Issue 41 - Article 4

Negotiating humanitarian access to cyclone-affected areas of Myanmar: a review

December 22, 2008
Julie Belanger and Richard Horsey

On the night of 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar. The accompanying tidal surge caused widespread devastation and loss of life in the low-lying townships of the lower Delta, and strong winds and heavy rainfall left major damage and flooding in inland areas, including the former capital Yangon. Official statistics suggest that 140,000 people may have died, and UN assessments indicate that 2.4 million people were severely affected and in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. The ‘Post-Nargis Joint Assessment’ carried out in mid-June showed that the impact of Cyclone Nargis on Myanmar was similar in scale to that suffered by Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The national response to Cyclone Nargis started quickly, but fell far short of what was required. The cyclone, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s history, overwhelmed the capacity of the national response. Indeed, few countries would have been able to respond on their own to a situation of this scale. A small-scale humanitarian response by international agencies started immediately in Yangon and in the affected parts of the Delta, based on stocks pre-positioned as part of contingency planning processes, and using the operational capacity (including local staff) of agencies with ongoing projects in these areas. But supplies were extremely limited, and local staff based in the Delta had little experience of humanitarian emergencies and were themselves badly affected by the cyclone.

Access difficulties

Before the cyclone struck, the interim UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator made a formal offer of assistance to the Myanmar authorities, underlining that there would be a need for immediate access to any affected areas in order to undertake an assessment of needs. The Myanmar authorities indicated informally as early as 4 May that they would be open to international assistance, and this position was formalised in a briefing to the UN and diplomats on 5 May. However, at that point the emphasis was clearly on support to the national response through bilateral channels, rather than any form of international relief operation. Significantly, no immediate steps were taken by the authorities to facilitate the issuing of visas for international humanitarian staff, or to relax the cumbersome procedures governing travel by internationals outside of Yangon.

Agencies’ local staff did not face the same restrictions. They were able to travel to and within the affected areas, and worked tirelessly to assess needs and provide as much assistance as they could. In some cases, international NGOs with a longstanding presence in the country were also able to find ways for international staff to access affected areas and provide vital services. But the visa and access constraints meant that there was a shortage of key staff with experience in responding to major disaster situations; given that Myanmar had not previously suffered a disaster on this scale, this gap could only realistically be filled internationally – from countries in the region and beyond. The lack of such key staff led to critical delays in getting reliable data on needs, in strengthening coordination and response capacity and in establishing the logistical systems necessary to move large quantities of relief supplies quickly and efficiently to affected areas. It also meant that local staff on the ground had to work for extended periods without rotation and with insufficient organisational support.

It is difficult to say with certainty why the Myanmar authorities were initially reluctant to provide the necessary access to international humanitarian agencies. Four factors are likely to have been important, however.

  • The ‘self-reliance’ doctrine. The Myanmar junta, although it has flirted with international engagement at certain points in the past, remains strongly isolationist. Since the 1960s, successive regimes have reinforced the doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ – the view that the country and its population must take care of themselves and eschew any kind of outside assistance (whether political or economic), even if this entails hardship. The doctrine stems partly from nationalistic pride, and partly from a keen sense of geo-strategic self-preservation.
  • Limited familiarity with international disaster response. The Myanmar authorities, at various levels, were unfamiliar with what an international response entailed. This led to a range of concerns: at a strategic level, concern about how to deal with (and, indeed, control) a sudden influx of organisations, prompted in part, no doubt, by Indonesia’s experience in post-tsunami Aceh; and at a much more practical level, concern about the lack of facilities for relief workers (on a number of occasions government officials expressed genuine concern to the UN about the lack of accommodation and other support for disaster response teams in the Delta).
  • The domestic political context. Cyclone Nargis struck at a politically sensitive moment for the regime, one week before the country was to vote in a national referendum on a controversial new constitution. In addition, humanitarian/socio-economic issues had become much more politically sensitive following major demonstrations in September 2007, sparked by socio-economic grievances. The authorities have always demonstrated a willingness to subordinate socio-economic issues to their broader political and security agenda, and it seems clear that, in the wake of the cyclone, they were focused on political and security concerns.
  • The international environment. The senior leadership is also suspicious of the motives behind international humanitarian assistance, which it tends to view as an instrument used by the West in pursuit of its political agenda. Such suspicions have tended to be amplified by efforts to use the humanitarian situation in Myanmar as part of the justification for UN Security Council action. Such concerns may have been further heightened in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, with the possibility of coercive action under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle being mooted in some quarters. The UN Security Council Presidential Statement on the political situation in Myanmar, issued on 2 May (before the news of the cyclone reached the Council), as well as the earlier decision to confer the US Congressional Gold Medal on pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which was (coincidentally) signed by US President George W. Bush four days after the cyclone struck, certainly raised the international political temperature for Myanmar.

