanish word, and perhaps now is the moment to look for inspiration to INGO experience with brutal military dictatorships in Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Does this very different tradition of humanitarianism offer a way of working that is more appropriate to Myanmar (and probably to Tigray too)? The juntas of Latin America were profoundly brutal: mowing down civilians in the street; dumping dead and tortured bodies on their family’s doorsteps; detaining and torturing at industrial levels; disappearing hundreds of thousands of people; blowing up civil society offices; raping at will. See Brennan, J. (2018) Argentina’s Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War.   Berkeley, USA: University of California Press

Inevitably, as dictatorships settled into power, the challenge of ‘collaboration’ also created a new dynamic of violence as perceived traitors were shamed and killed by anti-government movements.

All of this is beginning to happen in Myanmar, and looks set to be entrenched because Myanmar’s military dictators have the cover of great powers. Russia has stepped in as the operational ally of the Myanmar junta – the superpower friend who knows better than any other how to use military force, state institutions and disinformation to consolidate dictatorship and see off democratic movements.

China has given this move its blessing and will concentrate on a diplomatic and commercial brokerage role to co-opt the UN and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Between them, Russia and China will pursue a policy of order over justice in Myanmar. ASEAN will stay quiet. India will stay quiet. Thailand will side with the junta. The West is far away and will not want to make Myanmar the tripwire of its wider confrontation with China and Russia.

So, what should Western humanitarian organisations do? Although several are delaying a decision and biding their time, they may only have a binary choice.

Either they can hold firm to principled humanitarian action and engage with the junta as classical humanitarians to try to save as many lives as they can during the military dictatorship. This will earn the scorn of many people in Myanmar’s democratic movement but may be understood, and even respected, if these agencies can genuinely deliver practical support and save lives. But principled humanitarian action will see these agencies pressured into rotten compromises and thwarted in their mandates and ambitions, made to endure the usual ‘race to the bottom’ of what is possible under the control of a dictatorship with very different principles.

Alternatively, Western humanitarians can adopt a strategy of humanitarian resistance which takes sides against repression, actively supports the democratic movement and tries to save as many lives as possible through the non-state networks that will develop in the months and years ahead. This will, of course, make them the outright enemies of the junta and its allies, and involve a largely clandestine and subversive approach that challenges the power of dictatorship.

In 1997, Martha Thompson wrote two powerful articles drawing on her experience in El Salvador in the 1980s. She described the challenges involved in trying to protect people, save lives and resist military dictatorship. In stark contrast to the heavy branding and public accountability around today’s humanitarian aid, she observed how it was usual back then for humanitarians to introduce themselves as follows:

‘I work for an organisation I prefer not to name, with counterparts I can’t identify, and activities I’m vague about, in parts of the country I can’t specify.’  

She also recalled how many Salvadorian people she met would say that they knew more people who were dead or disappeared than alive, and how, in 1989, an average of one international worker was detained or deported every three weeks. The values guiding this sort of humanitarian life-saving and democratic support were dignity, rights, courage, accompaniment and secrecy – not neutrality, independence and transparency.

This was a way of working that reached across large parts of Latin America, South Africa, Timor-Leste and Palestine for 20 years. It means huge risks and uncertain results, but humanitarian resistance saves lives, empowers people and resists tyranny. Alongside the large-scale and conventional UN and Red Cross model, it can keep humanity alive during military dictatorships.

Chinese diplomacy and Asian flexibility might yet create a more complicated politics in which military and democratic parties are back in negotiation, and violence and repression retreats from the streets. This could make room for a third way of programming for humanitarians. But I fear the options available will still present more of a binary choice than a compromise.

And, of course, if humanitarians do not want to engage with the junta, resist it or compromise with it, they can simply refuse to be a part of this crisis. There is also virtue in walking away and applying humanitarian energy somewhere you can be sure of better results.

Hugo Slim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford


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