It was in this challenging context that the international community had to find the most effective way to negotiate humanitarian access to cyclone-affected populations.

Negotiating access

A range of strategies for gaining humanitarian access was pursued, although these were not always well-coordinated between the various actors involved or necessarily mutually-reinforcing. These efforts generally took one of two forms.


As it became clear that the authorities were not immediately opening up international access to affected areas, international pressure began to mount. France, supported by the UK and US, asked the Security Council on 7 May to agree to a briefing from UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes; the request was rejected by other members. Significantly, France invoked the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as the basis for Council action, and suggested that a resolution authorising the delivery of aid was needed. A number of other European countries suggested that refusal by the Myanmar authorities to allow access could constitute a crime against humanity (one of the criteria for the application of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine). The EU held a ministerial meeting on 13 May to discuss the humanitarian situation, and Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, said that the international community ‘should use all possible means to get aid through to victims of Myanmar’s cyclone’. There was persistent talk of unauthorised deliveries of aid supplies; in an interview with the BBC on 17 May, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated that ‘as far [unauthorised] air drops are concerned, we rule nothing out’. At the same time, a US naval group (designated, perhaps unfortunately, as a ‘Marine Expeditionary Strike Group’), a French navy vessel (a similarly-designated ‘amphibious assault ship’) and a British frigate took up positions on the edge of Myanmar’s territorial waters, loaded with aid supplies.


In parallel, there were efforts to engage the Myanmar leadership to persuade them to open up humanitarian space. The authorities quickly activated their disaster response committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, and this provided the UN and other humanitarian actors with the opportunity to develop closer links with the more engaged ministers, which would prove to be important once space did start to open. However, it was not possible for in-country actors to access the top leadership, who would be the ones to take any decision on international access. A series of high-level visits to Myanmar took place, including by the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid (14 May), UK Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown (17 May), the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (18 May) and the UN Secretary-General (21 May).

In addition, on 12 May a US military transport plane landed at Yangon airport carrying USAID relief supplies. In a creative diplomatic move, the plane also carried a number of VIPs, including the head of the US Pacific Command (a 4-star general), the Pacific commander of the marine corps, and the USAID Administrator. The Myanmar authorities were informed about the presence of these VIPs only shortly before their arrival. While the intention was to directly engage the Myanmar military, in order to convince them of the peaceful intentions of the US and to pursue the possibility of direct aid deliveries to affected areas using US military assets, the presence of US warships just off the coast may have left open less positive interpretations in the minds of the junta. Once these warships withdrew, the authorities appear to have taken a more positive view of the continued US military cargo flights into Yangon. (While the US military was allowed to make 185 aid flights to Yangon airport carrying USAID/OFDA assistance, no ship-to-shore operations were allowed by the Myanmar authorities.)

But it was the meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Senior General Than Shwe in Naypyitaw on 23 May which produced a commitment to allow international access to affected areas. Earlier, on 19 May, a meeting of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers in Singapore had proposed an ASEAN-led coordination mechanism for international assistance. This ‘international assistance with a regional character’ was less threatening, and provided a face-saving way for the Myanmar leadership to accept an international relief operation.

The practical implementation of this mechanism – the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), consisting of three representatives each from ASEAN, the UN and the government – has proved to be an efficient confidence- and trust-building platform, engineering solutions to some of the major humanitarian bottlenecks (ASEAN’s role in the cyclone response is analysed in more detail in the following article). It facilitated the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, a comprehensive rapid assessment of the affected areas conducted with support from the authorities and without interference. This was critical on two fronts: it demonstrated unambiguously that the international assistance community had full access to affected areas, and it produced a credible assessment of needs in those areas. These two criteria – access and a thorough assessment of needs – had been identified by donors at the international pledging conference in Yangon on 25 May as the key prerequisites for increased funding.

Challenges remain, however. There is certainly still more bureaucracy than agencies would like, and difficulties continue to arise because of a lack of decision-making and implementation capacity within the government (for example, it took some time for the commitment on access made by Senior General Than Shwe to be translated into action on the ground, partly due to a lack of capacity to deal with the large number of outstanding requests, and partly due to a lack of appreciation of what was actually required). More fundamentally, it is clear that there are limits to the ability of the TCG structure to influence the Myanmar leadership. The TCG has been most effective in resolving procedural and bureaucratic issues (visas, exchange rate and tax problems, modalities for travel and so on). More sensitive and policy-related issues that require decisions at the leadership level remain difficult. It must also be noted that international NGOs have only indirect involvement in the TCG, through the Humanitarian Coordinator. But, in the final analysis, there is significantly more humanitarian space in the Delta than in any other part of the country, and the TCG has played a key role in securing this.

Success or failure?

Can anything be said, with hindsight, about which approach was best? As always in such situations, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. However, a number of points are worth making.

Ultimately, the various initiatives being pursued, even if not well-coordinated, did produce the desired result: good access to affected areas and close cooperation with the authorities. So the key question is not how a different outcome could have been achieved, but rather whether this could have been achieved more quickly.

In this context, it should be noted that the delay of several weeks was extremely unfortunate but in the end not catastrophic. That is, the delay caused considerable suffering to survivors and certainly increased the risks of further fatalities. But the feared ‘second wave’ of deaths did not occur. This is no doubt partly down to luck, but is also attributable to the resilience of the communities affected and the strength of social networks, the extraordinary efforts of local civil society and private donors, the rapid mobilisation of local staff from across the country by agencies already on the ground and the government’s own response, the scale and impact of which have not always been fully recognised.

The question then arises whether a different strategy could have reduced this delay. On balance, perhaps not. A more forceful strategy is unlikely to have been successful – some form of humanitarian intervention, such as unauthorised air-drops of aid, would almost certainly have been ineffective in meeting the needs of the affected population, and may even have put them at risk of military retaliation. It would also have created a highly counterproductive political confrontation. On the other hand, less pressure, while it may have made it easier to convince the junta that the intentions of the West were purely humanitarian, would not necessarily have produced a positive outcome any more quickly.

The compromise solution that was worked out, that of a tripartite structure involving ASEAN, the UN and the government, turned out to be not only a successful formula for ensuring access, but also an effective forum for achieving a close and constructive relationship with the authorities, at least at the working and ministerial level. This had not existed to the same degree before Nargis, in part due to the suspicions outlined here, and in part because humanitarian needs in other parts of the country stem much more directly from the policy and governance environment. The positive atmosphere created has the potential to bring significant dividends for future cooperation, both as regards post-Nargis recovery efforts and as regards assistance in other parts of the country. A more forceful approach to negotiating access, even if it could have been successful, would not have led to the same positive working environment and could have had an ultimately detrimental effect on humanitarian space in Myanmar in the medium term.

The experience in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis demonstrates that allowing space for creative engagement with the authorities can produce results. In the wake of this devastating cyclone, there is now a unique opportunity to pursue a form of humanitarian engagement in Myanmar that has not been possible in the past. Increased support from donors, particularly for recovery activities, together with steps by agencies to ensure regular monitoring and reporting on the modalities and impact of assistance, are now critical if this opportunity is to be seized. However, it must be kept in mind that the future of humanitarian space, both in the Delta and beyond, will ultimately depend in part on decisions taken by the Myanmar leadership on the basis of domestic political considerations. This means that, along with the opportunities, we can expect significant challenges ahead, particularly as the country is now entering a sensitive period of political realignment in the lead-up to elections scheduled for 2010.

Julie Belanger ( worked with the Office of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yangon from 2005 to October 2008. Richard Horsey ( works with the UNOCHA regional office in Bangkok. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United Nations.


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